June 18, 2013

Executives in the Mailroom

It's funny -- one of my fellow alums and I had a lengthy conversation one evening after an alumni event, and we realized that our business education, while top-notch and excellent all around, had some serious flaws. One of those was how it felt like we were all being groomed to have a seat at the executive table, masters of our fate and excellent at leading and decision-making, and thrust into the world with a sense of our own agency in our jobs. And then, promptly, we were all disabused of that notion, forced to start from the very bottom rung of the corporate ladder and work our way up to the coveted C-suite role we'd been led to believe was where we belonged. Effectively, we were trained to be executives and then immediately put to work in the mailroom. It's frustrating, feeling so little control over your professional development in those crucial first years out of university.

Of course, I took a bit of an alternate route.

One of the best decisions I made after I finished my undergrad was working for a company with less than 50 employees. It was kind of a huge risk for me -- my career trajectory up until that had not included such a move, and even with a long runway the company still didn't feel solid to me, mostly because I was unfamiliar with its products -- but it paid off in spades. If I had to pinpoint three things that made a smaller company the better choice, I'd have to say it was: getting to take on a variety of roles, having more flexibility in what my chosen role could do, and having a real impact.

Lots of Hats

My undergraduate business degree was unique in that the school actively emphasized students understand the entire enterprise before picking a specialized area of study. So, for example, even though I majored in economic consulting, I took rigorous finance, accounting, operations/supply chain, and management courses, as well as learned why these functions are important. Every part of a business has a function, and each function is essential. In the truest sense, a business is an organism.

What this meant was, by the time I graduated, I had a specialized set of skills (my specific major) along with a broad-base understanding to complement it. It also meant I had a top-down look at an organization; I understood what the various pieces were and knew how to put them together, and why they all depended on each other. I expected this knowledge made me super valuable and that my job role would be flexible and fun to match, letting me work on my core competency while also exploring my other interests.

Ha. Ha ha.

Turns out, I had hilariously unrealistic ideas of what "real business" was like. Almost every business major I know finds themselves frustrated when they start out and realize their jobs have a very specific, narrow focus and that they're expected to specialize in this. For example, my friend studied accounting and landed in audit for a large multinational enterprise. And then she learned that her job would be reviewing federal withholding. For the next two years. Suffice to say it was not quite what she expected.

That said, this is also a situation unique to a massive, multinational enterprise, where scale requires intensely narrow specialization. (This is actually a fairly important economic principle -- as a company scales, it must specialize to a greater degree in order to maintain efficiency. There is, of course, an optimum level of specialization. Arguably, most financial services firms are way past this point, but that's an argument best left to people getting their PhD in Economics.) At smaller companies, a lack of pure specialization is actually preferable.

Why is this? Well, frankly, it has to do with distribution of resources. (All my econ and ops management readers can refer to "Cobb-Douglas" now.) At the most basic level: many small companies are running on equity and prayer. A fully specialized team early on is expensive and requires a lot of managerial overhead to ensure all members are functioning. It's way cheaper to pay three people to do 9 bodies' worth of work for like 6 months until you secure Series B or Series C funding, as needed. As a company grows, teams gain specialization -- you hire a dedicated finance guy, a sysadmin, sales people, etc. -- but especially as a team is being established, you'll get to work on tasks that are tangentially connected to what your primary role.

This is great if you're a specialised generalist: you'll get to do two roles' worth of work (if not many many more) while the company gets its sea legs. This is invaluable experience -- you might gain PM experience, for example, without having to permanently wear the PM title. Working for a small company means you'll get to take on job roles that explore your tangential skills. One former colleague of mine, for example, handled HTML bugfixing for special promo landing pages. In no way was that her primary role, but she had HTML and CSS experience and so she did it.

Look, the long and short of it is: the more work you can do, the more valuable you will be at your next company. Beyond that: it widens the array of work you can do in your career overall, and lets you build skills you might not necessarily have had a chance to improve otherwise. If you decide you want to run your own company later on, the myriad roles you hold can better inform what you'll need to do and know as your own enterprise gets off the ground.

Job Role Tetris

One of the things I enjoyed most about working for a smaller company was how much flexibility I had in my role. When I started, I was on a team that was "experimental" and had a lot of power over what I did each day and what strategy I wanted to take in order to achieve the team's goals. (In retrospect, that job role is better-defined, just in a different industry: nonprofit. It's funny; the more I work in tech, the more I realize that what that industry needs is a resource in abundance in nonprofit. I for one would love to see more overlap in tech and nonprofit. But that's a post for another time.) Eventually, when I switched to a different team, my role solidified into something more established, based on precedents.

But even then, I had the opportunity to take on projects that captured my interest and were genuine improvements in some way. One was a fun multi-site promotion that I really enjoyed planning and organizing. I worked on site features, promotions, and even wrote documentation. Even though, on paper, my job was "support specialist," my actual work spanned tasks and assignments that fell into my lap by a combination of luck, planning, and crazy random happenstance. I got to choose what I took on that was considered "outside" of my primary responsibilities, and in doing so got to learn (or, sometimes re-learn) what I could do well. I remembered how much I love mentoring and watching my charges become really good at their work.

Flexibility extended beyond just what I could take on -- several times, I saw colleagues switch to different functional teams. While I myself moved from promotions to community management, other colleagues moved into PR, project management, user experience design, and analytics. I've seen people from the sales pool move into marketing, and I've seen developers shift to management and recruitment as well. Smaller organizations are more able, in my opinion, to help you find a niche still in the company that you fit better. Many times, it's a case of, "We like you but this role isn't right for you [anymore]," and that kind of deep consideration is harder when there's 28,000 of you as opposed to twenty-eight bodies in the office.

High Visibility, High Impact

At some point in the last year, I realized: I want to have a real impact in my work, and I want recognition for it. More importantly, I want the work that I do and the projects I undertake to have real utility. While I loved managing discrete resources across multiple teams, promotions are inherently ephemeral, and the internet is all about short term memory. Although some of my projects have been of lasting impact (some of my work on support resources, for example) I always wanted to be doing things that left a bigger mark on the product.

That said, the fact that I got to have any projects at large-scale is something pretty amazing. Within two years of joining the company, I was planning and managing a large product-wide event? I became the de facto contact for all site promotion work? That's pretty impressive, and wouldn't have happened in a larger organization, where I'd likely still be working up from permit acquisition to initial client consultation or something equally mundane.

If you want to be doing Big Things, things that have a real impact on team efficiency or even the company at large, you're way less likely to be able to make a splash in a larger organization. The metaphor I use is: the company pool is a finite size. It's harder to splash when the pool gets more and more crowded.

Go Small or Go Home

If you're a business student (or really anyone with serious ambition) look hard at smaller companies. Your impact, potential, and growth at these kinds of organizations will be significantly larger than at a larger enterprise. You won't get as much mentorship and handholding, however, and you will be trading security for some intangible idea of what could happen. At the same time, higher risk almost always means higher rewards, assuming things work out.

Only you can decide how much risk you're willing to take on, but I will say this: if you're fresh out of university, and the company has maybe a year of runway left, take it. Security at that point is nice but not necessary. You're much more likely to gain a ridiculous amount of insight -- even if the company folds! -- in a year or less with them than you would at a MNE with infinite runway. That learning and knowledge will serve you well in your next job.

Take the plunge, it's worth the risk, and you will not only land on your feet but also be far stronger for the experience.

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