Up, up and away

For most of my HR career, I’ve worked in relatively small organizations as a department of one. This is a perfect fit for me – I enjoy being able to know everyone in my organization, I enjoy the variety of work being a solo practitioner brings, and I absolutely love living at the intersection of strategy and tactics as only a department of one can do. HR is a big, wide world. There are lots of career paths we can take, and I’m thankful for the opportunities and for the self-awareness to know what fits me.

Being in small organizations has its own unique challenges, and one of the big ones is retention and creating a clear career path for employee growth. In a larger company, an employee can move up in their department or try their hand at learning new skills in other areas. There are more chances to move into management roles, the most traditional way of moving up.

In a smaller organization, there are less opportunities. Departments tend to be more specialized, and teams can run lean.  It can be harder to free folks up to learn new things. There are also fewer management positions, and in companies that are deliberately focused on staying small, no new teams or departments are likely to be created. There’s just less room to grow.

While the opportunities may not be there, the desire certainly is. Talented people want to grow, learn new things, and expand their capabilities. This doesn’t always look like promotion, but sometimes it does. Small companies want to retain their talent, but can’t always make room, especially in traditional promotion pathways.

What can a HR in a small organization do?  First, be honest about what is available and what is not. If management openings are few and far between, own it. Make sure, however, that when those openings arise you are giving a real opportunity for current staff to step in. It might mean a commitment to promoting someone who isn’t quite ready to hit the ground running, and a bigger investment in training and coaching. This can be a challenge in a small company where there are limited resources (time, money, competing priorities). However, if you want your staff to trust that you care about their careers, you have to be prepared to make that investment.

The second thing is to be creative about career paths. It is easy to fall back on management being the only path to advancement. What other options can you create? Maybe a staff member is a subject matter expert in an area of your company and can become a trainer. You gain new learning opportunities for staff, and the employee gets to expand his skillset into training and development, honing his presentation skills. Mentoring and managing ad hoc projects are other ways to offer employees a chance to stretch their wings and expand their opportunities, increasing job satisfaction and the likelihood of retention. What are some other innovative career paths you can come up with in your organization?

Finally, know that long-term retention will not be possible for every employee in a small company. The kind of employee you want – talented, motivated, wanting to grow – may eventually grow as far as they can with you. When that happens, help them define and prepare for that next step. If someone really wants to experience management and it’s just not going to happen with you, help her manage some small projects. Maybe let her head up your mentorship program, at least for a season. This benefits your company and gives your employee the skills (and resume) that can help her land her next gig. This will pay off as your now-former employee becomes a brand ambassador.

As HR professionals, of course we want to retain our best and our brightest. In a smaller company this presents unique challenges, but with creativity, transparency, and a true commitment to our employees, we can ensure that everyone has a bright future. What creative ways have you come up with to address retention in your small organization?

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