Barring two exceptions – MongoDB and Novasoft – all my career was spent working for really big companies . And all that time my client base was “large enterprise” – companies that operate in multiple countries , have multiple divisions , make billions of dollars of revenue and employ tens or hundreds of thousands of employees .
Over the last two decades , the biggest obstacle to career success that I have seen is the difficulty in navigating these large complex companies . It’s not just a career success problem – I have seen both my buy side and sell side analyst friends beating their heads against the wall on why “stupid decisions” are made by companies they cover. I have also seen sales and delivery people struggle navigating their client organizations which are large and complex.
Honestly , from time to time – I get frustrated with some inexplicable things about these companies too . And I get asked about these a lot by folks I mentor . And despite all these – I and many others have had good careers in this space . Size can be a significant advantage when used and understood right .
So here is an attempt to share some thoughts on this topic – and as always , strictly my personal opinion
The best way to describe life in a large company is “The Matrix Dysfunction” . This is also the working title of the autobiography I aspire to write some day when I am retired 🙂
1. Organizational structures will change frequently – make peace with it
With every change of any arbitrary dimension – number of employees , product lines , countries they operate in , number of senior executives whose ego need a boost and so on – comes the reflexive move that goes “let’s change the structure” . It makes perfect sense on paper to organize everything neatly on a spreadsheet or an org chart PPT every time some such dimension changes – but it is often just counterproductive to push a lot of people through massive change. Change fatigue kicks in and frustration starts creeping up .
Some day, large companies will hopefully figure out that such org level changes are not needed frequently . But in the meanwhile , the best way to deal with it is to assume it will happen a few times in your career at any large company, and learn to live with it . The analytical ones amongst us will be driven nuts because we won’t get all the answers on the rationale – but if you don’t make peace in reasonable time, you will just tie yourself in knots . If it is any consolation – your daily work might not change much at all in most org changes .
In any case, natural leaders emerge above the noise and if you are observant , you can figure out who can actually make things happen irrespective of their Stars and Stripes . They often can teach the rest of us what we need to learn.
2. No one “truly” owns anything below the C suite
The most loosely used phrase in large companies is “I own the P&L for this”. To be fair – this is factually true that someone does indeed own a P&L for compliance reasons , just that it is not how things work in the field . For example -legal entity P&L might be owned by a geography , but product lines that drive the revenue are shared services across all geos . So if a critical decision needs to be made , two decision makers become a minimum and they may have conficting objectives to make “their numbers”. For example – a Geo leader might be measured on regional revenue and a product line leader is measured on one specific product’s revenue . As complexity of product portfolio increases – you start to spend more time on internal deal making than deal making with customers .
This is not as bad as it seems on paper – the design point is one of “healthy tension”. It also is the reason why experienced leaders know that control is an illusion and collaboration is the only way to get things done efficiently.
3. Policies are built for Efficiency , not Efficacy
When you have a lot of people , you can only make broad rules that can be implemented in reasonable time with low effort . The unfortunate part is that unimaginative leadership some times makes it impossible to have any nuance . A funny example would be a senior executive who runs a billion dollar business might still need her boss to approve a new $500 smart phone for work use .
The only way to make this work is to build a culture where if a policy “looks stupid” when it’s implemented , you can go up the chain easily and point it out . Best case the policy gets changed – but worst case at least you can get a few exceptions approved . You do need to pick the battles you want to fight so that you don’t exhaust yourself in the process 🙂
4. You may get the impression that finance and HR run the company
While rest of the organization – the line business – changes from time to time , support functions are generally a stable part of the company . Their job is to support line management – but since line management changes from time to time , and because the support function often are the communicators of the message – the prevailing wisdom in many companies is that finance and HR runs the company .
A CFO I deeply respect once told me ” When the business leaders run the business well, my job is to report . In that scenario I rarely speak unless spoken to . When they don’t run it well, my job is to get the business to a shape that lets business leaders run it . And at those times the business leaders won’t speak unless spoken to” . He was only half joking 🙂
5. You can use the overhead functions in your favor , or you can lose it
Overheads come in many flavors – senior execs who are not in line jobs , operations teams , overlay sales teams and so on . Whether you use them to your advantage or not , their cost is allocated across the company . And there are many ways to use them very effectively .
Many senior executives have relationships with clients that are useful for you . Rather than do all the analysis by yourself , you can perhaps enlist the help of someone in operations and so on .
There is a flip side to this – when things go bad for a company , the axe falls on overhead functions . But when done using broad rules and without taking input from people in the field – often this leads to “penny wise, pound foolish” decisions . Again – the only real solution is a culture that makes leaders have a constant pulse of actual execution , and staff feeling free to let leaders know the potential impact of decisions . Easier said than done !
6. You need to develop a healthy working relationship with your manager , but You need multiple mentors to thrive
Since things change frequently , and since you are living in a multi dimensional matrix – you need a set of long term mentors to act as your compass . This is especially true for people new to the large company set up . Managers keep changing , but long term mentors will provide stability and insight since they have experience living through changes . Goes without saying – you need to mentor someone too . Pay it forward !
7. Very few people know everything that happens
This is more people looking from the outside . A large company is not a democracy – decisions get taken and communicated at many different levels of the matrix . So it won’t be unusual for a senior executive to find out something important only after it shows up in the press . Not ideal – but communication is not efficient when size and complexity of a business is large . I make peace with it by assuming two things
1. If we agree that on a “need to know” basis of working , 90% of the time things work fine
2. Half of the rest , you can get through informal channels if you build a good network within the company
And some times inertia is the sole reason why something happens . I know a client who spent millions of dollars on sponsoring basketball games long after they sold off the particular product line that was targeted for the basketball campaign . It took a long time to come to that realization !
8. Responsibility and authority may not be correlated
This is perhaps the hardest part to get used to for managers . The decision on salaries , transfers, career progression etc might not be taken directly by an employee’s direct manager – but the manager often needs to be the one communicating and defending a decision .
One way I have seen managers deal with it is to ask someone else – like an HR rep – to do the hard conversations . I am not a fan of this approach . Good or bad – managers have to own the responsibility of communicating with their team . You won’t become a true leader till you get comfortable telling good and bad news with poise , honesty and candor .
9. A template for everything !
To operate a big company , you have to minimize variance whereever possible from a top down perspective . There is no use fighting the need for consistency – otherwise you just paralyze the decision making process . The solution for me is two things
1. Ruthlessly prioritize so that your hardest hitting points come clear on the template
2. Find opportunities other than formal reviews to get buy in for your ideas . All the more important that you build relationships early and often
10. Execution rules , Strategy drools
I can’t emphasize this enough. Large companies tend to have a lot of people who work on pure strategy – some good , and several just academic and far removed from reality . You will also keep hearing strategy was awesome , but execution did not match . I call BS on this every time – a strategy that cannot be successfully executed is a bad strategy , but perhaps a good hope !
Tactically – I have always favored the approach of “if you can do something ethical and legal to make your client and your team successful , do it – and ask for forgiveness if you fail”. Best case – you might end up changing a made policy and make a new best practice . Worst case you get slapped a bit , but still can sleep better . Not a bad trade in my book.
I will end this with a bonus tip . Not every one is a good match for any given role for ever . Just as your employer can fire you – you can fire your employer too . If you keep your skills sharp and have an open mind, the world around us has a lot of opportunities. So if you find that there is no way you can make it work in your current role despite your best efforts – you should consider quitting and starting afresh elsewhere, within or outside your employer . Nothing is worth being miserable all the time . Leave on your own terms and respectfully without burning bridges !