real-humans_robot-workersI recently interviewed three different entrepreneurs for my column. The subject was, ‘New techniques for attracting and retaining top talent.’

You’ll have to read my column for the full report, but all three executives shared the same belief: small, start-ups run rings around larger competitors because there’s no compartmentalizing at the former. Hence employees can learn ALL aspects of the business.

Entrepreneurs expect their employees to wear multiple hats, perform simultaneous tasks and uniformly bask in the heady glow of success or learn from a failure.

Each entrepreneur told me their single biggest hiring mistake was recruiting someone from a larger competitor. Why? Because the slower-moving, bureaucratic-dependent hires expected other employees to do their bidding.

They also came fully equipped with inter-office political backstabbing skills that wreaked havoc in the smaller cultures.

I can relate. We’ve made the mistake of hiring employees from, say, Hill & Knowlton, FH or Edelman and, almost without exception, the employees have flamed out because they were highly compartmentalized.

For example, they may have been great at managing a large group of people, but we incorrectly assumed the big agency managers would also be comfortable enough to pick up their own phone, roll up their sleeves or, gulp, produce a bead of sweat from working hard.

My favorite example of big agency compartmentalization came a few weeks after we’d hired a ‘Burson Person.’

We seemed to hit it off in the interview so, ‘Mary’ turned to me for questions during her first week of employment at Peppercomm.

On her second day, she called me and asked: “Say, Steve, I have a question. Neither the organization chart nor the phone directory lists a head of research. Can you tell me her name?”

After digesting that question, I responded by saying, “You’re speaking to her!”

There was a long, pregnant pause, followed by this astute observation, “You mean you run the agency AND the research department?”

I told her everyone ran the agency and the research department. In fact, everyone did everything else too.

This brave, new work world didn’t sit well with the Burson person. “Look, I want to do the best job possible, and I need a support structure to enable me to do that,” she stated.

I chuckled, and sighed, “Mary, I think the two of us made a big mistake.” And, sure enough, good ol’ Mary was gone within a month.

Like the three entrepreneurs I interviewed for, I don’t stress when it comes to attracting, and retaining, talent (indeed, 41 percent of our 100-plus employees have been with us five years or more!).

Great entrepreneurial shops such as Coyne, PadillaCRT and Airfoil provide exponentially more career opportunities than our aircraft-carrier sized holding company competitors (a story that PR Week’s Steve Barrett and The Holmes Report’s Paul Holmes always seem to overlook for some reason).

On, and guess what? Peppercomm has grown so much in the past few years that we now DO have a research department. I’d like to think wherever she is,  Mary would be relieved to know that.

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