How to get the most out of your ‘NEFer’ – managing young entrepreneurs

Last month we held a reception for this year’s NEF Host Companies, a formidable group of entrepreneurial, high growth, innovative companies who are hosting our NEF Class of 2014 (aka ‘NEFers’). We invited these movers and shakers to meet each other and hear from some of last year’s host companies about what they’d learnt and how to get the best out of their NEFer and the wider NEF network.

Below are the notes we took from the event. While some of them are very ‘NEF specific’ we wanted to share them anyway – there might be something relevant for anyone managing someone entrepreneurial in their business.

Our panelists were:

Neil Garner, Founder & CEO, Proxama (Host Company 2013)
Nick Thornhill, Acquisition & Retention Director, Seatwave (Host Company 2012, 2013 & 2014)
Benj Chilcott, Managing Partner Global, Iris Concise (Host Company 2013)
James Uffindell, Founder & CEO, Bright Network (Host Company 2013 & 2014)
Matt Thomas, COO, (Host Company 2012, 2013 & 2014)

And this is what they said:

Firstly, treat them as you would any other employee…

  • The NEFers contract with you not NEF, although we do ask them to sign a pledge so follow your normal review/monitoring processes.
  • Take time to understand your NEFer and their individual make-up, their skill-set and personalities. NEF Note: This will determine whether you give your NEFer ‘sink/swim projects’ or more of a ‘base grounding’ or ‘grass roots up’ experience. 
  • Invest in them but accept that they may leave in a couple of years (as would any other ambitious employee). NEF Note: For the past 2 years nearly all NEFers have been offered full time roles at their host companies. Approximately 50% choose to stay beyond the initial 12 month contract.

And try and do the following for NEFers so that you get the most out of them and so that they learn as much as possible…

  • Stretch them: give them ownership on projects as much as possible e.g. a sink/swim project
  • Unleash their entrepreneurialism: allow them to take risks, be creative, run with things. Panellists found that this was when their NEFers worked the hardest
  • Set the bar high: NEFers have been selected from 1000 applications, have been through a rigorous process and will expect to work hard on challenging projects. However, don’t put them on a pedestal. (NEF note: Temper this with regular, honest feedback, see below)
  • Give them extra exposure (to yourself as founder/CEO) and other areas of the business so they can see how to run growing businesses and discover hidden talents. If possible, have them attend Board meetings so they can see the inner workings of a company.
  • Feed their thirst for knowledge: NEFers are by nature hungry for knowledge and keen to go the extra mile. It can be a challenge to manage this level of energy. Try and get something in the diary when they can pick your brain on wider business matters as well as their day job
  • Give direct feedback: NEFers are doing the programme to learn and develop while working for a company. Tell them straight what they’re doing well and what they need to work on.
  • Make the most of the training they are receiving: the day after monthly NEF training days ask them to talk about what they’ve learnt. This is useful on number of levels: it helps them to process and re-learn what they’ve been doing in workshops; it also reassures colleagues that they’ve been out working hard, and it disseminates knowledge throughout your entire company to others who may also find it very useful.
  • Manage expectations: the competitive selection process and positioning of NEF means that the final cohort who have made it feel special. They are an accomplished group but may not know what they don’t know about business in general, let alone your business. It is a fine balance between keeping this confidence and optimism “in check” and encouraging them to flourish and be entrepreneurial. There is no right answer and it may take time for you both to find (and negotiate!) a workable balance.
  • Come to NEF events and make the most of the network! The NEF network is extensive and includes corporates, entrepreneurs, investors, our alumni, thought leaders. (NEF note: As host companies you are welcome to have 2 places at our monthly events)