Hire Top Talent from Corporate America

With a glut of qualified individuals out of work, small business owners have rare hiring opportunities. How can they attract—and retain—high-caliber employees who might not have considered working at a small company in the past? Former executive recruiter Eric Herrenkohl, who runs Philadelphia-based Herrenkohl Consulting, provides some advice in a new book, How to Hire A-Players: Finding the Top People for Your Team—Even If You Don't Have a Recruiting Department. Herrenkohl spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein; edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

When you were a recruiter, did you place employees in smaller companies?

I did a fair amount of recruiting for smaller businesses and I understand what it takes for small businesses to recruit A-players.

What are some of the obstacles you saw that kept great employees from taking jobs at smaller companies?

Small business owners cannot be afraid to ask top employees to work for them. I know the owner of a small construction firm in St. Louis who had a contact with an individual in a billion-dollar construction firm. He wasn't afraid to say, "If you're ever interested in coming to work for me, I'd love to have you." He didn't know it, but she had been thinking that she was really a smaller-company person. She eventually decided to join his company and she still works for him today.

Do you think that fear you mentioned stems from some kind of small business inferiority complex?

There's no question about it. I've had people tell me that's the case, in fact. I think the first step for small business owners is that they have to believe that they deserve A-players.

How do smaller employers cope with the reality that they may be inherently unable to offer everything a large corporation can?

I tell people to offer the whole package: the life and work package. Another client of mine owned a retail franchise in Arkansas. They were successful in finding and hiring a general manager away from a large home-furnishings store. They offered competitive pay and benefits and, along with that, a better life. At the small business, this person was able to work 45 or 50 hours a week rather than 70 hours that was required at the large corporation. She was able to spend extra time with her young daughter.

One person like that in a small business can be transformative.

How so?

Hiring just one A-player can save or transform a business owner's life. When you hire somebody of that caliber, they have the capacity to become the general manager and run the business when the owner is not there. Many business owners are desperate for that kind of freedom.

What other strategies do you advise clients to use?

I tell them to exploit their strengths. I set up a meeting between a 25-year-old contact of mine who wanted to work as a salesman with the CEO of a sports store based in North Carolina.

The CEO called and told him, "I'll be the one wearing shorts and riding a motorcycle." That was incredibly intentional. He was communicating to this guy, "We are a don't-take-ourselves-too-seriously company that's still committed to growing and excellence." My contact found out that there's a whole lifestyle in working for a smaller business that you'll never get working in a corporate bureaucracy.

What should small business owners do about their weaknesses?

Every company has weaknesses—large and small. In hiring, it's a question of emphasizing strengths, being honest about what could technically be seen as weaknesses, and interviewing a lot of people. You're not trying to persuade someone to come in who doesn't want to work for a small business.

Some ambitious individuals worry that a small business represents a dead end in terms of their eventual advancement. How do you get past that perception?

You chart a fast-growth path for your A-players. Make sure there is plenty of room for them to grow and develop their skills. I recently worked for an upstate New York franchisee who had hired a real A-player four months earlier. I worked with them on a plan to promote her to a general manager role in two to three years, if things worked out.

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