Business owners know (or, at the very least, have probably been told) that their company is only as great as the people in it. You’ve probably heard that “people are your greatest asset” or “employees are your greatest customers”. It makes sense: having low-quality employees who don’t develop or improve working in your business won’t lead to superior performance and results. The same can be said for mediocre employees: you can’t expect great things from people who are content to just do the bare minimum and either not be motivated or not be challenged to do any more. People are pretty quick to point the finger and say, “that’s just the way he/she is” or pull the trigger on letting them go because they’re just not getting enough out of them. Sometimes that outcome is inevitable, but in those cases have you really done everything you could to use that resource to his/her fullest potential?

One of the biggest issues we uncover with clients looking to plan for their exit from the business is that they haven’t taken the time to beef up the roster of people they currently have, and that leaves them susceptible. In the case of an internal transition or MBO, you aren’t putting the next generation in the best position for success. In the case of a third-party sale, you aren’t presenting a top-notch team of employees to a buyer, whose offer will likely be suppressed by the fact that your team has significant weaknesses or flight risks that could impede their ability to succeed moving forward. Our advice to clients who aren’t quite ready to pick a path for the future is simple: know what resources you currently have at your disposal, and identify where you can make improvements today so that you’re putting together a team of people that can carry the business into the future, no matter what path you end up choosing.

The typical response from clients is that they would invest more in their people if training wasn’t so expensive, if they had more time, or if they knew the employees wouldn’t leave for a new opportunity soon after, making the training a sunk cost. These are all valid concerns – and the cost of training can be hard to swallow, especially as a small business owner. However, this typical response is also becoming a common mistake: business owners often assume that training is the only – or best – solution to creating a strong team of employees.

Of course, there are times where either internal or external training is the best way to develop a particular skillset in a certain employee. There are also plenty of times where training someone is futile because they figure they’re already good at what they do and have no desire to do anything else, or perhaps see no benefit in learning new skills at that point in their career. In those cases, a problem can quickly arise when a company starts spending buckets of money on training for employees prior to assessing their current capabilities, future potential, and their underlying desire to learn. In addition to knowing these conditions, the company must be aware of the gaps in skillsets that currently exist before undertaking any kind of training and development initiatives so they can ensure that the time and money spent to develop their employees is actually going to fix or strengthen any weak areas, and not train on topics or skills that won’t really benefit the organization as a whole.

One of the best ways to analyze your current resources, especially at a time where you might be considering how you will be exiting your business, is to take the time to develop position descriptions for each positionnot each person – in the company. What might initially seem like a make-work project is actually extremely valuable when it comes to defining the core responsibilities of each piece of the puzzle and identifying the proper flow of information across departments. In the day-to-day activity of the business, it’s hard to find the time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and learn how the projects and tasks and handoffs all correlate – but the advantage of having a clear understanding of where the shortfalls appear is extremely important when it comes to making informed decisions about training and development.

The key to this exercise is being careful to initially describe only the responsibilities of the position itself, and not the skills of the person who is currently performing the tasks. Often, business owners/managers are quick to make development decisions solely based on the needs of the individuals themselves, and not necessarily with the “ideal” of the position description in mind. Defining the core responsibilities of the position first then allows you to assess the resource (the employee) who is performing those tasks, and compare their current capabilities to what you have identified as being required for the position. You’ll quickly hone in on some specific areas that the employee might not have the skills or knowledge to do effectively or efficiently – and those are the gaps you want to focus on.

Finding gaps between your ideal definition of the position and the employee’s actual skillset isn’t cause for panic; in fact, it’s extremely rare that someone’s knowledge and abilities match up exactly with what’s required for their role. However, being aware of what gaps exist and just how big they are puts you in a position to attack them systematically, whether it’s by investing in training for the existing employee, or re-evaluating the skills that are missing and looking elsewhere internally to see if there’s another way to make it work. It’s usually unrealistic to fit a person into a certain mould, but it’s always possible to shape the mould to fit around the people you have. Identifying the gaps and using the strengths of the team around you to fill them will result in a stronger and more efficient business – which will benefit the company in the short-term, and put your business in the best position for success as it moves into the future.

Rebecca Cook

Rebecca is the HR & Operations Manager at EKSiT. She works closely with our clients to develop their internal resources and identify areas for improvement as part of the succession planning process.