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Engagement special: Jason Holt on what engagement means to SMEs

In the second of our five-day Engagement Special, we catch up with founder of jewellery company Holts Group and founder of the not-for-profit social enterprise Holt's Academy of Jewellery, Jason Holt (pictured).

What does engagement mean to you?

If I'm honest, it's only a term I know because of my review into making apprenticeships more accessible to small and medium size businesses. I wouldn't expect my average employee to use the term or even to know what it means.

Is engagement a size issue?

In my mind, engagement has nothing to do with size; it's more an attitude of mind. We're about 100 people, but we're lucky in the sense that we're four mini-businesses in one, and no team has more than 30 to 40 people. In that way we avoid some of the issues that larger organisations have.

But would you agree that small businesses in general are less clear about the concept of engagement?

I spoke to more 100 small businesses in the process of writing my review, and while they may not all have used the term engagement, they were very clearly split into two types: those who want to foster and bring energy into their businesses - and they attributed their success to this - and those who do not. Those in the 'we're-too-busy-to-think-about-engagement-or-apprentices' camp clearly don't think it's for them, although I suspect they're aware they are probably missing out on something. It takes a lot of hand-holding to push apprenticeships and staff engagement through a business.

What other barriers do you feel exist when businesses think about engagement?

The language itself is very corporate. All SMEs, by definition, are flexible and agile. I think there's a feeling that engagement shouldn't be about 'policy', but that it should be more about meeting the needs of the organisation's workforce - by whatever means they feel is fit.

Does that mean engagement in SMEs depends on the personality of the leader?

It's a good question. I think the culture of this company does flow from me. The way we are is the way I am. But we're not unique, as many businesses are the embodiment of their bosses. Doug Richards [former Dragons' Den dragon] calls me an 'extremist' because before I set up my own training academy, I was fed up of not having young recruits who were fit for purpose. But I think that's why the personality of businesses is still important. My father, who's 90 now, set up the only stone-cutting apprenticeships in the UK when he was in business. The way I conduct my business now is really just through learning from him. I picked up a lot by osmosis at the dinner table.

So how should SME owners think about engaging their staff?

I think it revolves around a simpler concept: how can people think beyond today? I would say this, but it's a strategy that has to include apprenticeships. We're not too small for involving our staff in the business, and supporting them with fun stuff, such as taking them to gem shows in France or on team skiing. We work hard and play hard. That boosts buy-in from employees.

And when do you think you'll have to hand over the engagement reins to a dedicated HR function?

That's very prescient. I've never had a business that's so large I don't know everyone by name, but my apprenticeships trainer was only recently saying he used to know all the students really well, but now he doesn't. I know people say the magic number is 50 to 100 staff for when you need to start thinking about having HR. Until now, I've made sure I've surrounded myself with people who know what to do. But yes, at some stage, a formalised HR function probably needs to come on board. It could be in the next 12 months, but it needs to happen so that it's non-corporate.