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What Is Your Company's Kentucky Derby? Establish company traditions to help you jockey for the best talent out there.

By Beth Miller Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Richard Mackson | USA TODAY Sports

Each year on the first Saturday of May, thousands of spectators head to Churchill Downs to experience the greatest two minutes in sports. This is the premier event to the other two Triple Crown races. But what made it the premier event?

My belief is that it's all about the traditions that have defined this most famous of American horse races. Without the mint juleps, big hats and roses, the Kentucky Derby race would be like any other.

Winning the war for talent today is something similar: Smaller startups have to find ways to distinguish themselves, set themselves apart, in the horse race that is entrepreneurship today. Traditions may be one of those ways.

Traditions can assist, for example, in attracting top talent, a critical factor for the success of small- and mid-size companies. In larger ones, ineffective employees can get away with becoming ghosts and disappear into the woodwork. But a smaller company won't survive with this type of employee. Smaller companies must attract and retain great talent to succeed against their competition.

Take time to consider the following two questions, which may help you determine if your company can attract and retain great employees:

1. What company traditions set you apart from your competitors?

This question should be easy to answer, but often business leaders have a difficult time answering it. Sometimes, the challenge is the fact that there are no traditions yet because your company is so young. The other difficulty is identifying the uniqueness within a tradition.

Accordingly, I suggest that leaders follow the Kentucky Derby formula as an easy way to start to answer the question above. Consider what triggers, symbols and activities make it a tradition.

Here are some additional questions:

  • What is the most special time of year for your company? Is it the beginning, when you celebrate the opportunity to start off fresh, or is it toward year's end when you celebrate your accomplishments?
  • What events throughout the year are important to celebrate, and why are they important? These might include the completion of a strategic project, the company's anniversary or remembrance of the company's founder.
  • What special symbols, like mint juleps or big hats, are incorporated into the event? This is where creativity comes in. If you are just in the early stages of launching an event which you hope becomes a tradition, involve your employees with this part of the process.

2. Are these traditions reinforcing your values and company culture?

When my husband and I were managing our consulting company, one of our core company values was family. In support of this value, a company tradition was our summer family picnic. It provided an opportunity for our employees' families to come together and connect family members at a time of year when children don't have after-school activities and the weather is great for being outdoors.

What values do you have that company traditions are helping you to strengthen and support? To find the answer, start by listing your values, then list your current traditions.

Which values do your traditions support? What changes could you make to those traditions to support your values? The entrepreneur/business owner should own this process because a company's values start from the top. Employees should be a part of the process, as well; it's a great way to connect and engage them.

Great and unique traditions, like the Kentucky Derby, which support your values will not only help retain talent but attract more of it to your organization in the future.

Beth Miller

Leadership Development Advisor, Speaker, Executive Coach

Beth Armknecht Miller is a certified managerial coach and founder of Executive Velocity Inc., a boutique firm offering talent management and leadership development solutions. She chairs a monthly Atlanta meeting for Vistage, a company that hosts advisory meetings for small business CEOs. Her latest book is Are You Talent Obsessed?

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