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Smells like team spirit: how to find a winning combination

It’s the most challenging part of being in business, and it’s not at all what you think you’ll be doing when you first start out.” As assessments of the challenge of developing teams go, Gary Thurtle, Director of 10-staff-strong Yarmouth-based WT Skip Hire, probably sums up the feeling of many other small business owners. “You tend to expect staff to work under their own steam,” he says, “but you then find yourself having to come to terms with the fact it’s actually down to you to develop people. No one ever tells you this.”

 According to an FSB discussion paper, Leading the way: Boosting leadership and management in small firms, improving these skills can be something that many firms assume simply happens by itself. However, making this assumption, and not having a leadership and management strategy, could stunt the growth of small businesses, the paper also reveals.

The report uses data that shows how just a one-point improvement in management practices – out of a scale of five – can create the same boost to output as a 25 per cent increase in staff numbers or a 65 per cent rise in invested capital. Better leadership is undoubtedly a much cheaper option. “As a whole, we found that leadership and people development tend to be ad-hoc and informal,” says Martin McTague, FSB National Policy Director. “It’s not that small firms aren’t interested in this, but business leaders probably need to be more aware of the business case for it.”

Look in the mirror

In fact, much of the responsibility for developing an effective team lies with company founders or owners. “Good teams come when good leadership creates purpose,” says Graham Robson, Small Business Consultant with Business Doctors. “The starting point for developing any effective team is developing the vision so staff believe in the same things. Feeling as though their contribution counts is what employees need most.”

Steve Hearsum, Consultant at leadership institute Roffey Park, says there’s often a big difference between the leadership qualities needed to start a business and the ones needed for sustaining it. “The latter requires a considered approach to development of others,” he says. “At its most basic, development starts with leaders acknowledging there might need to be the conversations they don’t want to have, because these can be about the leader identifying what they want more or less of.”

Accepting your own weaknesses is important, says Shaun Thomson, Chief Executive of Sandler Training, which works with small firms to develop teams. Its own research finds that 79 per cent of small company Managing Directors think they are good leaders, but 37 per cent have never had any leadership training. “What small business owners need to realise is that while their staff haven’t invested their own money setting up the business, they are choosing to invest their career with them, so they want something back,” he says.

“The best leaders are leaders of other managers,” he adds. “So rather than telling people what to do, they enable people to have their own authority. They define where the business is going, so people feel they have a place, and a path laid out for them to help achieve it. They need to have crafted the behaviours they expect and spell out to people that recruitment doesn’t finish on the first day they arrive. They need to allow people to visualise their future.”

Meanwhile, Mr McTague stresses the importance of mentoring, to help develop people and understand where they might require support. “Taking someone under a wing helps bosses understand the skills in people they need to develop – too often small business owners fail to do skills audits,” he says. “Mentoring someone can flag up what people want from their future development, and foster an appetite for training. It creates a close relationship between leaders and the led.”

The right fit

The process of nurturing teams can come in a variety of guises, covering everything from better training and development, creating apprenticeships, to recruiting from more diverse pools, including the armed forces. Finding the right initial match for your business is vital, however. “Recruiting better – paying more for those who ‘fit’ the culture of our business – is a lesson I’ve learnt,” says Mr Thurtle from WT.

“For us, creating a good team is as much about finding people that will gel. We learned the hard way recently when we had someone who was outwardly a good worker, but behind the scenes was creating a bad culture. I feel guilty now because I didn’t realise how toxic he was. It makes you realise that part of being a good leader is also encouraging your team to know they can come to you if there’s a problem.”

Neil Davidson, Leadership Trainer and regular speaker to the Academy of Chief Executives, also stresses ensuring a good fit. “Find people who are an energetic match for the way you want your business to go, and you are halfway there. Super-energised firms normally have bosses who want to push their people further, and when everyone is on the same wavelength, great things can happen. If people’s hearts are with you, their heads will often follow.”

