Victoria MacLennan is managing director of Optimal BI, a business intelligence firm that analyses and reports on data generated by businesses. It currently has 14 employees based in Wellington.

What things are staff needing to learn when they start with you, and on an ongoing basis?

We employ for cultural fit, first. But our people, and people interested in working with us, need to have technical aptitude. We have a dedicated capability coach in our team so it's easy for us to be able support and coach people in areas they need to grow their strength in. We know that everyone in our business will eventually outgrow us - they won't work with us forever - so our coaching is targeted around helping people get to where they want to go. And often this growth in skills and capabilities end up in new service opportunities for us, too.

Can you talk about a particular initiative the company has introduced to train staff?

Our preference is to work towards a long-term plan for our people. Each year we ask each member of our team to pick a thing they will be an expert in, give us a plan or a roadmap to how they might achieve that, and then we can work with them to see what our investment will be to help make it happen. That investment might involve allocating them time, a mentor, some study, a secondment or a course - usually a whole range of things. The essence, for us, was to get away from the closed goals that most organisations set for their people. There's a huge disconnect on the difference between goals and training and it's not always about attending a course: 'Go on a course' is an action, not a goal.


What are some of the areas staff have undertaken to become experts in?

Last year one of our team became a certified data scientist. This is the highest certification in the data world; it's incredibly challenging and is achieved by university study and exams. She had a plan, we supported it, she did it. Another achievement was for one of our data miners. Typically this type of role is very analytics invested, but she wanted to develop her skills in telling visual stories from the data and now she is a brilliant infographic designer and our customers are delighted with our new infographic offering.

How has this approach benefited the business and its staff?

It has fostered a creative and innovative mindset. Our team really can do anything they put their minds to and this type of goal setting has proved that. It also allows flexibility in how we build our business as it's done now around our employees' expert goals; they tell us what they want to achieve rather than us telling them what they will be.

Have there been any challenges for the business in terms of implementing this initiative?

Encouraging our people to think beyond the short term. People who have come from control-and-command led organisations, will often ask what the budget is for an exercise like this. They think that expert goal setting means going on some courses, when actually it's about setting the goal then working out what it is that needs to be done to achieve it.

We've also had some robust conversations around what being an 'expert' means. We consider it a focused stretch towards a thing you want to become the best at; others think it's reaching world-leader or a top academic level of expertise. So getting on the same page can be difficult. We try to fix that with open discussion, and scaling the goal has also helped. Talking about different types of investments to fund a goal - it's not always cash - helps broaden the thought process, too.

Coming up in Small Business: Mentors can be a powerful source of wisdom and advice for small business owners. If you're a small business owner with a mentor who's made a big difference to your operation, please get in touch.