Reality Check – Are You a Hypocrite? I think I am!

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After five years of success in what I termed to be a “large” corporation (about 10,000 employees) and then four successful start up ventures, I thought I had learned a lot. In my experiences, I had learned far more in any start up than my friends or family that worked for REALLY large companies; 50,000 employees +. Hence, I’ve spent the last few years training management teams on my experiences; specifically, how to quickly become successful in the start up world. Once again – very successful. I unconsciously made the decision that there was one way to do things – the “start up” way. By making this decision, I had unknowingly turned my back on the “large” corporations as I always incorrectly assumed that “their way” was corporate; ideas needed sign off, plans took too long to be written, there was politics to deal with, and frankly, corporations seemed to move to ‘slowly’ for me.

At the same time, whenever someone has asked me what has made me successful, my response has always been, “I’m open minded. I know what I don’t know. But mostly, I just love to learn; every person I meet is like a commodity and if I stay in contact with them, it’s because I believe they are a commodity that will allow my knowledge portfolio to grow”.

I’m a hypocrite. If I was so open minded, I’d be willing to work with / for these 50K + employee companies. I wouldn’t only work with start ups, but would also look to learn from high level executives in HUGE businesses. I would learn to relinquish control and learn how to play in a different sandbox.

I frequently meet with executives from all companies, small to large, to get their feedback / advice on how I’m doing in my business. I ask for suggestions as to how I can better myself. Thus far, everyone I’ve met with has said to me one of the following things: 1) “You’re an entrepreneur. You’d be wasting your talent if you don’t start your own business” 2) Continue consulting; you have a wide range of skill sets that are transferable over most sales and lead generation industries. 3) Continue working with start ups and imparting your knowledge there. You have the visions and know how to execute and bring a company to profitability quickly”.

While all of this is ‘nice’ to hear, I still always felt like I was ‘missing’ something. The advice given above is nice to hear and certainly from a monetary standpoint works very well. But again, I still felt the “fire” was missing – the passion was not there as it had once been when I had connected myself to one brand or company.

I had dinner with a brilliant executive last night who finally made me realize what I was missing. I had turned into the one type of person I hated. I was the one that was being closed minded. I had been so successful and enjoy the start up world so much, that I had closed myself off to the thousands of other possibilities to learn. I put all “large corporations” into the same ‘box’ and in doing so, had missed what could have been some phenomenal learning experiences.

For those of you successful entrepreneurs and ‘start up’ junkies who read my blog, I’m wondering…has this happened to any of you? Have you ‘turned yourself off’ so much to the “corporate world” that you think you may be missing out on learnings? I’m trying to decide where to go from here. It’s interesting, because I always said, “If you’re comfortable, you’re dead”…and what I realized last evening is that I AM comfortable in the start up world. While every start up is different, different product, different strategy, etc. the pattern is the same. I’m comfortable with that pattern. In order for me to grow, learn, and get out of my comfort zone – I would need to go to a large company and ‘learn’ how to play the game, learn some patience with slower processes, learn how to NOT always have to be in control. Or I could continue doing what I’m doing, make great money in start ups and enjoy them – but would likely not learn as much. It’s a catch 22, but I’m wondering what any of my readers thoughts are on this and if anyone has been through a similar point in their life? If so, seeking your opinion / advice!

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  1. July 20, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    I’m really glad you posted this. I’ve also wondered about it, though I think we arrive at different conclusions. Over the past few years I’ve worked exclusively with smaller companies, mostly startups, and I love the risk, instability, and passion that comes with small dedicated teams. I’ve certainly built preferences from working with startup companies; the atmosphere is more fun and presents some unique challenges that are often taken care of for you in a larger corporate setting.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s being fair to yourself to call a preference or observation “closed-mindedness”. Many things that large companies do /are/ objectively inefficient. (Otherwise monopolies would arise due to economies of scale.) Startup companies have to leverage their agility and struggle in a fiercely competitive environment (very high failure rate) that larger companies don’t have to worry about.

    (This is all from a software developer’s perspective, I should mention. I’m not sure how well it reflects other fields.)

    Also, I know open-mindedness is en vogue these days. And that’s good, because it beats a lot of alternatives :). But intellectual discrimination has a place too. If you had proposed to use lead solder as a filament, Edison would have probably said something like “you’re an idiot.” Not open-minded in the traditional sense, but he knew what he wanted and didn’t need to consider unproductive alternatives. The crime isn’t pruning the tree of choices, but rather pruning it for the wrong reasons.

