TAO Self-help

Title:Does Size Matter?

Author:© Tom Wolfe, author; all rights reserved; excerpts from Out of Uniform: Your Guide to a Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition; used with the permission of the author and publisher, potomacbooksinc.com.

Date:November 2013


Many factors will influence your choice of civilian employment when you leave military service. One such factor is the size of the organization: large or small? Each offer advantages and disadvantages. It would be worthwhile to consider this as you conduct your job search and prior to making your final decision.

Many military service members express an interest in working for a smaller company after they leave the military. The Department of Defense (DOD) is one of the largest organizations in the world and many people are interested in trying something less bureaucratic and less structured. Those individuals may shy away from big companies like Proctor & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, IBM, General Electric and the like. This could be a mistake.

Consider this analogy. The Navy's submarine service is a relatively small and specialized subsidiary of a parent company (DOD). Major corporations like those mentioned above are often collections of subsidiaries under a corporate umbrella. In the case of General Electric, these subsidiaries are referred to as strategic business units and they operate with a great deal of autonomy. On the surface, leaving DOD to work for GE sounds like trading one bureaucracy for another. Beneath the surface (pun intended), leaving the submarine service to work for GE Energy could feel much different. You might discover that the corporate culture of the smaller business unit defeats the stereotype of working for great big General Electric.

Working for a small company can be very appealing. Much of this appeal is based on the assumption that smaller means less bureaucracy, more decision-making responsibility, and a higher likelihood of making a difference. Although often true, in some small companies the opposite situation occurs. Smaller sometimes means centralized and centralized decision making frequently occurs at the top of the organization. If the reins are held too tightly, it can be very difficult to get the horse to go in a different direction, no matter how sound the reason.

Whether or not those large and small company stereotypes are accurate or even important to you, there are other issues to consider, such as:

Training and Development. A small company might offer you more initial responsibility but will also have higher expectations of your ability to add value quickly. A large company is more likely to allow you to incubate for a while, spending money on your training and development before expecting to see results.

Benefits. A large company has much better bargaining power with insurance companies and other benefits providers than does a small company. This may result in a better, cheaper, and/or more flexible benefits package.

Compensation. A small company will probably be your highest or lowest offer. Expect a higher salary if your learning curve is flat and your current skill set allows you to contribute immediately; lower if you are brought on board as a high potential trainee. A large company is likely to start you at the middle of that range — a reasonable starting salary that will grow as you climb the learning curve and your value added increases.

Stability. Consider this scenario: The large company has experienced steady growth since its founding over 100 years ago. Two years ago, the small company was a start-up. Which of the two is more likely to be around five years from now?

Growth potential. Perhaps the small company is growing at 20 percent annually and the large company has averaged nine percent growth during its lifetime. If you are very good at what you do, at which company will you find better personal growth? Short-term? Long-term? You should also balance this against stability.

Span of control. Look at the classic pyramid organizational structure at the small and large companies. Find the block on the chart that represents you. Big fish in a small pond or small fish in a big pond? Which is more appealing?

Cross-functional mobility. The larger company has more divisions, more departments, and, in theory, more lateral mobility. However, does the corporate culture accommodate cross-functional transfers? In the small company the marketing department is right next door to the distribution department. Physically, that is an easy move. Realistically, how often does it happen?

Level of responsibility. Accept a job in production at a small company and your business card could read Director of Manufacturing. Take the equivalent position at the larger company, and your card says Production Supervisor.

Relocation frequency. Depending on the type of job and career path, a larger company will probably require more relocation than a smaller one as you climb the corporate ladder.

Travel. If business travel is inherent in the job (tech rep, sales, consulting, recruiting, etc.), you may travel more with the smaller company.

Visibility. Go to work for the large company and you may never meet a vice president. At a smaller company the president could know you on a first name basis.

Resume Enhancement. Suppose you find yourself back in the job market. Which option looks better on your revised resume? The larger company may be the more recognizable of the two, but how marketable is that new skill set? Your depth and range of experience (and title) at the smaller company is impressive, but where else might those things be applicable?

So, does size matter? Simple question — complicated answer. As with many of the important issues in life, there is usually enough information available to support your decision either way. It is up to you. Identify your issues and decision criteria, weigh them, prioritize them, fill in the blanks as well as you can, and take the plunge. Good hunting!

© Tom Wolfe is an author, columnist, career coach, veteran, and an expert in the field of military-to-civilian career transition. During his career he assisted thousands of service members in their searches for employment, placing more than 3000 in their new jobs. Prior to civilian life, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a surface warfare officer. He teaches transition courses, gives seminars on career and job change, writes about the career transition process, and continues to counsel current and former military personnel. His book, Out of Uniform: Your Guide to a Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition, was published by Potomac Books in 2011. Tom lives on the North Carolina coast with his wife, Julie, and their Chesapeake Bay retriever, Maggie.

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