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Why Startups Have to Think Differently About Their Skills Gap

Lisa Unwin

Lisa Unwin is cofounder of U.K.-based She’s Back, which helps women build careers with a focus on work–family balance and advises companies on how to attract and retain more women. 

 
Deborah Khan

Deborah Khan is cofounder of She’s Back.

 

Often, as a startup picks up steam, its leaders are suddenly faced with the frightening reality that a huge skills gap exists in their ranks. The company might have dedicated coders, busy salespeople, and a growing order book, but no one keeping an eye on day-to-day operations.

Take Marcus Wildsmith, cofounder of Cutover, a software-as-a-service company that helps firms make big IT changes. He, along with his cofounders, had managed the company through two fintech accelerator programs, secured second-round funding and six multinational clients, and moved the company into dedicated offices near Silicon Roundabout in London. The team, predominantly men, was up to 16 people, most of whom had been attracted by word-of-mouth, and everyone was consumed with the technology and new business. They were stretched for time and money in a highly competitive environment with a relentless schedule, and they needed someone to manage their operations.

“We’re at the stage of growth now,” Wildsmith told us at the time, “where we really need to make sure our core business processes are in order. We still need to be focused on the technology and business development. We have plenty of technical skills on the team, but it feels as though we are ready for a quasi-COO. But we need to be careful we don’t burn too much cash too quickly, and it doesn’t feel like a full-time role right now.”

Usually in these cases, leaders see two choices. Option one is recruiting an established COO. Hiring someone with direct experience would, of course, have been a safe move for Wildsmith in some respects. To lure a qualified person away from his or her more stable job, however, he would have had to pay a premium, probably give away some equity, and spend as much as 20 percent in recruiter fees. Realistically, the total cost of hiring and paying a salary for the first year alone would have been well into six figures. Plugging the numbers into the cash-flow forecast didn’t make for happy reading.

Then there’s option two: Hire someone who hasn’t yet reached management level. In Wildsmith’s case, that might have been an accountant or management consultant who had seen how things work in large organizations, was keen to work odd hours, and just needed a little supervision. Or a lot. That’s the risk. At startups, time rivals cash for its scarcity, and leaders need an independent thinker — one who isn’t afraid to share ideas and is able to contribute on Day One.

But Wildsmith recognized a third option in the overlooked pool of women who have taken a break from professional life and now want to return to the workplace. These are women with all the experience he was looking for; who will work hard to get the job done, whether in the office from 9 to 5 or remotely at their own hours; and who are cost-effective. Some are seeking part-time work and others, because they don’t come directly from the C-suite, won’t cost six figures. They have experience delivering work, managing projects, developing and leading people, selling, and managing risk, but are now struggling to return to meaningful work simply because of a gap on their resumes. And to be sure, it’s not just startups that can benefit from recognizing this group. The looming skills gap is a critical problem for both large and budding businesses, and no one can afford to ignore such a rich talent source.

Enter Emma. Prior to taking a three-year break, she had a varied career. She got a master’s degree in organizational psychology and began her career in HR before moving to a specialist management consulting firm, focusing on the program management of large construction projects. Emma’s career took another twist when she was recruited to join the M&A team of a pan-European consulting firm. Over her 15-year career, she had built up plenty of experience in leading people, developing teams, managing core business processes, and seeing major projects through to implementation — all valuable skills for a growing business like Cutover.

Cutover hired Emma as its business manager, saving money by finding someone who wasn’t at the executive level, and time by hiring someone with years of experience who didn’t require much guidance. And they made another important step to ensuring the long-term success of his business. The team now counted a woman among its senior leaders. This was important to Wildsmith, he said, because “if everything goes to plan, I’m going to have to keep hiring. And some of the best candidates out there will be women. We are committed to creating a diverse senior management team, and this presented a great opportunity to address the early imbalance.”

The looming skills gap is a critical problem for both large and budding businesses.

For Emma, and other returners like her, this was just the opportunity she was looking for: The position allows her to make an impact at a place where her past experience is recognized and respected. Wildsmith also understands that although Emma is committed to delivering, she doesn’t need to be bound to the office all day, every day. Because of operating costs and the ease of technology-enabled communication, Wildsmith actually prefers she not be in the office 24/7. Emma gets the flexible schedule and the salary she needs, and the company gets a valuable team member.

In a competitive environment with little spare time and cash, companies need to think creatively about where they find and how they deploy skilled people. The talent pool of returning women is an option companies can no longer afford to overlook.

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Why Startups Have to Think Differently About Their Skills Gap