In a big city, posting a job opening online might attract hundreds of applicants.
In a small town, the same typically isn’t true. Applicant pools are smaller in small markets, and you might be lucky to find a few dozen qualified candidates.
How can an ambitious independent agent in a small town grow their team, then? It’s not impossible. In fact, finding top talent, connecting with those candidates and retaining those employees can be broken down into a three-step process that any independent agent in any market can follow.
Step 1: Focus on Each Candidate’s Potential
When recruiting from a smaller pool of applicants, you must prioritize some different things than you might with a larger crowd. In such a market, you will probably find it’s less important that a candidate have extensive work experience and more important that they have the potential to become excellent agents — with the right training.
Recognizing that potential isn’t always easy, though. At the Harvard Business Review, researchers Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Seymour Adler, and Robert B Kaiser recommend that you rely heavily on interviews to assess someone’s potential. Structure these chats in such a way that they reveal an applicant’s social skills and learning ability. You can test for this by incorporating a task-based test in which the candidate has to learn something new.
The authors say to pay attention to:
- How they approach the problem-solving aspect of the task
- Whether they lean on research, ask for help or use a trial-and-error approach
- How long it takes them to figure out the solution
Scott Mautz, author of Find the Fire: Ignite Your Inspiration and Make Work Exciting Again, seconds this advice. Mautz says a high-potential employee is someone who can get other people on board with their vision and motivate others to stay on-task.
During an interview, notice who persuades you. Do any of the candidates strike you as someone who makes you want to join their team? If so, they’ve definitely got potential.
Gregg Lederman, founder and CEO of Brand Integrity, notes that employees with high social intelligence are often more engaged at work, especially in a workplace that involves a lot of peer interaction and team projects, as many independent agencies do. An engaged employee’s enthusiasm is contagious, Lederman says, so key in on any candidate who is engaged and enthusiastic about the purpose of their work.
Alongside engagement is accountability. Engaged employees want to take on more tasks, which means they risk making more mistakes. Accountability is therefore quite important, and it’s actually a fairly rare trait: Many people can be self-motivated to do their best work because it’s part of how they gain self-respect, but fewer people take themselves to task for mistakes and make rectifying those mistakes part of their self-evaluation.
While this sense of personal responsibility is easiest to see on the job, CBAC CEO Andrew Cravenho recommends that you listen for accountability statements during an interview. When a candidate talks about mistakes or problems at in a previous role, do they take any responsibility for them?
Try to ask open-ended questions about accountability. That will help you avoid leading the interviewee to the answers you’re looking for.
Actions, not words, often reveal even more about how much candidates hold themselves accountable. Do they run a volunteer team at a local organization? Are they a teacher or instructor of some kind? At TinyPulse, Justin Reynolds writes that someone willing to jump at one kind of leadership opportunity may well have leadership potential across the board.
Step 2: Cast Your Hiring Nets a Little Wider
Don’t limit yourself to the potential hires in your immediate area. Write job ads that target people in other cities who find small towns appealing.
You can certainly appeal to your town’s charm, but Dale Winston and Terry Gallagher at executive search firm Battalia Winston recommend going a step further by making the town part of your company’s brand. Understand what makes your town’s culture unique, the things that set it apart from bigger cities in a positive way, and be clear about these features in your job ad.
Those selling points aren’t always obvious. If there aren’t nature trails or a thriving art scene you can hang your hat on, though, Clinton Brown, a placement lead for professional recruitment company Experis, notes you can always point to living costs, school rankings and other quality-of-life metrics that set your town apart.
Likewise, don’t limit yourself to candidates with specific experiences. Brandi Temple, founder and CEO of Lolly Wolly Doodle, says too many business owners fall into the trap of pigeonholing applicants. Make a point of interviewing people who have skills that might be suited for multiple roles, then let that person grow into one or two roles that fit best.
If you’re still struggling to fill roles, it could be time to start offering referral bonuses. Kathryn Hawkins, a writer at the Quickbooks Resource Center, explains how rewarding referrals has lead to cohesive teams for Intel. Every time an employee refers a candidate who ultimately gets hired, the referring employee can choose a $1,000 prize. This way, Intel routinely hires highly skilled employees and spends less time searching for them.
Be mindful that some candidates will be tepidly interested in the position but might still have some reservations about the role. For example Tim Heard at TechRepublic notes many people are hesitant to move to a small town because they’re afraid of becoming isolated socially, that there won’t be any long-term career prospects, and that relocation would be expensive.
Address those concerns head on: If your company can pay relocation costs, or if there is a thriving social scene that isn’t apparent at first blush, mention this during the recruitment process.
When hiring someone online, there isn’t always a clear time and place for these conversations. That’s why Eli Martin at Talent Zoo recommends hosting the interview in person, and combine that conversation with a tour of the town. Think from the candidate’s perspective: If they were to build a life here, would their children have good schools to go to? Would the neighborhood be safe? Does your workplace have the flexibility in scheduling that’s so important to young parents?
If your answers are yes, yes and yes, make sure your best candidates know.
Step 3: Mentor, Mentor, Mentor
Mentoring employees can take many forms. Some agents take on the role of mentor in an ad hoc way, and others’ agencies have dedicated mentoring programs.
Dedicated mentoring programs, where existing employees are matched with newcomers, can help employees transition into their roles. The key is to set out specific, achievable goals for the mentor-mentee relationship, researcher Lauren Trees writes. That way, you can strategically match your existing team members with newcomers.
Here are a couple of ways this can work:
Francis Enimil Ashun recommends identifying what skills a new hire might be missing and focus the training on building those skills. If a particular skill proves challenging, a mentor can focus on troubleshooting the obstacles to mastery and emphasizing additional practice.
- Having a two-way skills swap. This is sometimes called reverse mentoring, and it can be especially useful when new employees have skills from a totally different field, Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd write in the Harvard Business Review. While a novice agent might have to learn the ropes regarding, say, making cold calls to get sales, they might bring with them smart marketing skills that can help you grow your business in new ways.
Analyst Meghan Biro emphasizes the importance of being open to negotiating the nature of mentorship at your company. Ask yourself: What are the new employees saying they need? What do the senior employees feel they can handle? By being open to various answers to these questions, you will be better able to craft a mentorship program that works for your team.
Finally, establish guidelines that set expectations for everyone in a mentor-mentee program. For example, Susan M. Heathfield recommends not giving every senior staff person mentorship responsibilities. Some senior employees might be great at their jobs, but not-so-great at the communication skills necessary to teach well, or the time-management skills they’ll need to take on mentoring in addition to their regular work.
At the end of the day, running a business in a small market has some unique challenges. But with some creative recruitment strategies, interviews with an eye for potential rather than skills and a culture of mentorship in the workplace, those challenges can become genuine assets.
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