    It sounds like you’ve made a decision about this and have been acting on it. Perhaps it’s worth reconsidering. But keep in mind that there’s a utilitarian value to leaving behavioral consistency unresolved (not only because there’s a cost associated with fixing it). It would be closed-minded to blindly go about introspecting it away in the name of open-mindedness. (That’s the meta-argument, anyway, and from there it’s turtles all the way down 🙂 )

    • July 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      Wow. Whew. I had to read this over twice; a bit too intellectual (and scarily accurate) for this time in the day. As I’ve been reading all the responses and thinking back to this original conversation with the executive I had, one word keeps coming back to me; passion. Like you, I AM passionate about the risk, instability, and mostly – the small dedicated teams.

  2. July 21, 2010 at 2:03 am

    I worked for a large company for the first 7 years of my professional career before doing an MBA and then have spent the last 7 years starting up 4 companies. 3 as founder, 1 was a bankrupt company that I bought and cleaned up.

    I sometimes think that my career would have been better (from a learning perspective) the other way round. In the start-ups I have had no one else to blame and so have had to face up to my own limitations in making things happen. I have had to learn. In the first 7 years I did what my bosses said, and would get upset easily and frustrated easily when my own ideas weren’t taken on. I now realise that I really failed to own my ideas and work the system to implement them.

    I think there are a set of leadership actions that are best learnt in a start up – setting vision, prototyping, flexibility, metrics, project planning and execution, building a network of allies; and a set of actions best learnt in a corporation – standard operating procedures, quality, financial control, reward systems.

    Thanks for a provocative blog post 😉

    • July 21, 2010 at 10:48 am

      I was lucky enough to be in 1 start up that went from “start up” (about 25 employees when I started) to multi-million dollar company (about 10K employees) over 3 years. That said, I was not in an executive role, but was mentored by the executives during this time; I was lucky enough to watch the transition and adapt the learnings you mention above. I then was the first employee at the next start up by which I got to do the same. The company only had about 75 ’employees’, but a lot of ‘franchise’ or contractors, etc. All that said – I was lucky enough to get the experiences you speak of above…but not in a large multinational company; like HSN, GE, or Google. What are your thoughts on companies this size? Do you think working at something like this WILL give me learnings I would not have otherwise gathered? Also, I have 2 degrees and am certified in PM and six sigma, but never obtained my MBA because most of the CEOs I’ve worked with have told me it’s a “waste” as I’ve worked in so many positions already. What do you think? I love learning and I loved getting my certifications. Go for the MBA? I would definitely do so online and still work, just interested in your thoughts on that as well.

  3. July 21, 2010 at 7:00 am

    to be truly open minded and entrepreneurial all things must be considered. there is no mental model there is no horizon there is no boundaries and there is no age from which to seek advice

  4. Patrick
    July 21, 2010 at 8:42 am

    I’m facing similar cross roads – but in at very different time in my life.

    I currently work for a very specialized brand strategy agency. We work on some of the largest brands in the world and do very high level brand strategy. It’s a dream job. The challenge, this is my first job. I’m now exploring the idea of getting more exposure at a larger agency because the work here is becoming repetitive. The projects are the same, the objectives are same. The brands and consumers change, which keeps it interesting, but the focus is always narrow.

    In a larger agency I believe I can take the very specialized skills I’ve learned and apply them across a range of projects, and hopefully continue to be successful and grow. In your post, I see the opposite.

    Working under the assumption that you have diverse skill sets for a handful of challenges, I would recommend thinking about a niche or specialized company / agency / firm etc. Think of a category you find interesting. A cause you have a deep passion for – and explore careers within those. For example, I’ve always been the ad / agency guy and while I feel like that’s where I belong and aspire to be, I’ve opened my mind during my time of deliberation. I love soccer. Love it. So, I’m looking at jobs within the US Soccer or MLS, and I get really excited when I think of those possibilities. (shameless plug coming up – I don’t know anyone in that field, so if someone reading this does. LMK!)

    Finally, I’m becoming comfortable with not being the ad guy. My skills and passions translate well in the ad world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take them to new challenges. What was holding that idea back for so long was pride and the thought that “Hey, this is what I’ve been, this is how people know me. Who will I be if I’m not the ad guy.” For this next part I’m not suggesting it applies to you, but I simply had to get over myself. And it’s helped me become open minded again.

    Good luck, love to hear more!

    – Patrick

    • July 21, 2010 at 10:39 am

      I love soccer too! I grew up playing state / national team soccer (small world). That said, my guess is we likely have a similar “GO FOR IT”, extremely passionate (sometimes to a detriment) attitude.

