You Get No Credit for Talking

Most of my career has been spent working for companies with less than fifty people. My consulting career had me working with much larger companies often, and many of the stereotypes about big vs. small are true:

  1. At a small company you are a generalist; you “wear many hats” [Note: don’t literally do this – it confuses people].
  2. At a small company you have more responsibility – if you aren’t pulling your weight everyone can feel it.
  3. At a big company, there are more doughnuts and meetings. Also: office supplies.
  4. The coffee is better at small companies, but big companies offer better benefits in almost all other areas.
  5. People at small companies are much better at ping-pong.

How do small companies become big companies? By bringing on board people that might be from big companies. In fact, a common pattern is for companies to try to “level up” by hiring a Big Boy, Adult, More Experienced Leader, Other Mild Insult to Existing People. If the existing staff know what they are doing and are learners, and the new more experienced people are teachers then this can work out well.

But there is one minefield awaiting small companies hiring experienced leaders from big companies:

At big companies, you can be rewarded for thinking of potential problems even if you do nothing to solve them.

This is not pejorative, this can be good at a big company – there are people that are just thinking ahead, strategically and proactively.  These people struggle to exist at small companies, because at a small company if you bring up a problem without a solution you are just creating extra stress. Within the typical culture of a small company if you bring up a problem you are now tasked to solve it. Since you are already overworked when you come across a problem, you might not speak up. In the worst case, nobody is thinking far enough ahead because it is too painful to do so.

But then you start interviewing people, and they say things like “Hey, have you thought about the Newman protocol, and how you would perform under an audit?” And you think to yourself “Nope”, so you hire them to find and fix that problem.  And instead they sit around; at their old job their work was complete at this point, and here it is just getting started.

Ben Horowitz explains a similar dynamic well:

Your executive has been conditioned to wait for the emails to come in, wait for the phone to ring, and wait for the meetings to get scheduled. In your company, he will be waiting a long time. If your new exec waits (as per his training), your other employees will become suspicious. You’ll hear things like “what does that guy do all day long?” and “why did he get so many options?”

Well if the problem is so obvious then why are there so many bad hires from large companies? Ben’s list of screening questions is certainly effective, and I’ll offer my perspective to detect this as well.

One summer I rented an office in an old motel near my house. I was tired of working from home and wanted to change things up. This worked out pretty well until my second week when the air conditioner stopped working and the Georgia heat started to bring the air temperature up to sunspot levels. A few doors down from mine a small internet startup of four – five people was always around busily working and they did not leave when it happened. One of them went out and bought a few floor fans and they opened all their windows.

On the second day when the building manager announced that the air conditioner would not be fixed until the next week, the leader of that same group left but then returned with a saw and two wall unit air conditioners and installed them without permission. They didn’t appear to know what they were doing and made a mess of it, but their rooms were cool and comfortable.

When I’m interviewing a person from a big company I always ask myself if they would be the type to say: “We have a problem here, the A/C is out” or if they would be the type that would say: “I’m driving to Home Depot, buying an A/C unit, and cutting a hole in this wall”.

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