Mitch Cohen is the co-founder and CEO of The Moresby Group, a values-driven company which helps organizations manage their supply chains.
When my partner and I started The Moresby Group a few years ago, we weren’t sure that it would be a success. We were willing to roll the dice and assume the risk of failure ourselves, but we weren’t comfortable with others taking on that risk.
So initially we shied away from hiring permanent employees, opting instead to hire short-term temporary employees. Our mindset was this: If we failed in our business, at least we would not have failed in our promise to our people. In our first six months, we hired more than 20 temporary employees.
We hoped these employees could enable us to scale up and down according to client work demands. We reasoned that if we got good at hiring and onboarding temporary employees, we could ramp up our staff during busy times and then ramp down when things were slow.
That plan failed miserably. In hindsight, there are several reasons for this.
First, hiring quality employees on a temporary basis proved difficult. In today’s tight labour market, you rarely find the cream of the crop applying for temporary jobs. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but not enough to tie the success of a business to a temp-centric strategy.
Secondly, recruiting and onboarding took up too much time. Even when we did manage to find great folks, it took an incredible amount of time to onboard and train them (we’re talking months). And they would be gone in two or three months – sooner if they found a permanent home. The frequent onboarding and offboarding of staff ended up becoming a huge distraction at a time when we needed to be laser-focused on delivering our service to prove our business model.
Last, our No. 1 priority always has been building a great place to work. That was virtually impossible with people coming and going on a weekly basis. The team lacked cohesion, never got into an effective communication or collaboration groove, and always felt a bit on edge. Our culture was not good.
Think of how people behave at home versus how they behave at a hotel. Surely, you’ll exchange a few words over the hedge with your next-door neighbour, maybe drop off a bottle of wine to say thank you for picking up your mail during a vacation. But when was the last time you felt any kinship or responsibility for the random person staying in the room next to yours in a hotel? Similarly, our temporary employees were not engaging with each other in any meaningful way.
The most important thing we learned during those first six months was that building a great place to work, and enabling individuals to be successful, requires a full and unequivocal long-term commitment from both the employer and employee. As an employer, if you want the very best people, you must be willing to invest in developing them. There is no such thing as a turnkey “A player.” If you, as an employer, do make that long-term commitment, you can expect to have a staff made up of elite individuals who are committed to the organization’s mission and culture, and who truly operate as a unified team. That’s the formula for building a great place to work.
Fast forward to today. We now hire only full-time employees – people we invest in, and who, in turn, are fully invested in what we’re building together. We have half the employees we had at our peak, and objectively deliver double the output. And more important than that, we were just named to Canada’s 2019 list of Best Workplaces in Professional Services.
We screwed up at first, but luckily we had the opportunity to course correct. Could we have predicted this? Probably. Any which way, I’d encourage you to learn from our mistakes. Every entrepreneur will make mistakes, lots of them. But hopefully you’ll make new mistakes, and not repeat ours.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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