How small businesses can manage people for competitive advantage Mike | November 9th, 2009

Thinking about the health-care debate has caused me to reflect on our own approach to our team has given me a chance to consider some ways in which we add value to our own venture, create a stronger company, and (hopefully) achieve a real competitive advantage.

When Ross and I started crowdSPRING, we were determined to hire the best people we could find, treat them fairly, allow them to grow into their jobs, and share with them the responsibility for building our community and our business. Among our priorities was to provide a package of benefits which would communicate not just our commitment to the folks we hired, but also the values we held. The health care benefits we provide to our workers and their families are just one way in which we try to make the team feel valued and secure.

It shouldn’t stop at health care benefits; all aspects of human resource management should be considered and thoughtful policies established. Business owners should carefully apply several “levers” which, when operated effectively, can have a huge impact on a company’s vitality and sustainability. Among the strategies to consider to build a strong team are: recruiting, development, reward, empowerment, job/team design, and modeling. These levers, when implemented with clarity, transparency, and integrity, can give a business a sustained advantage in a competitive landscape and create an environment of trust, learning, and growth. We believe that it is our responsibility to create such an environment, and we also believe that, by doing so, businesses can directly benefit.

RECRUITING: Take the time to develop a detailed job description, distribute it through the correct networks, and post it in the appropriate forums. How you talk about your company and the job you’re trying to fill, will go a long way to attract suitable applicants, and will also help you to screen those to uncover the best fit and the most promising candidates. In writing these descriptions, we try very hard to use language and a voice which reflects our own values and the “flavor” of our company and this also helps to attract strong applicants.

EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT: We are life-long learners and committed to our own ongoing educations in business and in life, and we hire for this quality. But it’s not enough to just employ people who share this value. When we hire someone, we make a commitment that we will help them to develop new skills; allow them to take on new responsibility; and  empower them to share their own knowledge to help other team members. We encourage them to pursue other avenues of creativity away from their jobs, and to communicate to us ways in which they can grow for their own benefit and the benefit of our venture.

REWARD SYSTEMS: It is critical to pay people fairly and to be competitive in reward packages. We mentioned health benefits, but we are also believers in incentivized workforces. To this end we have established a cash bonus system that rewards folks for their own growth and contributions to the company. We offer a 401k savings plan and encourage people to grow their investments by matching a percentage of the savings they commit to make. We provide everyone with disability and life insurance; we want them to feel secure that, should something outside of their own control occur, that they will be able to provide for themselves and their families. And finally we offer a “profit-sharing” plan in the form of an options plan, which allows high performers to earn equity in the company.

EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES: One of the first values we impart to new hires is our own desire that they grow outside the boundaries established by their job description. We don’t just encourage them to take on other responsibilities, we award them when they do so and try to make opportunities for new tasks, new functions, and new growth available to all. It matters little to us how many hours someone spends in the office; rather we let people know that we are truly flexible on this point and encourage the team to work when and how they wish to. Everyone on the team participates in designing and enhancing the product, improving customer service, and participating in the community. Everyone is held answerable for discharging their own duties, but also must be accountable for their own role on the team; no one should be a bottleneck and all should strive to uphold their own end. It can be difficult for managers to let go, but we do try hard to let everyone make decisions, take risk, find success, and sometimes make and learn from) their own mistakes.

JOB DESIGN: First and foremost we consider the fundamental aspects of a given position; obviously, the design of the job must serve the goals and strategies of the business. We define job-by-job exactly how it will help us accomplish our goals; however, once these basics have been provided, the remaining aspects of the position should be approached organically, with the employee having a meaningful role in designing their own position. We try hard to balance a team member’s core capabilities, experience, capacity, and knowledge with the larger departmental and company-wide responsibilities and the job design should always remain fluid enough to accomplish this.

MODELING BY MANAGERS: Finally, what is perhaps the most critical element in all of the above: walking the walk. Managers must directly an unequivocally display for the entire team how they are living testament to the values they articulate. If we seek to empower, we must display empowerment. If we encourage personal learning and development, we must always be learning and developing ourselves. If we hope to empower, we must be true to this; as hard as it is sometimes, we have to bite our tongues and let someone succeed of fail on their own. And is we are truly committed to doing the best job at designing jobs, then we must use imagination and creativity to do so, and allow others to assist.

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