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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

The Difference Between Start-ups and Corporate

After a year of flexible hours, a private office, and the complete absence of a dress code at a start-up company, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would choose to go back to the corporate world of suits and cubicles.

Well, I did.

The transition was difficult, and not just because I was suddenly confined to a cube. Essentially, I went from being a top decision maker who was involved in the company’s every move to a peon on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.

And while the availability of benefits (finally, health insurance and a 401(k)!) was a welcome variation from the start-up world, there were several other changes that took a little more adjustment for me to come to terms with my new position.

If you're thinking about making the switch, here's how to make the most of your new, more structured environment.

Embrace the Accountability

As a top dog at the start-up, I was essentially my own boss. While I met with the rest of the management team to discuss and agree on high-level areas of focus and ventures to pursue, I was in charge of my day-to-day workflow. I set my own priorities and goals, and individually decided how to work toward them.

When I transitioned into the corporate world, I no longer made those calls. My department’s progress is closely monitored by weekly reports, call handling statistics, and other measurable numbers, so my boss knows (and is quick to relay to me) when I need to push my team to get more done, discipline a particular employee, or rush to meet a deadline on a project. I no longer decide what project to work on or how to work toward goals—it’s decided for me.

Going from being your own boss to having your every move monitored certainly doesn’t seem ideal. But the good thing about this type of accountability is that it has produced a mentor-mentee type of relationship between my boss and me. As he prompts me to meet goals and deadlines, he also offers great advice on how to approach situations and manage my team. Instead of flying by the seat of my pants (which is what I became accustomed to at the start-up), I can consult him for solid advice about interviewing, hiring, disciplining, or motivating employees. His suggestions are a resource I didn’t have in a start-up environment, because I was already at the top.

Learn as Much as You Can

As one of the three managers at my previous company, I was always involved in big decisions, like the overall branding of the company, community partnerships and promotions, and planning our expansion into other cities.

In my new corporate role, that decision-making power has been drastically reduced—I’m lucky if I catch one of the executives in the elevator long enough to shake hands and introduce myself, let alone share my ideas for our newest business venture. Instead, already-made decisions trickle down to my department, where it’s my responsibility to implement them as instructed.

Initially, this was a huge blow to my ego. But instead of letting this lack of power get me down, I’ve learned to take advantage of my low position on the totem pole to learn more. Once a week, I meet with my manager to discuss recent (and upcoming) company decisions and changes. The more I understand about that reasoning and the company as a whole, the more I learn about making well-informed business decisions.

And sometimes, I realize the way I approached decisions in my past position was often based on a gut feeling, rather than a well thought-out process. Sure, that works in the fast-paced start-up world. But when I see the corporate decision-making process based in financial analyses, competitive reports, and industry research, I see strategies that I can implement in my future roles—whether I remain in corporate or return to my entrepreneurial roots.

Find Small Ways to See Results

When I first started in the corporate world, I felt like no matter how hard I worked, I’d never actually influence the success of the company. Until you make your way to the C-suite, it’s tough to make an impact among thousands of other cubicle-dwellers. Consequently, it’s easy to develop an apathetic “It doesn’t matter what I do anyway” type of attitude.

To fight that, I slowly realized that I could exert my influence in a different way, and surprisingly, still get a lot of professional satisfaction from it.

When I first started at the company, for example, my customer service department had a backlog of over 2,000 cases. Eight months (and a lot of coaching, encouragement, and hard work) later, it’s now below 100. Hitting this number was exciting, but beyond that, the almost non-existent backlog means that we can now answer calls and resolve issues much faster than before. So while it’s not on the executive level of a million dollar acquisition, my team’s accomplishment is driving customer satisfaction through the roof—and that’s something I’m really proud of.

It may not be the same direct influence that I used to have, but in the end, if I make my employees and clients happy, I am making an impact on the company—no matter how far I am from the title of CEO.

When you move from the top of the heap at a start-up to a bottom rung of the corporate ladder, it’s easy to feel like you’ve downgraded. But, take it from me, if you fight that mindset, you can find ways to truly make an impact—on both your company and your job satisfaction.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.