Small business advice: How to compete against the big guys for top talent


A student registers at the Barnard College Career Fair on September 7, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore/GETTY IMAGES)
April 16

The Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world spare no expense in recruiting top talent, mostly because they have deep pockets. So, when prospective employees get a call from large corporations, they know any subsequent job offer will be lucrative and provide early résumé padding. Consequently, they gravitate toward the big players.

But that doesn’t mean smaller companies can’t compete for top talent — they just need to offer what the big companies can’t.

Here are a few tips to help you win top talent over the big guys

The key to success in the job market is identifying your competitive advantage. Perhaps you can’t offer a six-figure salary, but you can appeal to ambition.

Nobody gets to the top without an innate drive and a desire to make an impact. At a big company, these individuals will just be cogs in the machine, but at your small company, you can give employees the freedom to work on the things they’re passionate about and take on roles that allow them to make the company better in a tangible way.

At social networking company Path, for example, rather than seeking approval for changes to features, company leaders encourage employees to take the initiative to fix something if it’s broken. No stamp of approval or oversight required.

Along with a chance to make an impact on the organization as a whole, offer a different type of work environment — one where younger employees have access to the top executives and department leaders. This gives your team the opportunity to develop new skills and grow professionally — something young, ambitious people will find appealing.

And as they improve, make sure you reward good work. Promotions and salary bumps determined by merit (rather than time logged at the company) are a big draw for many young job seekers who are repelled by the concept of the “corporate ladder.”

The e-commerce platform Shopify awards bonuses to the employees who are most helpful to customers and other employees. Offering an environment where employees’ hard work and abilities are rewarded immediately can be a huge selling point for top talent, because they can get further in two years with you than they could at a larger corporation.

Don’t skimp on big-time recruitment

A lot of small companies shy away from big company recruiting strategies because of the expense and direct competition with larger firms, but this is a mistake.

Going straight to the source with on-campus recruiting is the absolute best way to snap up young standouts, but recognize what adds value and what doesn’t. There’s no need to spend thousands of dollars on pens or squishy balls that will end up in a junk drawer. Instead, post on school Web sites, attend career fairs, and meet with professors.

Another strategy the big dogs use is hiring headhunters. Some can be worth the fees, but others are a waste of your time and money. If you decide to use a headhunter for recruitment, do your homework, seek recommendations from people you trust, negotiate hard, and only hire one on a contingency basis.

While job boards are a great way to get a lot of applications, sifting through hundreds of low-quality applicants can put a strain on your team. Big sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, and TheLadders can be effective when looking to fill certain roles, but they may not be the best solution for smaller companies that don’t have the resources for a massive search.

Keep top talent engaged and invested

Hiring great talent is merely the first step. Keeping those workers engaged and happy requires an ongoing effort.

A great way to keep your team members invested is to reward their ambition with incentives. Their salaries should be in line with the market, but highly driven individuals like a portion of their compensation tied to performance. Incentives don’t need to be strictly monetary, though. Offer travel opportunities and awards to acknowledge the great work of great employees.

Make sure there’s nothing in their work experience that makes them want to leave. People who are great at what they do often feel the urge to constantly do more. Make your company a nice place to work, but encourage a healthy work/life balance. Offer plenty of space to relax, and host events to foster connections outside the office.

My company hosts table tennis competitions and company-sponsored sports leagues, which give our team members the chance to get to know one another on a personal level. This creates stronger bonds within the company, and employees are more likely to have long-term stays if they feel they have friends and allies on their team.

Finally, give them the learning experience, resources, and opportunities you promised. Being a small company doesn’t mean you can’t snag top employees. You have a lot to offer the brightest talent — just make sure you deliver on your promises.

Stirling Cox is the managing director of AlphaSights USA, a company that connects today’s business leaders with the insight and expertise they need to prosper.

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