      I like what you said about finding something I love…I LOVE Education and I believe in education; but it’s what I’ve been doing. To your point, I need to find another brand I can connect with…and you’ve given me a phenomenal suggestion. I love sports as well. Working in basketball, football, soccer, college sports…that would be a dream for me too.

      I’m going to look into that – thank you so much. That said…these are still not large organizations ( ; but to your point – I need to find something besides my current industry that I have a passion for and go for it.

      What agency do you work for and how long have you been there??? Have you ever thought about starting a new department at the agency?

  5. Shana
    July 21, 2010 at 9:30 am

    What’s so bad about “corporate” processes? When I think about the difference between a small startup and a huge multinational…I think about shoving a book off a table. An entrepreneur can take their hand, walk up to the table and shove…or you can construct an elaborate rube goldberg machine to do the same thing in 85 steps.

    The skill required to construct such a machine, keep the parts aligned perfectly, do so with style and a little wit…well, either it’s exciting to you (and that’s why you’re considering expanding your horizons), or you spend the entire show thinking “why the hell don’t they just shove the book off the bloody table?!”

    Of course, it’s also a terrible example I’ve given…because the end result is very rarely the same. Huge companies vs. startups are usually dealing with different tasks. No one’s every just shoving a book off a table. There’s a reason for all the politics and bureaucracy (though, of course, it comes in good and bad flavors) – when you’re dealing with 50,000 moving parts, there have to be controls. Real checks and balances. And that’s where the fun comes in…if you can manage to learn how the system works (or is *supposed* to work), you can start making it better.

    What am I saying? – well, as someone who’s worked for big organizations, small, and then now entrepreneurial…I loved learning about each of them. I encourage you to be very very prejudiced…but for the right reasons. Size of a company can often have an effect on individual autonomy – and that may very well be a deciding factor for you in your next career move…but you still have to look at the culture of that huge company. You might enjoy the strategies that are possible when you upgrade the scope of your operations.

    For you, though, I’m worried that you’re focused on “should” – which is a terrible way to plot a career. Think more about what you WANT. If you’re not intrigued and excited about figuring out corporate life, don’t bother. (They do, of course, have much to teach a student of business) It’s OK to specialize in something you really love: startups.

    • July 21, 2010 at 10:34 am

      Thanks Shana; I actually like your analogy because it’s so true. I think you hit the nail on the head; I’m focused more on what I “should” be doing rather than what I “want” to be doing. Here is what motivates me: 1) Learning 2) Executing and figuring out problems that have never been solved or created before 3) People – I am motivated by team members. I believe items 1 and 2 are more prevalent at start ups, but can also be found in specific departments of larger organizations. I “want” to “learn” how to function in all organizations AND I want to be innovative….Perhaps I’m looking to work in an ‘innovation’ department in a larger organization. I’ve never seen an ‘innovation’ department…any ideas there?

  6. July 21, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Hey Jamie, enjoyed this thoughtful post. I think there are many good thoughts here, especially Shana’s point about focusing on “should.”

    At a core level, I think most organizational processes are the same, and that the reasons bureaucracy existed in the past don’t really justify it going into the future (due to new methods of communication, technology, etc.), but that’s probably neither here nor there when you’re trying to figure out next steps. 😉

    Love your idea about an innovation department. I feel a good part of what I do centers around that idea, actually — have you explored Organizational Development at all? I imagine your background would serve you well, and from what I know at least, I think you’d be suited for it. Fits into consulting, but gives you a slightly broader base to work from — and hopefully would provide many new avenues for you to learn in. Just a thought!

  7. July 21, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Josh – As I’m an avid reader of your blog (that sounded kind of ‘stalker’ish), I actually have looked into (and am still looking into) organizational management. I’m looking into that as well as I/O psych and consumer behavior. Any suggestions?

    • July 21, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      I/O Psych is very closely related to OD, that’s a good call. I’d be happy to tell you more about my impressions of the field anytime; shoot me a message if you like and we can find a time to chat.

  8. July 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Hi Jamie,

    I think there’s a great deal of discipline–some of it unwanted–that comes from working for a big company. And honestly, I think it’s a step that some Gen Y’ers don’t take to their detriment.

    It’s important to know how to work for other people, even if it’s not what you ultimately want to do. And I think that in working for a big company you do have to learn a lot about “managing up”, which is a key skill and one that isn’t always valued as much as it should be.

    It’s also important to experience first-hand the planning and measurement that is a hallmark of corporate life–even if it drives you crazy.

    You are young enough to try being an entrepreneur, a consultant, and working for a big company–and then identify which works best for you, or how you can invent another iteration!

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