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How Big Company Thinking Can Doom Your Start-Up

Becoming an entrepreneur means shedding more than your suit

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by Elaine Pofeldt

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“I don’t know if I can do this,” Garrett Miller said to his wife, Paula. The father of three had left an 18-year career at a giant pharmaceutical company to start his own productivity training firm, CoTria Group, and business was unexpectedly slow. Pressure and anxiety gripped him as family bills loomed. He wondered if he could actually make the business fly.

“Garrett, I absolutely believe you can do it,” Paula said. “If you can’t, nobody can.” Her vote of confidence helped Miller beat back the panic and think clearly. He realized he needed to ditch the big-company mindset that had once served him well and figure out what would work for him now, as an entrepreneur.

He resolved to go directly to the head honchos at his target firms—the ones who made decisions on whether to buy his services—instead of trying to get buy-in from the chain of command first. “When you have something of value to bring, who wouldn’t want to see you?” he realized. Soon, the business started growing.

As Miller found, the very skills that helped him thrive in a big-budget, hierarchical workplace were holding him back in his new career. And it’s not just entrepreneurs. Many seasoned employees, too, are finding that the workplace has changed drastically in the past few years. Today’s corporate departments are often leaner, speedier and more do-it-yourself, thanks to the recession and the growth of digital technologies that everyone is expected to learn. Anyone who can’t adapt will struggle.

“The definition of a job has changed. That’s where experience and age are a hindrance,” says Ira Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, and author of Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization.

How to shed ways of thinking that may be holding you back? The first step is identifying them. Here are four examples of old-think to watch out for.

“That work is below my pay grade.”

Not long ago, a high-level professional who tackled tasks that a lower-paid assistant could handle would be seen as a control freak who couldn’t delegate and suffer a career penalty. Today, being unwilling or unable to learn the company’s expense software or send a quick meeting invite can brand you as too high-maintenance to keep on staff.

Ask Vladimir Gendelman, founder of Company Folders, a 10-person firm that sells customized products, generating $2 million in sales annually. Initially delighted to lure a big-company veteran to his team several years ago, Gendelman noticed that Mr. Customer Service refused to look up product descriptions when helping clients. Accustomed to a big support team at his previous gigs, the new hire interrupted everyone around him with “quick questions.”  The decision to fire Mr. Customer Service came when he insisted he’d never gotten an email message from a supervisor. She strode over to his desk and opened it on his computer screen. It had been collapsed into a chain of emails in Microsoft Outlook—which he clearly had never mastered, even two years after joining Company Folders.

“Just keep your head down and do your job.”

In corporations of the past, bosses often wanted employees to shut up and execute on initiatives from the top brass, no matter how incomprehensible or illogical they seemed. Realizing that employees don’t do their best work under drill sergeant bosses, business leaders have become more transparent and collaborative. Keep innovative ideas to yourself today and you may be branded as “disengaged.”

When Deborah Sweeney acquired MyCorporation in 2009, one of the first big changes she made was moving to “open-book” management. All 42 employees know how profitable the company has been for the past month. Instead of “all-hands” meetings where senior managers issue directives, “Now we have a discussion, where we all talk about what opportunities are coming up. There’s more of a shared vision,” she says.

“That’s outside my expertise.”

When Miller worked in pharmaceutical sales, he knew to avoid projects usually handled by subject-matter experts in marketing or finance, if only to avoid a turf battle. “Everyone was put in a box,” he says. Running his own business, Miller discovered that he was perfectly capable of handling some of those tasks—and that he needed to take them on. That brought tremendous freedom to try new things. He found long-suppressed ideas bubbling to the surface. “There’s a real joy if you seize it and spread your wings,” says Miller.

“Perfect is better than quick.”

Ten years ago, it may have been possible to spend a year working on a big project like developing a strategic plan. Take that long now, and your competitors will kick sand in your face. Working faster, without compromising quality, means you have to become more ruthless about time management and figure out how to avoid attending long, useless meetings—that never-ending bane of corporate professionals—without damaging professional relationships. A sales person might mention she can’t make a certain meeting because she has a sales call at that time. “It’s a matter of investing your time wisely,” Miller says. “If you don’t invest it, other people will.”

Photo Credit:Tim Roberts/Getty