Monday, April 13, 2009

Critical Considerations When Jumping to a Small Employer

If you've ever worked for a big company, you know the advantages: everything from a comprehensive employee benefits package to a great holiday party every year. Letting go of those goodies can be tough, but what if you don't have a choice? What if your large employer has kicked you to the curb along with the thousands of others who have been laid off?

One of the options to consider is going to work for a small company. But hold the phone -- jumping from a "battleship to a fishing boat" as one small business owner put it may not be that easy. For one reason, you may not like doing without all the corporate-world goodies (including the salary), and for another, a small employer may not want you.

That may be a hard pill to swallow. Not want you? Who wouldn't want your big MBA degree or your prestigious pedigree from a top corporate firm (even if it is limping like a three-legged dog) and everything you have to "teach" the little guy?

In interviewing small business owners for my Gannett ContentOne (formerly known as Gannett News Service)and column, I discovered that there is some trepidation about hiring "big company" employees.

“There’s a tremendous fear when you hire someone from a large company that they won’t stay because we can’t offer them the same level of benefits,” says Greg Redington, of REDCO Engineering and Construction Corp. “It’s a big stumbling block to hiring these people.”

While Redington has hired several people over the last three years to work for his 15-employee company in Westfield, N.J., he says the key is finding those workers who are willing to let go of their “corporate mindset” that is “completely contradictory” to a small business.

“If the phone rings here four times, then that means the receptionist is doing something else and you need to pick up the phone. If we need toilet paper in the bathroom, you need to go get it from the supply closet,” he says. “If you come from a big company and consider that an insult, then you don’t understand working for a small company.”

Steve Jakes, owner of Drake Co. in Chesterfield, Mo., which employs 22 people, agrees.

“The key is understanding the culture. In a small company, it’s sort of like family in a way. You need to be able to mix and mingle and interrelate with the other people. There’s no room for silos,” he says.

So how does someone from a large employer land a job at a small company and be content with the change?

Kathryn Kerge, president of New York-based Kerge Consulting, which provides human capital strategies to small businesses, says that those making the leap from what Drake calls the “battleship to the fishing boat” need to focus on the positive aspects of working for a small employer.

“It’s going to be obvious to any hiring manager if you are going in with any trepidation,” Kerge says. “If you’re not 100 percent sold on the idea of working for a small employer, then they’re going to know it.”

Currently the Census Bureau estimates there are 27 million businesses with fewer than 100 employees. A recent survey by Network Solutions and the University of Maryland found that of 1,000 small businesses surveyed, 69 percent made a profit in 2008.

Kerge says one of the big advantages for those seeking small business employment is the opportunity to have interactions with company leaders, and to have a greater influence on the decision-making. “At the same time, the skill set you will acquire will be incredibly more diverse, you will learn strategies much faster and see results much quicker,” she says.

If you are interested in working for a small company, those interviewed for this story suggested you should:

• Remember that every day is an adventure. In a large company, it’s often pretty clear-cut what your duties may be and how and when you should do them. In a small company, “our future is directly impacted by your present actions,” Redington says. “In a large company, it’s more like an assembly line and you just pass the stuff off to the next guy when you’re done. In a small company, something could stop and die at your desk if you don’t follow through. What you do every day can be life or death for us.”
• Be realistic about your needs. Maybe you had a Blackberry, a travel service, a car and an espresso bar at your big company, but that isn’t likely to happen at a small company. While Drake doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan, he does offer health benefits. “I talked to my employees about whether they’d rather have higher pay or health benefits. They said they’d rather have the health benefits, so that’s what I do. It’s what’s important to them.”
• Speak up. Maybe you can corporate-speak with the best of them, but small employers are looking for employees who can do more than talk. To emphasize how your skills could translate, Kerge suggests telling a small business hiring manager how you were “first” do something for your employer, or how you took a grassroots approach to achieving success with a project or team.

What other considerations are there when you switch to a small employer?


Kathryn/ said...

This is a thoughtful post, Anita. It underscores that literally millions of people are in the midst of major change and change masters are needed to guide them through the process, as change brings out more than the obvious changes implicit in a new job or culture; it also pits us up against our own internal values, strengths and weaknesses. Yeah, we need help, indeed, all the help we can get.

Anita said...

You're right. Now is a really important time to connect with people who can help us understand that change is often a learning process, and even though it can be stressful, what comes out the other side can be rewarding. Different, but rewarding just the same.
Thanks for adding such a thoughtful comment.

Working Girl said...

I think with a small employer the character of the boss becomes a bigger consideration than with a major corporation where supervisors come and go.

Some small businesses are run like petty feifdoms; it can get weird. It all depends on the character of the boss/owner. So be sure you and the he/she are really on the same wavelength.

That being said, some of my best jobs have been in small companies. It can be like a family (ideally a loving, functional family!).

Anita said...

Working Girl,

I think you make some valid points, but I would urge people to use the same criteria you suggest no matter what size company they work for -- do as much as you can to foster good communication between you and the boss. Being "in sync" with the boss is critical to your success, no matter how big or small the employer.