THE BLOG

3 Things to Remember When Onboarding Into a Smaller Organization

12/19/2012 11:01 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2013

The same three things derail people onboarding into small companies as into large companies: poor fit, failure to deliver and an inability to deal with changes along the way. But the way to deal with those obstacles in smaller companies is different. You must:

  • Fit within the organization's broader ecosystem as well as your workgroup
  • Deliver with fewer resources and less structure
  • Create change instead of waiting for it to happen

Val Rahmani is the poster child for both moving from a large to a small company and dealing with risk. She is a 28-year veteran of IBM (which most would consider to be a large company) who moved to cyber-security pioneer Damballa (a small, private company). She deals with risk every day in her job as CEO and in her free time, as a member of the British aerobatics team.

Rahmani gave me her perspective on the three things to keep in mind when moving to a smaller organization.

Fit with the Organization's Broader Ecosystem

Forty percent of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. The number one reason is poor fit. In a large company, this is about fitting in with your boss, direct reports, and key peers and the culture of the organization. In a small company, external stakeholders like the board, key customers and suppliers, and the community in which you work tend to be much more closely integrated into the functioning of the organization. It's important to fit with them as well. Many moving from large to small companies don't know this. Now you do.

Rahmani experienced this in her move from IBM to Damballa where she relearned the importance of networking. As she explained to me, at IBM she generally "got introduced" to people. Even if she was making a cold call, her IBM business card turned the call warm in an instant. Without the IBM net, she worked hard to become part of the broader community and of the smaller tech community within Atlanta. The good news was that the "folks in Atlanta were amazing," welcoming and helpful.

Deliver with Fewer Resources and Less Structure

At one point I stopped hiring people directly out of Procter & Gamble. The trouble was that everyone there knew they could depend on their colleagues to deliver what they promised to deliver when they promised to deliver it. If manufacturing said it would ship products on May 10th, it shipped on May 10th. When finance gave you a set of numbers, they were right. When R&D said something was true, it was true.

This doesn't always hold in smaller organizations. Groups are stretched thinner. They have to do things faster. They're inventing processes and procedures on the way. Things slip through the cracks. People accustomed to everything working like clockwork often get disoriented the first few times the clocks miss a beat. It turns out that flexibility is a learned skill - and an important one for a small company.

Rahmani doesn't miss IBM's structure at all. She's finding she can leverage off-the-shelf software solutions for her CRM and HR needs, and the lack of structure in her smaller company makes it easier to get things done. She thinks "human beings create process" where sometimes none is needed. Sometimes people hesitate to do things because they think they are in violation of a process that doesn't exist. She finds herself telling people to "Just tell me (what you think)" instead of inventing a process to slow things down.

Create Instead of Adapt to Change

Darwin told us that survival of the fittest is all about survival of those best able to adapt to change. Almost by definition, larger companies have more moving parts, each of which must adapt to change. If larger companies don't adapt, they get hurt. But it's a whole different game for smaller companies. As Rahmani put it, "We are imposing change on the market." If smaller companies don't create change, there's no reason for them to exist.

Most companies have a product or a service they compete with others to sell to customers. Rahmani's Damballa does all that, but has another dimension -- "bad guys." Damballa is in the business of helping organizations stay ahead of malware threats by detecting criminal activity and cyber-threats in their early stages. Rahmani says, "We're at war. We have to be slicker, faster and better to be ahead." If they're not ahead, not creating change, the bad guys will get ahead of them and Damballa will have no value.

Rahmani had a couple of closing thoughts to our discussion. 1) She thinks it would be even harder to move from a small company to a big company. 2) Her advice to people thinking about making the move to a smaller company is "It's a ton of fun. Do it!"

If you do, make sure you fit with the broader group, deliver with less structure, and create change.

This is a good example of step 1 of The New Leader's Playbook: Position Yourself for Success

There are several components of this including positioning yourself for a leadership role, selling before you buy, mapping and avoiding the most common land mines, uncovering hidden risks in the organization, role, and fit, and choosing the right approach for your transition type. (Including an interim role.)

Click here to read about each step in the playbook