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How to keep your best and brightest recruits shining long after you've hired them

By Max Berry

As a small business owner employing a recent college graduate, you find yourself in one of the most potentially rewarding roles a businessperson can inhabit: that of the mentor. Without a stratum of mid-level managers between you, you'll have plenty of contact with the most junior members of your staff, and chances are they'll be looking to you for guidance. So be humble, but don't be intimidated; you may learn as much as you teach.

Lighting a fire
"Your job isn't just to get things done," says Jim Perrone, managing partner of Chicago mentorship coaching and consulting firm Perrone-Ambrose Associates, "but to get the best out of people." New employees are often too intimidated by their supervisors to ask what seem to them like inane questions. Let them know early on that there is no such thing, and that they needn't worry about being judged simply for not having their bearings yet.

Once you've established this, set up some formal guidelines for how the introductory phase of the job will work. "When a new person comes on, become a teacher first," advises Perrone, "then a trainer, then move away from that." In gradually scaling back your own role, you gradually allow your new employee more unsupervised responsibility. Even as you scale yourself back, work to build a dialogue with your new employee. "Get them thinking and asking good questions while they work," Perrone says. Questions are essential; volleying ideas is far more productive-both for mentor and mentee-than asking your employee a series of pre-determined questions and waiting for the "correct" answers.

Make sure you are asking as many questions of your employee as they are asking of you. Ask them about their thoughts on a given issue before you offer your own. No two employees are alike; they will approach their jobs from different angles and will likely have vastly different career goals. Find out what those are and guide them towards the goals they have envisioned, not the ones you have envisioned for them. The key word here is guide, which is not the same as direct. "If you look at mentoring as making someone in your image, that can become stifling," warns Perrone

Perrone identifies trial and error-especially error-as key components of the mentoring process. "People learn best through self-discovery," he says. And sometimes that means screwing up. When your employee makes a mistake, don't hold back on your comments and corrections, just deliver them tactfully and let your new employee try again. Remember: Describe the desired result of a task, but don't instruct your employee on how to reach it. As Perrone puts it, "Mentoring is more lighting a fire than filling a bucket."

Dual investment
Perrone is always careful to refer to a mentoring relationship as a partnership, as if to suggest that the teacher has as much to gain as the pupil. In fact, he is doing more than suggesting: "These relationships should be as satisfying for the mentor as for the person being mentored."

Part of that satisfaction comes from the very tangible effects a successful mentoring partnership can have on your business. "You get a lot of commitment when you invest in somebody," says Perrone. "And it's a big payoff. As they get more committed, you get stronger." As your employees begin to feel more valued, they'll begin to feel more motivated, which can only mean good things for productivity and employee retention.

But building a relationship with your employees through mentoring will not only keep them loyal and productive, it also will provide a built-in solution for the question of succession. A manager need not look outside the company to fill an important position when there is already somebody on staff who has been nurtured within the company, somebody who is already fluent in the ethos of your business.

Mentoring someone else is also an excellent way to facilitate your own professional growth. A manager's leadership skills will only improve and deepen after developing relationships with individuals from different social and economic backgrounds. And don't forget the propensity of a new employee to ask "Why?" Answer this simple question enough times, for enough people, and you'll eventually begin to ask it of yourself. You will eventually discover that it is not such a simple question after all. Then watch your answer evolve, along with your own image of yourself and your business.

A lasting impression
But perhaps the greatest satisfaction of being a mentor is the satisfaction of building a legacy, both for yourself and your company. Mentoring your small business's young talent will influence not only the employees you are working with but also the very future of the company you've built. And as each year provides a new crop of talent, each with more education and a more advanced skill set than the last-"They may have better ideas than you even have," Perrone points out-instilling some of your sensibilities in this new breed can only mean good things for the future of your business.

It may be foolish to believe, in this day and age, that the person you mentor today will still be with your company a generation from now, ready to pass along your preserved wisdom. But mentoring this way will nonetheless inspire a new generation to guide rather than direct, to collaborate rather than instruct. "It's an empowerment program," says Perrone. "Many people get great satisfaction from that sense of legacy-from just watching someone click, watching someone get it."

