Psst, SMEs, look over here. There’s another way!

After a full on day in Sheffield yesterday at the CIPD HR in SMEs event, I’ve been pondering and reflecting.

There was a huge variety of content from the inspiring Keith Jackson, MD of JRI Orthopaedics (, to the HR foundations from Sue Harper, HR Advisor of Leap 29 ( and then with some brilliant practical sessions in between: lining HR activity up to the business needs from Sara and Martin from MJF Cleaning Services (, attracting, selecting and retaining talent from Ben at IMarEST ( and a brilliant L&D programme for first line managers from Anabela at Just Eat (  All rounded off with a discussion and Q&As on leadership in SMEs (

One of the things that’s stayed with me after the event, buzzing round my head, is the opportunity for SMEs to forge a new and better path for themselves.

JRI are a great example of an SME who have spotted that there’s another way to do things and they’re following their own route that’s right for them and which, it sounds like, is setting them up for some strong growth.  Embracing a coaching and empowering culture in which hierarchies are flattened and everyone really is valued and has a voice – sounds a lot like where many corporates are trying to get to at the moment, but struggling due to their size and long legacies of top-down control.

MJF Cleaning Services are also going from strength to strength and, with a passionate MD at the helm in Martin Ferguson, they really want to, and are succeeding in, engaging their workforce so that, in a very tough market, people choose to join and stay with them.  But some of what MJF are up to isn’t going to be sustainable as they grow.  Sending a birthday card to every employee is a very personalised and, no doubt, much appreciated gesture but it must take a fair amount of time and effort already with their 130 ish staff.

And that’s where the journey of existing bigger companies has normally kicked in – the organisation grows, efficiencies are sought, process is applied, people turn into numbers and control takes full hold – because that’s the easiest way to get the basics done.

Don’t get me wrong, there is most definitely a place for efficiencies, systems and processes to do stuff instead of people doing it, or to write stuff down once for everyone, instead of everyone writing a version.  But there’s a balance which many large organisations have lost and I wonder how SMEs can avoid following that very well-trodden path to the land of control.

Having listened to JRI, it really feels as though the answer to that is in the leaders and line managers – I differentiate these roles and yet they are really one and the same.

As an MD, and often founder, of a smaller business, it’s possible to wrap your arms round the whole thing, and relatively easy for your values and your beliefs to filter down and have an impact on everyone who works for you.

As things grow, for that to be maintained, it’s the leaders and line managers who you employ and develop that will be carrying those beliefs and values through the business.  They’ll be the ones who embody the purpose of the business.  They’ll be the ones who coach, develop and value the staff at the coal face, who in turn delight your customers.  They’ll be the ones who give those personal touches of a birthday card or a spontaneous gift in recognition of doing a great job. And they’ll be the ones who encourage a climate of equity so everyone feels entitled to ask, to offer ideas and suggestions, to give new stuff a go that could make the business even better.  They’ll be the ones who treat your staff like the adults they really are.

And of course, it’s not all roses and sunlight.  There’ll be times when your leaders and line managers need to have difficult conversations, when they need to step into being more parental with a staff member who’s abused the sick pay policy, or who’s sworn at a customer.  And there’ll be times when they need to firefight and get stuck in because there’s an urgent need to fulfil a customer’s needs.

And therein lies the opportunity of being a situational leader (  No leader can adopt one style all the time.  But equally, as a leader, you should be more aware of the style you’re choosing and for what reason.  Will you get it right all the time?  Of course not.  Should you notice it when you get it wrong and learn for next time?  Absolutely.  And will it be rewarding when you get better at it?  Most definitely!  As your team grows and develops and the business succeeds – that’s got to be a good reason!

So where’s your business just now?  What opportunities do you have to carve out a new way, a better way, of growing your business and taking your people with you?  And what’s stopping you?




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