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How to find and retain ‘awesome’ employees for small business growth

Ever struggled to find or retain ‘awesome’ employees for your small business? Small businesses by definition rely heavily on their staff, who often wear more than one hat when it comes to responsibilities. The importance of hiring the right employee for the right role is paramount for small business success.

SBC Media sat down with Dr Jana Matthews, ANZ Chair in Business Growth and the Director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of SA, to discover how and why small business growth starts at the interview table. But growth isn’t guaranteed after hiring a great employee, Dr Matthews says small businesses must also work to retain ‘awesome’ staff for real, long-term growth to be realised.

Why should small business growth start at the interview table?

In order for your company to grow, you need to hire people who share the company’s values, have different competencies, knowledge, and skills – and then, over time, you need to delegate tasks and decisions to them.  In other words, if you don’t get the right people on your bus, in the right seats on the bus, who understand how they need to engage with each other, with customers, vendors and suppliers, then you won’t feel you can delegate – and growth will be stymied.

What defines an ‘awesome’ employee?

“Awesome people” have a certain set of characteristics that you need to look for: they are self-motivated, respected by their colleagues and peers – and respectful as well. They are team players who are as eager to teach as to learn. They are creative problem-solvers, show initiative when completing tasks, and have a unique ability to look ahead and anticipate the future needs of your growing company.

What qualities should SMB employers look for when hiring new staff?

Awesome people are looking for more than a job and will be seeking to determine whether working for your company will enable them to achieve their personal mission. Check that their values fit with your company’s values. Ask probing questions to determine whether they are curious and self-motivated, whether they like variety and change, or prefer repetitive tasks and set job descriptions.

What typical mistakes do small business employers make when hiring?

  • In the beginning, SMB owners tend to hire people first and figure out what they will do after they arrive: often “what they do” changes rapidly. But as a company grows, successful owners learn to search for people who can fill the positions the company needs in order to operate effectively.
  • Hiring quickly and settling for a “someone”: instead of holding out for the right one.
  • A single person doing the interview: a second opinion more than doubles the odds of making a good hire.
  • Skipping the reference checks: reference checks are absolutely critical to determining whether the candidate is a good fit with your company, for understanding what drives the candidate, and for determining what the person would need to achieve high performance.
  • Forgetting that the recruitment process is a sales process: You are trying to sell your company to someone who’s looking for a job, and they’re trying to sell themselves to you, so be honest about what role you are ‘selling’, what you are “buying”, what you can do for each other, and whether it’s a “good fit”.

How can small or micro-businesses be competitive when hiring?


In a start-up or micro business, employees often wear several hats, have varied roles, changing responsibilities, do lots of tasks, and it can be quite chaotic.  Some people really like that; others find it tiring. On the other hand, a company that is agile, responsive, and adaptable to the needs of both customers and employees may be more appealing to employees who want to get in on the ground floor and experience the excitement and opportunity of growth. If you want to stay small, be honest about that with the people you are recruiting. But if you want to grow, then talk about the opportunities that company growth will provide for the development of employees.

After hiring awesome staff, what errors do small businesses make when retaining staff?

It’s not just the selection of great employees that’s important. It’s what you do with them after they begin working with you that will determine whether they want to stay – or whether you want them to stay!  Investing time in the orientation and integration of a new employee is one of the secrets to a high-performing employee. In the first week, ensure that they understand the job and what’s expected in terms of their performance. Keep checking to determine whether they are a good fit with the culture and values. Give them positive feedback in public, but if they aren’t performing as expected, give them negative feedback in private and ask what they need from you in order to meet expectations.

Larger employers may have ‘perks’, what are some low-cost or free benefits SMBs can offer to improve staff retention?

Recognition of high performance is often as important to employees as financial recognition. Never underestimate the value of a simple ‘thank you – good job well done’ a short note of recognition of high performance or great customer service, or taking a high-performing team member to lunch, a champagne or coffee to celebrate their amazing achievement and contributions to your company. Knowing that their work is driving company success is a powerful, self-motivating factor. Enabling them to achieve their personal mission is a big incentive that will keep them motivated, ‘on the bus’, and will help achieve your vision of company growth.

Dr Jana Matthews

ANZ Chair in Business Growth and Director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of SA & Keynote speaker at the SBC Summit April 2021 


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