Giving (and getting) back: Why "doing good" also makes good business sense

by Reed Richardson

Amidst this turbulent holiday season, many small business owners, facing one of the most challenging economic climates in recent memory, may be tempted to curtail or even suspend their company's charitable giving. After all, if a small business doesn't survive today, it can't very well give much in the way of charitable donations tomorrow. But more and more small business owners are changing their thinking about charitable giving and coming to see it as not only a moral obligation but also a wise strategic investment in their businesses' long-term future-a way to do be "doing well" while "doing good."

Marketing boost

 

"I think having a relationship with a charity is an essential part of marketing any size business without spending a lot of advertising dollars," says Deborah Crawford, owner of the Memphis-based small business-marketing firm Smart Marketing Works. Still, Crawford, a sole proprietor who founded her marketing company four years ago, acknowledges that a charitable giving strategy isn't something that most budding entrepreneurs seriously consider since it's rarely included in most business plan templates. "But any business that doesn't come to see its importance is missing a big part of building the business."

Dwight Burlingame, associate executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, agrees. "More and more we're seeing a focus on company-based philanthropy from the small business side," he says. This trend, which Burlingame says he first detected roughly a generation ago, has grown substantially since then. "In fact," he notes, "small businesses are now engaged and give to charitable organizations at higher percentages, on average, than large companies or corporations."

Beyond the check
This "give back attitude," as Burlingame calls it, has accelerated in the past several years and coincided with a turn toward a more entrepreneurial approach to fundraising in the non-profit world. This greater, ongoing engagement-through periodic volunteering or ongoing sponsorships, for example-gives small businesses a better understanding of whether or not the charity is meeting its stated goals as well as what they can do to help reach those goals in the future. Writing a check to a favorite charity once a year obviously helps, Burlingame says, but to really make a difference, small businesses should "want to create transformational or transitional relationships rather the just transactional ones."

This transformational approach to philanthropy benefits the donor businesses as well, Burlingame notes. "Small businesses that work year-round with local charities tend to interact more with people who are the business's customers," he says. This steady exposure lends a company a stronger brand of social responsibility and builds positive word of mouth in the community. In addition to these external benefits, charitable partnerships can also pay dividends internally. "Studies have shown that companies with well organized charitable giving programs experience improved morale and increased productivity," Burlingame explains. "And those benefits, in turn, have a direct relationship on increasing the bottom line."

Look local
When looking for the right partner, Burlingame recommends choosing a community-based charity that offers your small business a greater opportunity for a direct and personal impact, or what he calls the "local, front-porch approach." He contrasts this with what he calls the "gated, backyard" philanthropic efforts of many large companies, which often funnel employee donations up and away from local communities to far-removed corporate headquarters, often culminating in the well-worn, but fairly impersonal, oversized-check presentation between chief executives.

"Plus, for many small businesses, writing that big check just isn't an option," notes small business marketing consultant Crawford. Local charities, she adds, will be more amenable to in-kind donations of time or talent, things that many small businesses are often more than willing to share. "For example, I run a marketing firm, so I often donate my skills in helping promote events for the charities I support," explains Crawford. "A small law firm could provide free legal advice as their donation or, say, a restaurant could donate excess supplies to a local food pantry like Second Harvest."

Look for a logical match
Similarly, it's a wise strategy to concentrate your small business's charitable efforts on one or two local organizations whose missions align with your own. For example, an architectural firm that specializes in green buildings might strike up a partnership with a local environmental group or a retail bookstore might consider sponsoring the local library's adult literacy program. And while some might consider such a calculated decision to mate your business interests with a charity's pursuits inappropriate, Burlingame says small business should be unapologetic about trying to do well while doing good. "After all," he says, "one of the highest forms of philanthropy is giving someone a job."

Finding a charitable partner
There are several online resources that will allow you to search through a variety of criteria to find charities and non-profit organizations. Some websites even let you research a charity's giving and accountability standards. "Also, most local Chambers of Commerce can be of help when looking for a charity or non-profit in the nearby community," notes small business marketing consultant Deborah Crawford.

Charity Navigator- http://www.charitynavigator.org

 

Better Business Bureau Accredited Charity Directory- http://us.bbb.org

 

Non-Profit Organization Database/Research Tool- http://guidestar.org

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