It’s this approach that Lee Biggins, Founder of CV Library, one of the UK’s largest job sites, follows. “Team development here almost starts from the recruitment stage,” he says. “Everyone we hire is rated with an eye to their long-term potential. We’re looking for superstars. We’re interested not in micro-management, but in creating the next level of managers who our people become.

“And we push the fact staff don’t have to go into management to improve themselves,” he adds. “We identify ways people can do their existing jobs better, and grow that way. It’s a win-win.”

Let the forces be with you

It’s one of the biggest skills secrets. According to Keith Spencer, Business Development and Career Consultant for the Officers’ Association, small firms can gain £200,000-worth of top-level leadership and teambuilding skills by hiring reservists or ex-forces personnel. Yet many – as confirmed by new research by FSB – still do not.

“That’s the value of training most forces personnel will have received during their active years,” says Mr Spencer. “But while most of the 15,000 people who leave the forces each year do eventually find jobs, a fairly constant 6-7 per cent won’t find work six months after joining Civvy Street. Small firms are missing out on possibly the most high-calibre people around.”

According to FSB research, while the number of small firms admitting they would be reluctant to take on service leavers or reservists has fallen, the amount saying they would actively consider hiring a reservist is still less than half (49 per cent), and this figure has risen by only four percentage points since 2013.

Although two in three (65 per cent) agree the skills and knowledge reservists gain during their time in the armed forces are valuable to a business (the figure is 59 per cent for service leavers), 60 per cent admit they would ‘struggle’ if a reservist was called up.

David Richardson, FSB Development Manager, Highlands & Islands – who, along with small business owners visited Norway in March 2016, to see Royal Marine reservists in action – says that prejudices may still be at play. “I would have expected the percentage of employers saying they’re willing to hire from the forces to be higher,” he says.

“While I can’t prove it, I sense there may be uneasiness among business heads that ex-forces personnel are somehow ‘damaged’ by what they’ve seen, and won’t integrate, or will be harder to manage in the workplace. This really isn’t the case,” he says.

As with other FSB regional branches, his and the Officers’ Association want to shine a light on the benefits of hiring ex-forces staff, and the hope is, that with FSB members around such as Eddie Mewies, Managing Director of engineering consultancy M-EC, this message is getting out. “In 2013 we hired our first reservist, who really opened our eyes to the skills they have,” says Mr Mewies, who has since been to Downing Street to receive the highest commendation from the Ministry of Defence’s own employer-recognition scheme for supporting the armed services community.

“Reservists develop certain qualities,” he says. “They are motivated, look after themselves, and push and praise others. Rosie James, our current reservist, is now a team leader, and using her leadership skills in our business. It can be too easy for employers to focus on negative perceptions, but we couldn’t be more pleased.”

The armed forces train their people for the level above them, so they can do the job of those above if they need to. This means that forces personnel can stretch themselves and thrive in normal workplaces.

“The forces comprise lots of small, high-performing teams, which is just how many small firms are,” says Will Orme, former Operations Officer and Pilot in the Royal Navy for 14 years, and now Chief Operations Director at 50-plus-strong technology firm Alertacall. “My military role was operations, and the firm’s Chief Executive, James Batchelor, could see that this was just the skillset he needed.”

He adds: “We are trained in decision-making, and because trust in colleagues is huge in my former life, trust here is something we’ve built into our systems. 

I and other ex-forces personnel are simply using skills we’ve honed in a different environment. Also, what small businesses may not realise is that forces personnel want to work for them – somewhere they can get stuck in and make a difference.”

As Mr Spencer says: “Those who have served are not all Saving Private Ryan-style soldiers, and don’t act like bellowing sergeant majors. The sort of leadership taught in the services now is transformational; it’s about understanding team dynamics, and delivering on projects. These are just the sorts of skills small firms say they’re crying out for.”

Peter crush is a freelance business journalist