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When does an Agency need a ‘people expert’?

Published on Friday, 22nd July 2016

A number of people and HR issues were discussed at Bristol Media’s first business breakfast at the end of June. The owners of sixteen creative agencies shared their thoughts on recruitment and selection, retention, employee engagement and the benefits of part-time HR support - with the consensus that an external perspective can bring huge value.

As a freelance HR consultant myself, this resonates with what I have noticed working with growing creative businesses. There comes a point where an outside view moves from a ‘nice to have’ to a business necessity. People are the glue within successful agencies so their development and retention is just too important to leave to chance.

But, as a business owner, how do you decide when to call in the people experts? What are the signs to spot?

In my experience, the following are typical situations where your creative business would benefit from experienced external HR involvement. See if you agree with me.

  1. You have HR admin - but no ‘people plan’

As businesses grow they realise they need someone to ‘do the HR stuff’. This is often payroll, raising recruitment specs and issuing contracts. All important things that need to be done. The danger is that, as the business continues to grow there is a perception that they ‘have HR covered’. But what happens when you can’t attract enough good quality candidates and your best people start to leave - what happens then? Where is the ‘people plan’?

Businesses need a plan to look after their people, engage them and retain talent. It doesn’t happen by chance. An MD needs a confidante - someone who has already managed the issues that come with a growing “creative” business and can give the benefit of their advice. Policies need to be embedded and people’s reasons for leaving need to be listened to and lessons learned. But there is often a misconception that this advice is hard to acquire - and that it involves an expensive hire. It doesn’t. Experienced HR advice can be sought for just a couple of days a month; advice that will resolve those problems, leaving business owners more time to focus on their clients and growth.

2) External focus on delivery leaves internal gaps in people skills and career planning

People within creative businesses, particularly the founders, are often driven by ideas and innovation and externally focused on delivery and client relationships. They are not always equipped for managing people or even sure of the career paths that their best people will take - often because the business hasn’t the time to look inwards.

An experienced HR consultant can help with leadership coaching and management skills and, if there are key people that need career planning, we can bring external perspective on how career development needs can be met.

3) Promoting people into the wrong roles - or at the wrong time

Just because someone is good at the job they do - should they be a manager? A typical scenario is the talented designer who is asked to run a studio. The skills that make them a great designer might not be right for leading others. Even worse, the creative output so essential to the business might suffer as they struggle to cope.

An experienced HR consultant can help newly promoted creative people become more productive at both managing others and still bringing out the best in their own output. What’s more, if you are looking at future promotions we can help identify the competencies required so that the people in future managerial roles can actually manage and are promoted on merit.

4) Staff turnover increases and attracting new talent becomes a challenge

Turnover always happens - but high turnover is dangerous and is more likely if the above points are not addressed. It costs money, loses the very people that attracted clients and thus breaks continuity and relationships. Clients walk too. Yet high turnover is often seen as the norm in the creative world as ‘part of our market’. It doesn’t have to be so disruptive.

A retention strategy based on understanding the dynamics and people involved is a necessity. An external consultant is best placed to do that, especially in a smaller business. We can help you discover what really engages (or turns off) your people - and give you impartial feedback. And, when people do leave they’ll often give an honest reason - good or bad - but they need to be asked!

5) Lack of your own employer brand

External focus on client strategising and branding often means there is little time to consider your own brand - particularly the employer brand. It’s a classic scenario of the builder’s house always needing the most work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day - but a good employer brand would, or should, be a powerful means to retain your talent - and attract others.  It is all about identifying why the good people should come and work for you and getting that message out into the market.

Having asked the questions and discovered what really engages your best people, an experienced HR consultant can help you bridge the divide that can emerge between ‘management’ and creatives as the business grows. A good employer brand is about behaviour as much as ‘look and feel’. Make an effort to communicate the good things about working in your business internally and externally - and your employer brand will resonate with staff and impress your clients.

In conclusion

The above people issues all have the capacity to damage the business if neglected. Getting someone in on a part time basis is a cost effective way of doing this. 

If you are considering external HR support, it’s important to find someone who not only understands HR but also the creative environment with all the personality dynamics at play.

Based in Bristol, you can find out more about us on our Bristol Media page.  If youd like a chat about any employee engagement unication issues in your business, please drop me a line and get in touch.

Email: Richard Roberts