At a recent networking event in Bristol, I was challenged by several people about how useful consultants are for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The challengers owned or worked for such businesses and felt that few professional advisors catered for their specific needs, especially in issues around engagement and ‘softer’ skills. They either didn’t really grasp the issues SMEs faced, and/or tried to force fit solutions designed for bigger outfits.
Taking the challenge, I thought I’d look into it further. SMEs are certainly an important sector of the economy. According to BIS, at the start of 2014 5.2 million small businesses (those employing 300 people or fewer) accounted for 48% (12.1 million) of UK private sector employment. The combined annual turnover of small businesses is about £1.2 trillion, making up 33% of private sector turnover. SMEs are seen as a key economic driver by the government, which is behind initiatives such as Growth Accelerator to help them develop.
Many of the issues that SMEs face are similar to any business – improving efficiency, motivating people, marketing what they do. There are some additional challenges, though. Firstly, there are often considerable growing pains – most notably when a business expands beyond 50 or so people and the founders are no longer able to communicate directly with everyone. The connection and ‘magic’ can be lost. There is also the challenge of keeping the sense of excitement and pioneering spirit while putting in necessary processes and procedures, which can be seen by some as ‘corporate’ or ‘bureaucratic’. Thirdly, many SMEs find themselves in a difficult half-way stage at which they need specialist skills such as HR, Change, Communication, but do not have the resources to employ specialists fulltime. Lastly, SMEs, even the most successful, tend to have tight budgets and are less able to buy in professional services to the extent that larger organisations can.
Given this, how can consultants best help? Firstly, we need to change the way we talk about what we do. Few SME leaders will be looking to buy in ‘communication’ support, but many will be interested in how to keep the business’s ‘spirit’ alive, or attracting and keeping great people, or reducing duplication. Secondly, we could offer structured, cost effective, SME centred diagnostic tools. These will have a core set of questions and activities which can be tailored for the specific business and provide agreed outcomes for an agreed cost. Thirdly, consultants can adapt to coaching people with more than one set of responsibilities in the basics of producing, managing and co-ordinating good communications – effectively giving them grounding in communication essentials. Fourthly, we need to offer coaching to SME leaders in how to communicate and engage with people, with a special focus on dealing with the rapidly changing relationships and structures that SMEs experience. This means less about being the great presenter, and more about having frequent, rich conversations.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but I hope it’s a useful start. I also hope that at least I can pick up a glass of warm white wine with some confidence at the next networking gathering in Britain’s Best City to live in. (The Sunday Times).
Written by Dominic Walters – Leadership Coaching Specialist from Quest Agency