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Hire experience, or train a junior? It's all about you

When a small business is in its infancy, it is often lacking an experienced leader at the helm.

This was certainly true in my case. I started my first business based on a connection I saw between my skilled trade and a market opportunity – not because I had any experience running a business of any size. I had none.

So, when it came time to start to expand my business by hiring employees, what it needed was something I lacked: experienced management. What the business could afford, however, was something else entirely.

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Given the limited resources available at my fledgling startup, if I was going to get any help at all, it had to be of the minimum-wage variety. That meant, if I was lucky, I'd get an entry-level staffer with a great attitude and passion for my industry and the work. I wasn't going to get experienced leadership.

And so it was that I learned the value of hiring a junior person and teaching him my trade, the way I wanted my business to run and how I wanted my customers to be treated. I shared as I learned new skills along the way.

As my business grew, I jumped at my first opportunity to hire an employee who had similar training to me in my field, but his education and work experience in our field was more advanced. I thought it would be a home run. It wasn't.

Instead of the new hire hitting the ground running, we found our approaches to the craft we practiced very different. I was insistent – as you might be when your name is on the door and you are trying to build a business that can grow and maintain consistency – that my standards be universal.

Instead of twice the output, I got twice the headaches, as we bumped heads and spent, in my opinion, far too much time debating approaches and theories, rather than executing them.

What I took away from that experience, and still believe to this day, is that hiring a junior staffer and training him or her in the way you want the business operated can be very rewarding for both parties. You get the consistency in operating procedures and attitudes and they get a chance for work experience, a career and advancement.

There is however, a major caveat in this example. I was sharing a skill I already had and opinions about business aspects I already understood, had practiced (meaning I had made my share of mistakes), and refined. This would not always be possible, as I would soon find out.

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In a subsequent business of a much more capital-intensive and technically complex nature, hiring juniors was not an option. I needed engineers, industrial designers and graphic artists. None of these skills are in my humble educational portfolio, so I had to hire experience. I also had to make sure I had the resources to pay for that experience.

It worked. I knew what I wanted from these technical wizards, but I didn't know how to get there on my own. My vision and their experience turned out to be a fine combination.

My takeaway from all this: The decision about whether to hire experience or train a junior is mostly about you. In areas of business where you have great confidence, opinions and methodologies that you know will work, hiring a junior person and training him or her to execute, while adding their own suggestions, is extremely rewarding.

If the business needs skills that you lack and need guidance and direction, an experienced manager or technician is surely your best route to success.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and sold seven businesses.

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