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‘Large company man’…a role in start-ups?

Authored by Karl Simpson

(A perspective from start-up world)

‘Large company man’ is an expression I’ve always viewed as an interesting one. What are people actually saying about the anointed person when they brand them in this way? Is it that the person is seen as someone who has achieved great things and is therefore in a privileged position to work for one of the blue-chip conglomerates who have a history of hiring smart people, or are they saying something entirely different?

Increasingly, in a world still effervescing about the ‘zero-to-hero’ entrepreneurship that defined the late nineties where two guys or girls in a garage could change the world and make themselves rich in the process, I sense the meaning of this moniker has taken on a new perspective.

Today, it would seem that despite great leaps in defining the underlying professional competencies, skills, education and experience which define the human capital assets people possess, we are still very much inclined to label people or place them in pigeon-holes. This classifying of people is at the centre of many inaccurate assessments of talent and leads to prejudice of different types, particularly in areas of diversity. But here is the thing…it is also used to group people as to their suitability for prospective places of work.

Now, it is important to note, aligning people to the right culture of an employer is critically important. It is what enables the individual to feel comfortable in the workplace and give of their best, enjoy success and have an employer who is reaping the value that individual is creating. It is equally true that companies of different sizes and scale have characteristics which define them culturally, as would their geographical location or other environmentally impactful factors.

However, in its current context, the expression ‘large company man’ (or woman) seems to infer that the individual is in some way wholly reliant on the props of big companies in order to succeed. She needs complex organisational structures, resources, finance, large teams, lower personal risk etc…in order to succeed.

Large companies can be truly innovative and entrepreneurial places to work. Size, or lack of it, is not directly proportional to innovation. Innovation is the result of many confluent factors, such as the way in which collective bright minds are given freedom to think, invent and live at the edge of risk taking to make breakthroughs which can be further developed and commercialised. This is not the exclusive right of start-ups and emerging companies, innovation is what drives big companies as well as small. Sure, with scale comes limited agility, restricted ability to change direction rapidly to be more competitive or responsive to market opportunities. However, in many cases, innovation of certain technologies can only really be accomplished in environments of vast resources, human or otherwise.

The idea that people who have built their careers in the large company environment are in some way obsolete for small start-ups is simply wrong. These are people of individual skills and experiences and must be measured as such. Of course, returning to the point earlier, people should be assessed to see if their individual capabilities and characteristics are synergistic with the profile of any prospective employer. In this evaluation it makes legitimate sense to test the individual’s attitudes towards risk, an ability to align to a company’s goals, to deal with operational ambiguity arising from rapidly changing outlooks, financial uncertainty, coping with resource constraints, manage effectively in a business as it transitions from an R&D culture towards greater commercial emphasis and so on. Similarly, do they share the vision of the start-up team and have they got the deep rooted passion that many start-up executives and entrepreneurs display. Many people coming from larger companies can exhibit the core entrepreneurial spirit needed to drive a small business. They can demonstrate flexibility and resourcefulness. They can also bring some of the substantial rigour a large company demands and this discipline, when selectively implemented in a small company, can be hugely valuable in rounding out a team.

Therefore it is too simple to categorise people as being ‘big company’ people. In truth, it is far more nuanced than this and instead relies upon the sophistication of the assessments and tools needed to make suitable judgements about how prepared a person is to make the expected contribution to your start-up venture. Finding people who can perform to their optimal level in a small start-up or young fledgling business is difficult. Too often people truly do not appreciate the herculean effort that building a business from the early stages requires; the sheer effort and tenacity demanded. Yet, this underestimation is identifiable in all people, even those who come from small companies. Pinpointing the DNA needed to work in start-ups is a rigorous process but it can and must encompass ‘big company man’, for he/she is unjustly branded and could often do as good a job as those with years of start-up experience.

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