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SMEs need to develop career paths or risk losing staff

Career path
Staff training positively impacts the bottom line.

Investing in staff development can feel like a Catch 22. If you work to grow the talents and abilities of your staff they will be more invested in the business – but also more likely to outgrow it and seek new challenges at a bigger company.

If SMEs want to invest in employee education, they also need to demonstrate that a viable career path exists if they stay. It’s important to prove to employees that their career ambitions and dreams can be met, without them firing off job applications to other companies.

Break a future career path down into clear steps

Craig Rutherford is the managing director of Newcastle-based car finance broker Refused Car Finance. He has just finishing restructuring his five-person marketing department to provide them with a clear and concise career path forward.

“In the past, we got very experienced marketing personnel in to help the business. Not only were they expensive, but they were also programmed in a certain way of working,” he said.

“We decided to change that by hiring marketing staff who were at the starting blocks of their careers and wanted to push on with support and learning. As a manager, I believe that if your staff have the aptitude and desire to learn, you need to fill them with knowledge and offer plenty of training opportunities.”

As part of the restructure, Refused Car Finance has made every member of the marketing team – from apprentice to manager – aware of the skills they need and the training they require to progress on their career path.

“Each role has its own pay scale, career expectations and job specification, so it’s clear what’s expected and what skills they’ll need at each level. We inform employees about the expected pay levels as they develop, and provide help and information about how they can progress up the ladder,” Rutherford explained.

“The structure doesn’t have a time limit, so every member of the marketing team can progress at their own pace. We’ve also set aside a full marketing training budget, so our staff can reach their full potential and never settle in their professional life.”

Staff training can directly affect your bottom line

Rutherford doesn’t worry about paying for staff training either – he believes that his business makes it back.

“Some SMEs might shirk at the cost of training, but you get it back in terms of performance. If your training costs double, then expect your bottom line to double as well with improved productivity,” he said.

“There’s the risk that you train employees and then they decide to go elsewhere. If the time comes, I hope they’ll turn it down because we can meet their working and salary demands. If you make the working culture personable too, then that’s an additional reason to stay.”

Rutherford has implemented a similar structure for his sales team, setting out clear career path progression and expectations.

“The growth of your business comes from the growth of individuals. Staff retention lies within an employee’s career path and development. You need to give them the opportunity, purpose and pathway to help them achieve what they want to in their careers.

“At our business, employees now know what core skills they need at each stage to progress higher. The staff are motivated, better skilled and they feel like you genuinely care about them.”

Provide real-life examples of career progress

Adam Ewart is the chief executive and founder of global luggage delivery service, Send My Bag. He has a similar “mapped out” structure for staff.

“We have three-year progression plans for staff which outline the levels they can work up to and the subsequent pay rises they’ll see. We make it clear how their duties and responsibilities will change,” he said.

“At the interview stage, we clearly state to candidates that we’re not looking for drones or people who just want to coast along. We tell them that we’ll expect more of them than that and that they’ll be rewarded if they progress. If they want to push, there’s a career path available to them.”

According to Ewart, highlighting some of the firm’s most successful employees also helps to demonstrate that career progress is possible.

“All of our current senior management team came from within the business. Some started on the bottom rung,” Ewart said.

“Our digital marketing manager, for example, has worked his way up over five years here. Our employees see people who started in the calls team now working away in New York for three months. We get our new candidates to meet them at interview. They can see that progression will happen if they strive hard.”

The approach has been so successful that the company has not had to replace a departing employee for two years.

“Only one person has left the firm in that time,” Ewart said.

Check in with staff regularly to discuss their future

Career paths - Gemma Spinks
Neo PR has introduced an anonymous online feedback forum.

Buckingham-based Neo PR has also benefitted from setting out a clear career path for employees. The company hasn’t lost an employee for the last 18 months, which compares to the usual industry turnover of 20% a year.

“We want our staff to be fully engaged with the business and to feel truly valued. That includes their personal career development,” director Gemma Spinks said.

“We have quarterly reviews and regular touchpoints, where we talk to staff about their roles and what they need to do to progress to the next step of their career through training or mentoring.”

The company has an anonymous online feedback forum called “TINYpulse” where, amongst other opinions, staff can share how they feel about their career progression.

“We have a pod type structure here where teams consist of different levels of employees, from directors to managers to other staff,” Spinks said.

“We want to show the team that there are opportunities to grow together. Occasionally, we’ve had some comments from people concerned about how they can progress within their pod if people above them don’t get promoted. We listen to their concerns and assure them that there are still opportunities for them to grow.

“I started here as a junior seven years ago, so staff can see that it’s possible to progress. It’s about being transparent and open.”

Read more articles about managing staff performance.

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