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Does size matter when it comes to better people management?

Whether a sector leader or small start up, when it comes to the challenges of people management, there’s a lot of crossover...

We spoke to Investors in People Specialist Valerie Walcott to get her take on what large businesses can learn from small ones and vice versa.


Investors in People (IIP):  What’s your advice for how businesses can improve their people management, whatever their size?

Valerie Walcott (VW):  In my experience, excellent people management goes hand in hand with excellent leadership; you need people who can inspire others to believe in what the business is doing. From that foundation you can:

Embed a compelling vision, mission and values into your organisation. Communicate them widely, both internally and externally, and recruit, lead, manage and develop your people in line with them.
Make excellent people managers the backbone of the business. Managers that engage your people well will motivate them to improve their productivity, reduce staff turnover and attract more of the right kind of people to your business.
Empower people by giving them the responsibility and the authority to make decisions. This motivates individuals, makes stronger teams and improves customer relationships.


IIP:  Is it useful for businesses to borrow thinking from those of different sizes?

VW:  Yes, absolutely. One business I work with is a great example of doing this very successfully.

5E Ltd. is a medium-sized IIP Gold accredited training provider based in North London. They looked closely at how the larger providers were operating and thought about what worked well – from the way they delegated responsibilities and developed their staff to the way they structured their teams. They then considered how they could build on this and how they could do things differently to benefit their client group. In addition, they looked to their own people for inspiration; recognising their personal expert knowledge of the client groups, combining this with relevant skills and embedding it into the business.

In this way they fused thinking from both large and small businesses, along with best practice from their sector and tapping into their people’s individual knowledge, to design the delivery of their Work Programme. And it's working – 5E Ltd has achievement rates of 7% against their competitors’ average of 3.5% and the Government’s national target of 5%, making them one of the top deliverers of the Government's Work Programme. They’ve also been a Gold Investors in People organisation for over 6 years.


IIP:  What practical things can businesses do to broaden their perspective on people management?

VW:  Lateral thinking is key here. It’s helpful for business leaders to step away from where they would usually go for inspiration. Attending events and seminars completely outside their sector can be a really good way to get that fresh perspective. For example, there's a great deal that businesses of all sizes can learn from the education sector regarding business planning, leadership and performance management. Some of the best schools are led by brilliant Headteachers who are essentially great Chief Executives. Over the years they’ve developed robust and productive systems, particularly around managing change, and it’s well worth taking a look at them.

Being part of the wider conversation is also a good way to learn from businesses of different sizes. A PR company I’ve just started working with is a good example of how this can work well. Like a lot of business leaders these days, the MD writes a leadership blog, but it’s not wholly about promoting the company, he invites clients and guest bloggers to share their expertise too. By sharing his own knowledge, and inviting others to give feedback and share their point of view in this way, he keeps up-to-date with how others are working.  


IIIP:  To sum up, what three tips would you give to a big business to help them learn from small businesses and vice versa?

Think small and effective:

  • Get back the agility associated with small businesses by finding ways to help every department function like a small business – with managers and team members  empowered and enabled to make decisions.
  • When thinking about reward and recognition and giving feedback to your employees, try to focus more on the individual – what they value, what motivates them and what inspires them. 
  • Help employees gain a broader understanding of the business and how important their role is within it. In smaller businesses, often out of necessity, people have more input into a wider range of job roles, so they understand how all of the business functions rely on each other. Larger organisations may need to be more proactive to help create a similar shared understanding.

Think big and successful:

  • Prepare for change. Put clear processes in place to ensure you keep sharing ideas and getting everyone’s input as the business matures.  
  • Small businesses may not have the resources to put a package of employee benefits in place to rival those of the larger companies, but you can apply the reward-related thinking to make it work well for you e.g. greater flexibility to offer employees valuable work-life balance.
  • It doesn’t always follow that smaller businesses are better at communicating just because they’re all sitting in the same room together. Avoid the silo effect of everyone keeping their heads down and working on their own projects by building in time for people to catch up with each other, formally and socially. Remind people that they’re an essential part of a whole organisational team, irrespective of department, division etc., and that ‘The Team with the best players wins.’ Jack Welch.