HR & Management

People problems – and how to solve them

4 min read

23 September 2011

Six proven ways to get the best out of your people, from one of Britain's most eminent entrepreneurs.

Running a small or mid-sized business has never been more challenging. Getting an early-stage business off the ground is even more demanding. Having the right people can make all the difference. It’s not always easy to attract and retain such talent, especially if you want someone different and unconventional. So here are my six essential pieces of advice, based on a 30-year career as a CEO. All of these will, I believe, make your business more successful in the long run.

1. Transparency beats secrecy every time when it comes to people issues. You should behave as if – in principle – all salaries were posted on the wall by the coffee machine. Taking such a stance means you have to be economically rational and treat people fairly (which is not the same as equally). 

2. Companies need access to professional HR skills sooner than you think. I reckon that somewhere between 25 and 50 staff you need a full-time HR person. Fortunately, there seems to be a decent supply of HR folks (I’d recommend using an individual rather than a firm) you can access before you get to this stage.

3. Beware contractors and interim managers, especially if they are more or less full-time and working on core activities. You may get great talent and fill a hole quickly and conveniently. But remember they are – at heart – mercenaries, and are generally looking to earn the highest shilling in the next job. Ask yourself – are great armies built of loyal soldiers or from a bunch of mercenaries?

4. Training and career development are more important than ever, especially as a retention device. I used to think that training was very important – so I hired people who were already trained! That’s no longer good enough. Be careful when bringing in young professionals who’ve been trained in the blue-chip consultancies, big accounting firms etc into a start-up business. The reason you want them is that have had great career development and training. How are you going to help them maintain that career momentum?

5. The power of a clearly articulated corporate mission is incredible, especially when the going gets tough. Which it will. At Novacem, we aim to be “the first great cement company of the 21st century”. It’s a great goal that will help us get through tough times.

6. Different people have different loyalties. Some types of employee are loyal to the company (they may even have fallen in love with it); others to their profession. One way to distinguish the different types is to ask them what their job is. Some will say they work for your company; others will respond that they’re an accountant, for example. Understand who’s who, and you’ll know whether you’re managing staff turnover or staff retention.

Agree? Disagree violently? I’d love to hear your views. Please post your comments below.

Stuart Evans is executive chairman of Novacem. He’s been a technology entrepreneur since 1984 and was founding CEO at Plastic Logic and Cotag International. His early career was at IBM & McKinsey following an MBA at Harvard Business School.