Growing a strong social enterprise team in the Pacific

As a social enterprise, growing and managing a strong team can be one of the most challenging parts of building a successul business, but it can also be a key way to build long term resilience.

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The founders of small businesses have to juggle a lot. When you start your entrepreneurial journey you are often the cleaner, the delivery driver, the marketing manager and the bookkeeper. But as you grow, one of the hardest challenges thrust upon you is as human resources manager. 


Unless you’re lucky enough to have some background in this area, managing other people is something that many business owners find themselves doing without much support or previous experience.


You might have a fantastic business model, unmet demand and the numbers to show you that it makes sense to grow. But scaling your business as a small enterprise is tough – because it is often difficult to replicate the lean, agile, flexible team and group dynamics of a 3-5 person team – into a 10-20 person team. 


Doubling your team, doesn’t necessarily mean double the output – and it definitely means a LOT more administration for someone in your organisation. And as the founder, letting go and relinquishing some of that control is a tough process. Delegating can be hard, and whilst people know in their head that micro-management is a real motivation sapper, it can often be difficult to support your team to understand your expectations of them. 


And in a small business, you might also be managing your own family members or friends. This can be tough anywhere, but in small Pacific communities where relationships are key to everything, your work relationships cannot always be boxed into a clean ‘work only’ relationship box. 


We caught up with a number of enterprises trying to do just that and heard about some of their challenges and solutions. 


Fanny Fiteli from Mamas Mushrooms shared that she recently had to fire her husband from his role as a driver. ‘He wasn’t following the rules so we had to find a new role for him!’.


‘As the founder, I realise that sometimes I’m racing ahead, and I’ve had the conversations in my head but not with my husband. So I often have to back track a bit and take things one step at a time to make sure we’re both on the same page. 


This can be a common issue for husband and wife founders and can sometimes confuse the teams around them. Nina from Kahuto shared that her husband and co-founder can often give their team mixed messages. ‘I’m a stickler for processes – perhaps that’s the German in me! And my partner is a bit more flexible, which can be a bit confusing in providing the right structure for the team’ she shared.


In reflecting on management styles, Nakita from Tasty Island Treats shared ‘I’m pretty easy going and often really flexible with my staff – if they have a family emergency, I put the burden on my family to meet their needs. And I need to find the right balance’.


All business owners know that their employees are never going to share the same passion and desire for their businesses as they do. So the issue of staff motivation is something that everyone grapples with. 


‘We’ve found that some of the ‘imported’ solutions to human resource management such as anonymous staff surveys or equity offerings don’t really work. I sent around a staff survey and got two responses. People are not always comfortable sharing their thoughts in a formal structured way, and perhaps a more Pacific approach such as moderated talanoa sessions might be more appropriate.’ shared Sam Sailii from SkyEye. He joked that perhaps getting one of the Fiji enterprises to facilitate the process would work as someone that understood the Pacific but is not immediately connected to their business in Samoa. ‘We’ve also tried equity offerings to improve staff motivation, but found that no one was particularly interested. It’s important that in providing mentoring support to businesses in the Pacific that experts have an understanding of the context.’


So what has worked?

Examining the different areas you need in order to grow and looking at options of using contracted service providers to look after some of the administrative, sales and marketing aspects of the business is one option to manage the growth phase without committing to recruiting additional employees. 


Several entrepreneurs shared that various approaches that they’ve used to help staff identify and propose solutions to problems work as a way to generate motivation and help staff feel like a valued part of the company. Where they generate the ideas, they have more ownership and more motivation and pride to see them realised. 


Nina from Kahuto Pacific shared that using tools such as Trello or Air Table at team meetings can help to stimulate ideas from the whole team and help them to feel part of the decision making process. 


Keeping communication going with partners, supplies and vendors is also critical. Regular check-ins can help to address problems before they arise and keep relationships strong. 

Where supplies or partners have achieved success, sharing that can also generate a sense of pride and confidence. But Fanny also shared a note of caution, in that she works with various marginalised women and has to ensure that any vulnerable groups are also protected. 


There is no one size fits all and the solutions to managing a growing team will vary depending on the nature of the business, types of roles that could be performed by third party service providers, the cash flow and finance situation of the business. 


But there were some areas that were consistently raised as critical, regardless of circumstances.


  • Help staff to understand their role in the business and to see the impact of the work they do
  • Be consistent with procedures – and ensure that any family members involved in managing staff jointly are on the same page as each other
  • Analyse any solutions from outside the region carefully to ensure they fit within the Pacific context
  • Find ways to let go – micro management is frustrating for both employees and employers. If your expectations are not being met, try a different approach to communicating them or identify if there’s a different role that person could help with. 
  • Find ways to communicate with your team, buyers and suppliers regularly to understand their needs and build trust.


Author: Marita Manley (Talanoa Consulting)