If you're just joining in, this is the second in a two-part look at what entrepreneurs need to know should they ever think about joining a large, old corporation--even temporarily. To catch up with us, read this installment first. And now, on with the rules:

Don't think your sister divisions will celebrate your success

We're all one big happy family in this company, correct? Well, not so much. In fact, in a lot of companies you would think that the other divisions under the corporate umbrella are the real enemy. I know of one unit within a telecom company that was so protective of its turf that they had a technician program the automatic locks on their building so that employees not working in that unit were barred from entering.  

Self-promotion often trumps solid performance

You are earnest. You are hard-working. You get the job done. And who gets the accolades? Someone who has an entirely different skill set, involving brilliant self-promotion and communication skills. In most corporations, virtue is its own reward, and that has to suffice. If you are looking for other kinds of rewards, be aware that your internal PR skills are as important as the skills you use to get the job done.

Hidden networks are the real structure

Looking for clues as to what the power structure is in your new corporation? It might seem logical to start with the org chart, but you will very quickly find that the chart bears absolutely no resemblance to the real power structure. Researchers studying informal networks found that one of the most influential people at one company was the quality assurance manager, because he worked across all divisions and "touched" the most people. The CEO of that same company was relatively isolated and had very little impact on what got done.

The CEO is smarter, funnier, better looking (and usually taller) than the rest of us

In many companies, the amount of, uh, sucking up that takes place with respect to the CEO would be comical if it weren't so dysfunctional. Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, had a great way of calling this out. "If everybody's head is pointed at the office of the CEO," he would ask, "what part of their anatomy is pointed at the customer?"

If it sounds as though I'm describing completely inhumane, horrible places to work, I'm really not. Any complex organization will have its own versions of these "rules," because tying a bunch of flawed human beings together to try to get anything done is very challenging. The goal of spelling this out for you is to earn a rueful smile of bemusement, and, should you make a move, help you consider how to get done what you need to get done despite what may be multidimensional culture shock.

Let me end on a happier note, by offering five tips that provide a corporate spin on the Serenity Prayer, i.e., how to accept what you can’t change, change what you can, and know the difference.

1. Know your own goals. Before walking in the door, ask yourself what a successful engagement with this place would look like. Do you want to spend your career there? Learn new skills? Gain a new kind of life experience? Build your network? Make an impact you couldn’t make at a smaller scale? Knowing your goals is the first step to knowing what you'll need to create a great outcome for yourself. In fact, I'd write your goals down and revisit them regularly. It will give you much-needed perspective.

2. Be an anthropologist. Don't make assumptions about how things work in this strange new land; watch for the behaviors that will give you insight about the culture and how it can be leveraged. Don't make the mistake of bringing the warm fuzzy behaviors of a highly collaborative culture into a place where smart talk and individual brilliance are seen as more legitimate, or of ignoring people’s "silly" requests to provide reports or show up at meetings if doing those things is seen as how a good colleague behaves.

3. Learn the networks. Be mindful of this. Who are the "connectors" in this organization, the people who seem to always know what's going on? Who is connected to whom? Most significantly, who ties together different networks that don't interact much? If you want to influence the behavior of the organization, influencing internal networks is the way to go. You might even consider doing a few informational interviews to get more information about how things work.

4. Build alliances.   You'll be happiest if you are, for the most part, working with people you respect and come to trust, so look for opportunities to create those ties. Your know-how with respect to entrepreneurship can often be great social capital. Do some favors, make some friends, and listen. If the company has networking events, go. If you get asked to join a task force, accept if you can, especially in the early days.

5. Let it go. Great outcomes do not occur because someone won a testosterone-fueled power struggle. Keep revisiting your goals; if proving a point, being "right," winning an argument, or making everybody realize how stupid someone is does not advance your goals, don't go there.

Knowing all this, what did my family member decide to do? He joined. His goals were clear and all went well for a while. Then it didn't. But he eventually launched his own successful, high-growth firm, thanks in part to the knowledge he gained at that big, old corporation. Puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?




Published on: Aug 5, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.