How to Decide Whether a Small or Big Company Is the Right Job Fit


What size company is best for you? Large and small companies each offer both advantages and disadvantages. It would be worthwhile to consider this as you conduct your job search and prior to making your final decision -- size does matter!

Many military service members express an interest in working for a smaller company when they separate. Having worked for one of the largest organizations in the world (the Defense Department), many people are interested in trying something less bureaucratic and less structured. Those individuals might shy away from the bigger, brand-name companies like Apple, Proctor & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, IBM, General Electric and others. This could be a mistake.

Much as the Navy's submarine service is a relatively small, specialized component of the DoD, major corporations like those mentioned above are often collections of subsidiaries. In the case of General Electric, these subsidiaries are referred to as businesses, and they operate with a great deal of autonomy.

On the surface, leaving DoD to work for GE sounds like trading one bureaucracy for another. Beneath the surface (pun intended), leaving the submarine service to work for GE Power could feel much different. You might discover that the corporate culture of the smaller business unit defeats the stereotype of working for great, big General Electric.

The idea of working for a small company can be very appealing. Less bureaucracy implies more decision-making responsibility and a higher likelihood of making a difference, but in some small companies, the opposite occurs. Smaller sometimes means centralized, and centralized decision-making is more often done at the top of the organization.

If the reins are held too tightly, it can be very difficult to get the horse to go in a different direction, no matter how sound the reason. Whether those big- and small-company stereotypes are accurate or even important to you, here are 10:

1. Training and Development

Small might offer you more initial responsibility and, accordingly, have higher expectations of your ability to add value quickly. Big is more likely to allow you to incubate, spending money on your training and development before expecting to see immediate results.

2. Benefits

Big has much better bargaining power with insurance companies than does Small, often resulting in a better, cheaper and/or more flexible benefits package available to you.

3. Compensation

Small will probably be your highest or lowest offer. Expect a higher salary if your learning curve is flat, and your current skill set allows you to contribute immediately; lower if you are brought on board as a high potential rookie. Big is likely to bring you in at the middle of that range -- a reasonable starting salary that will grow as you climb the learning curve and your value added increases.

4. Growth Potential

Small is growing at 20% annually. Big has averaged 9% growth during its lifetime. You are very good at what you do. At which company will you find better personal growth? Short term? Long term?

5. Span of Control

Look at the classic pyramid organizational structure at Small and Big. Find the block on the chart that represents you. Big fish in a small pond or small fish in a big pond; which is more appealing?

  1. Cross-functional mobility. Big has more divisions, more departments and, in theory, more options for lateral mobility. However, does the corporate culture accommodate cross-functional transfers? In Small, the marketing department is right next door to the distribution department. Physically, that is an easy move. Realistically, how often does it happen?
  2. Level of responsibility. Accept a job in production at Small, and your business card says director of manufacturing. Take the equivalent position at Big, and your card says production supervisor.
  3. Relocation frequency and travel. Depending on the type of job and career path, Big will probably require more relocation than Small as you climb the corporate ladder. Assuming travel is an inherent characteristic of the job (sales, consulting, recruiting, etc.), you will probably travel more often with Small.
  4. Visibility. Go to work for Big, and you might never meet a vice president. At Small, the president could know you on a first-name basis.
  5. Your resume. You might have to go back into the job market. Which option looks better on your revised resume? Big will be the more recognizable of the two, but how marketable is that new skill set? Your depth and range of experience and title at Small is impressive, but where else might those things be applicable? Also, it is generally easier to move from Big to Small than the opposite.

So what's best for you: Big or Small? As with many of the important issues in life, there is usually enough information available to support your decision either way. Identify your issues and decision criteria, weigh them, prioritize them, fill in the blanks as well as you can and go for it!

For an in-depth look at this subject and more, read Tom Wolfe's book, "Out of Uniform: Your Guide to a Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition.

© 2016, 2017; Tom Wolfe, author; all rights reserved; used with the author's permission.

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