When This Opportunity Knocks, Should You Pretend You're Not Home?
A family member once faced a dilemma not uncommon to entrepreneurs, particularly in the tech space: He got a very tempting offer from a very large company. He was happy as part of the founding team of a small start-up, but it wasn't growing as fast as he had hoped. And the offer from this massive, old, international corporation was eye-popping. He called to ask my advice, which I present to you now in two installments I call "Rita's Rules About Corporations." (Part Two will appear in early August.) I think you'll find it useful, whether you are contemplating a similar move or just need to be reminded of what--and why--you're doing what you're doing.
1. Don't take it personally: It’s a corporation!
In a successful smaller business, limited resources thankfully limit the amount of sheer political nonsense that goes on, because nobody has the time or budget to stray too far from the core business purpose. Big, old, rich corporations, on the other hand? Not so much. Things happen in which individuals, through no fault of their own, end up as collateral damage. I see this all the time with respect to innovation programs. You set up a skunkworks, it looks as though something really interesting might come out of it, and it gets killed off by some division head who finds it threatening. It makes no sense. It is maddening. Be prepared to grow a thicker skin and move on.
2. Rethink your expectations of fairness
I'm always amused when people try to apply the rules of schoolyard games to what goes on in a large company. It isn't fair that some guy who was barely involved with a project gets the lion's share of the credit? It isn't fair that the meeting you stayed up all night to prepare for got postponed because of some media/PR opportunity? It isn't fair that someone asked you for your "honest, candid, opinion," which you gave, only to become the team pariah? To succeed in a big company you'll need to drop expectations of fairness in favor of a more nuanced understanding of the incentives of your particular organizational tribe.
3. While you're at it, rethink your notions of rationality
I recently heard an executive say, "I still believe in rationality, despite all the evidence to the contrary." What was the 'evidence" he had to consider? His job was to achieve a certain outcome on behalf of clients, an outcome closely tied to the ostensible mission of the organization. But in this particular case, achieving those outcomes would cast one of the members of the Board, who was personally and symbolically associated with that outcome, in an extremely positive light. “Listen,” snapped another board member, 'I don't want you to do anything that could make him look good!" So he was actually being asked to undercut the needs of the clients, and the mission of the organization, to avoid making one board member look better than another? Incredible, but yup.
4. That's not the cream rising to the top
In the '60s, Lawrence Peter coined the "Peter Principle” to describe the odd phenomenon of managers being promoted until they reached their level of incompetence. Scott Adams, of “Dilbert” fame, added a twist, suggesting that incompetent people are promoted because nobody wants them too close to the actual work of the organization. File this under "Funny because it's true." The control freaks, the petty tyrants, the "my way or the highway" types do get promoted. It all suggests that the promotion systems used by many large organizations have come unglued from the realities of high performance and sound leadership.
5. Reward systems almost always lag strategy
Yes, it's exciting: Everybody has just gotten back from the Big Strategy Offsite with the t-shirts and the verbiage about "most responsive," "highest quality," "business partner of choice," etc., strategy statements. But then it's, "Hey, that retreat took a long time, I'm buried in emails, and we'll get around to the alignment and implementation part of the strategy when things let up a little." So time slips by and eventually what you have is a strategy that says one thing and a system of rewards and incentives that point people in an entirely different direction. Never works. As a friend of mine once said, "Rita, when you see someone doing something absolutely stupid at work, chances are they think they're going to be rewarded for it." Hence a strategy that says we need to cooperate globally, while bonuses are still determined on a regional basis; a strategy that says we want managers to spend serious time developing their people, and when they do the subordinate is promptly poached by a more powerful manager; or a strategy that says we want to reward innovation and cooperation, and a reward system that uses forced rankings and elimination of the bottom 10 percent of staff.
6. The right hand never knows what the left hand is doing
In the name of efficiency the large corporation tends to clump similar activities into the same groups, resulting in functional specializations that have zero incentive to understand or cooperate with one another. So you have a sales team, euphoric at having just shaken hands with a major customer on a big deal, only to wake up a few days later to find that the finance guys have deemed them too risky; or a procurement department so heavily rewarded for reducing contracting costs that you have $300,000- a-year employees vacuuming desks and taking out the trash. You'd seldom see that sort of disconnect in a smaller company, but in a big organization it kind of disappears. And so might you. Maybe not, but as we'll see in part two, there are other things to consider before you make this kind of move.
RITA GUNTHER MCGRATH | Columnist
Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, is a globally recognized expert on strategy and the author of three books, including 2013's The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business (Harvard Business Review Press).