Owning a small business is crazy hard. If you are a small business owner, take a hot second and pat yourself on the back. You are doing an amazing job.

However, another group of individuals deserves a major high-five, and those are the people who work for us. Joining a team in a small business – and all of the exposure inherent in these roles – is not for the faint of heart. It takes a particular type of person to handle the rogue waves that sway our small ships day in and day out. These individuals are rare and extremely valuable to keeping small businesses afloat.

But what do you do when they keep jumping ship?

After surviving the storms of COVID-19 and the beginnings of The Great Resignation, I stood in the ocean for a few days (taking a much-needed vacation), contemplating how to move forward. It had taken so much time, energy, paperwork, and resources to keep us going during that tumultuous period. We worked crazy hard to keep our people employed while they watched friends get laid off left and right. It was exhausting. My mentor assured me all my hard work would pay off and it would keep our people from jumping on The Great Resignation wave.

It didn’t.

We lost a good chunk of our team in a short time – just like everyone else. I was left punchdrunk, wondering, “How much more of myself do I need to give?”

Changing course

Sometimes, the only way to survive is to head into
the all-consuming waves at a 90-degree angle

In the 25 years I’ve owned Blue Star, employees have come and gone. During times of change, I would often beat myself up for building what seemed like a revolving door. It’s tough to see smart, collaborative teams break apart. Still, as my mentor and others have pointed out, people who leave Blue Star are prepared for more challenging roles with better titles and higher salaries. That is something we should celebrate and be proud of.

Instead of wrangling with the limitations of running a small business, like periodically rebuilding our team, I embraced these challenges by changing my point of view.

After vacation and that glorious epiphany, I assembled an incredible team by changing my response to the top three questions I get asked in interviews.

What growth opportunities are there for me?

We are a team of 13. There is no second deck, no ladders up, no senior management positions to aspire to. We all have a hand in managing clients and partners, projects, and services – the everyday planning, creation, and execution that drives things forward. But we are more of a flat, nimble, collaborative, and autonomous team versus a multi-layered, top-down, tightly controlled organization.

Yet all young people, and most employees in general, are looking for growth opportunities – whether they say it or not. Too often, people associate growth with moving up a tier or managing a group of individuals. In a company like ours, we have to look at personal and professional growth differently. We can’t magically transform into a tiered enterprise with VP titles for all and massive annual raises.

This issue has always been the elephant in the room. Today, our approach is to address the small business “employee growth conundrum” up front in the interview. The best thing we can do is to set expectations and prepare our people to leave in two years or whenever they’re ready for the next challenge. It’s our job to ensure they are the best candidates for that career move. Not only does this help them, but it takes the surprise off the table for everyone — including me.

We offer training and reorganize responsibilities to help steer individuals in the direction they want to go. We have honest conversations with our people about their aspirations and how we can help get them there.

Approaching growth this way takes so much pressure off the team and me. Our people define what growth is, and we work together to achieve specific goals from day one, whether the next opportunity is inside our company or not. I am proud when an employee leaves for a dream job with a significant pay increase, starts a new venture, or shifts responsibilities inside Blue Star to learn new things to achieve their goals. If done right, our company creates value for clients, partners, and employees. Those stories are great to tell during our interviews.

Want a tip? When I get asked, “What are my growth opportunities?” in an interview, it’s apparent the individual hasn’t worked for a small company before and might be looking for a quick promotion and raise. There’s nothing wrong with having ambition, but that kind of growth doesn’t happen here. So, I flip the script and ask, “What does growth mean to you?” If it’s about learning — that we can do.

What about flexibility (ahem, autonomy)?

I’ve learned that flexibility is not always about working from home and having flex hours. Often, our candidates come from previous positions where they have been micromanaged excessively.

Flexibility, autonomy, and meaningful work are significant to everyone. Individuals want the chance to complete their work on their own time, in their own way. They want to feel valued and to make a difference. They desire a fun and rewarding experience. Young people often seek out small businesses because they think there is greater potential for making individual contributions that influence their surroundings—all of this they view as vital to their professional happiness and productivity.

At Blue Star, everyone is at the table: meeting with clients, responsible for delivering work, and hitting timelines. While that sounds rewarding, it is easy to get overwhelmed, especially when the you-know-what hits the fan. And that’s when no one likes autonomy — even me at times. Autonomy is great until it isn’t. All the parts of autonomy that feel like an opportunity can quickly become a burden.

Tough interactions with clients can be difficult to shake and make it hard to focus on the next task. Not everyone is built for this, and there is definitely a learning curve to crafting responses that lighten the conversation and steer it toward a satisfactory resolution.

It’s essential to coach your team through those moments. Even at the top levels, an NBA coach will pull their best player aside, coach them on how to handle a situation, put them right back in the game, and give them the power to recover. That’s how individuals learn and grow.

Want a tip to know if you are hiring someone who can handle the pressure of autonomy? During each interview, I ask one fundamental question: Can you tell me about a time you screwed up at work? An honest answer can reveal a lot about how a person handles responsibility.

What’s the culture like? I mean, how transparent are you?

Young people are quickly turned off by large corporations that don’t value their health and happiness. They want their family to come first. They appreciate personal connection and loyalty.

As a small business CEO, there is no way not to care about your employees’ health and happiness. And if you are not doing this, you should. We celebrate birthdays and host baby showers. We give time for doctor’s appointments and grieve for funerals. We all inquire about important life events. Many past employees will describe us as having a lot of heart.

But I have learned the hard lesson that “having a lot of heart” is also code for “being too honest.” While kindness, honesty, authenticity, and transparency are desired by employees, too much of it can scare the heck out of them. It’s known as the “authenticity paradox.” Thank goodness someone finally coined a phrase. It’s confusing to be asked for honesty and transparency and then be told that it’s a problem.

While I continue to learn the limitations of transparency, I’m sticking with having a heart and being honest because my karma loves those traits. And the best employees do, too.

My tip: Invite an existing employee to join in on the interview. Have them answer the company culture question instead of you. Make sure they tell both the good and bad. I also ask my employees their impression of the interviewee — because every person we bring on board impacts our culture.

How I feel, honestly

As a small business owner, the best thing I can do is interview those who fit the mold and then mold them for future success.

“You don’t build a business, you build the people,
then people build the business.”

Zig Ziglar