Beating big business for top talent

Small business will explode! Is your culture ready?

By Bob McKenzie

Many years ago, I saw a training video in which the moderator introduced himself as a “Futurist.” Instead of watching and listening to the video, my mind was then consumed by how I could get such a job. Now, about twenty years later, I remember the job title of the moderator, but nothing about the topic of the video. And with an extra twenty years of experience, I think I have a good idea of how the future of business will be.

The deep recession of the past five or six years has resulted in many businesses changing their direction or focus. “Too big to fail” is slowly but surely turning into “too big to work for.” Disenchanted with big business, many people are looking to either start their own business or work for smaller companies where their contributions are more visible. Many are staying away from the behemoth corporations all together. They are attracted to small firms where they have more of a feeling of being in control of their destiny. In addition, small business owners are typically much more passionate about their work, and put their heart and soul into it— every day of the week and every hour of the day. We all like to work for passionate people.

Therefore, my prediction is that small businesses will flourish, and we will see this change very soon. We are already seeing a significant uptick in small businesses being formed. Small businesses have always led in the creation of new jobs in the country, and they will be the catalyst that will drive the unemployment numbers down throughout the rest of the year and beyond.


Changes in the Demands of the Workforce It’s All About the People

Many think it is our product or service that generates money. Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s the people we employ who will make us succeed.  It’s about the culture of our organization; one that demands respect, open communications, and a little flexibility.  In today’s business world, employees will stay and grow with an organization where they feel comfortable, have fun, and enjoy a feeling of independence, while being a part of a team that contributes to the success of the organization.


A Little Wild and Crazy Will Succeed

Most of us have heard of Zappos. It is a web-based shoe and apparel seller. CEO Tony Hseih led Zappos to be a company with over a billion in sales in just ten years. In 2009, it was sold to for $1.2 billion. All of the credit for this amazing growth is given to the rather offbeat culture in which the employees have fun and are actually enthused about going to work every day. Take a look at the Zappos values that are listed directly on All of the people at Zappos live and work by these core values:


As we grow as a company, it has become more and more important to explicitly define the core values from which we develop our culture, our brand, and our business strategies. These are the ten core values that we live by:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning (
  6.  Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7.  Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8.  Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble


Zappos Value #2— Embrace and Drive Change

Here is an excerpt from Zappos’ explanation of this value:

“Although change can and will come from all directions, it’s important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up– from the people who are on the front lines and are closest to the customers and/or issues.

Never accept or be too comfortable with the status quo, because historically, the companies that get into trouble are the ones that aren’t able to respond quickly enough and adapt to change. We are ever evolving. If we want to stay ahead of our competition, we must continually change and keep them guessing. They can copy our images, our shipping, and the overall look of our website, but they cannot copy our people, our culture, or our service. As long as embracing constant change is a part of our culture, they will not be able to evolve as fast as we can.”

Read the last two paragraphs again and make sure all of the words sink in. Change is the key word here, and embracing change is critical for all employees. Without change, there is no progress. Resting on one’s laurels must be a thing of the past, as it will put you behind your competition. An atmosphere of continuous change will keep the competition wondering what you are doing.


Zappos Value #3— Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
When you go to Zappos’ HR page, this is the first thing you see:

“This ain’t your mama’s HR! Recruiting, Benefits, and Employee Relations keep this cruise ship afloat with fun, inventive ways of getting employees motivated and educated about the Zappos Family of Companies, their benefits, and the other fun stuff going on around here! They also take Core Value #3 very seriously.”

How many people can actually say they have fun at work?  Zappos is successful because of their culture and the willingness of all of their people to continually develop new and better ways of operating their business.


Fast and Furious Change

One obvious phenomenon is the lightning quick speed of change in today’s business world. Technical and social changes are made at an astounding rate.  This is another reason for small businesses to flourish. Changes must be made quickly. Companies that are too big to fail are also too big to change quickly. Who wants to work with a dinosaur company? It is amazing to know that many of those larger companies are still using DOS based computer programs. Too big to fail may also mean too expensive to make necessary changes.

The Solution— Ask Questions

It is time to take a good hard look at your company and answer these questions:

What is the “fun factor” at your place of work?

Is your culture one that engages employees continuously in your business results?

Are you stuck in top down business mentality that stifles creativity, teamwork, and open communication?

Do you really have open communications with your employees?

Can they speak to owners and managers about improvements in an open and honest way?

Do you have a set of values? If so, do they guide how you manage your business on a daily basis— or are they just a bunch of feel good words posted on your bulletin board?

Do your people work in a cubicle all day, being micromanaged?

Do you get the fact that your people are your only competitive advantage?

Tony Hseih gets it, and, more importantly, he got it over 15 years ago. Maybe his job title ought to be Futurist rather than CEO.


Stop Stereotyping

We often hear that this young generation, or Generation Y (or Generation Why?), does not have a good work ethic. This could not be further from the truth. All people, regardless of their age, will work hard when they like what they do. The thing that is different about this Generation Y is if they do not like what they are doing, they will quit. So, when they leave, say “thank you.” After all, why would you want someone who hates his or her job working for you?  And, if you have a high turnover, maybe you should take a look at how people are treated.

It’s going to be a different workforce, and the change will come quickly. Are you ready?

Only time will tell if I can truly be called a futurist.


Bob McKenzie is certified as a Senior Professional of Human Resources (SPHR) and has over 35 years of human resources management experience. He currently is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management and is actively involved in the Small Business Resource Network and other community organizations. He can be reached at


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