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Picture: 123RF/scyther5
Picture: 123RF/scyther5

What do you have to do to get a job in a start-up? I was thinking about this in a job-readiness workshop at a local church, and hearing how discouraging it is to keep sending CVs to companies that don’t want you. I have recruited for large organisations and for my own small businesses, and know that small entrepreneurial firms select employees very differently from how big established firms do.

Because large organisations receive thousands of applications, they have a process led by human resources (HR) to sift them and only take seriously the few who meet all the specifications. To do this, they create job descriptions and person specifications and convert them into job adverts, screening, and interview schedules. The manager with the vacancy may sign off the advert at the beginning, and at the end may be included in the panel to interview the shortlist.

This process allows relatively junior staff to sift through the pile of applications by comparing them with the job spec. To avoid bias they apply the spec consistently and mechanically. Those applications that do not meet all the specs are discarded, while the survivors are scored to identify three or four to be interviewed.

So to get into an interview, applicants have to ensure that their CV and covering letter are perfect, and perfectly consistent with the advertised criteria. That is why some well qualified, wonderful people never get jobs — among the thousands, their CVs are just not as impressive, or miss some point in the specification. Sad.

Small start-ups don’t have HR and don’t have policies or processes for recruiting people. That can be awful — the founder meets a smooth talker at a party and hires them on the spot. Or it can be wonderful — the founder picks out the very best from their great network of people who know the industry, pays them whatever is needed to attract them, and the business booms.

So for getting into small owner-managed firms, the CV is far less important than meeting the owner. Your network is really important.

Hiring people is a big deal for entrepreneurs. On the one hand they know they need staff to grow, and they need skills and experience that are not in the company. Often they are bored stiff by some parts of running the business, and need to return to the things that ignite the passion that led them to start their business.

On the other hand, because they generally do not have a pile of cash to pay you, they won’t want you unless you can convince them you will add far more value than you will cost. They may be scared of bringing an outsider into a responsible position, where a careless person could wreck the company through compromising on quality, being rude to customers, treating other staff badly so key personnel leave, not containing costs, stealing intellectual property or simply stealing money.

This means that if you want a big position in a promising small company, you need an impeccably honest record. You need to demonstrate that you can offer tangible economic value and not destroy the intangible culture of the company. You need to convince the owner that you will do whatever it takes legally to make the business thrive, at whatever personal cost. But you also need to convince the owner that you are not there just for your own benefit, to take the expertise and network you gain and start your own business in competition. And it really helps if you like each other.

That means that just as entrepreneurs are extraordinary people, so are the senior staff in a small venture. That will make a good topic for a further column.

• Jonathan Cook chairs the African Management Institute.

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