As the HR director for a small tech company in Colorado, Kathleen Brenk had a hands-on role in everything from payroll to coaching managers. But when she left to become the top HR leader at a 7,000-employee company with 14 locations, she found the shift came with a bit of culture shock—and some pros and cons.
"In fact, my team today is 90 people, and quite honestly, I don't know all 90 people," says Brenk, the senior HR director at Marvin, a 110-year-old window manufacturer. "For me, this opportunity meant I'd be leading a much larger team, and within that, I'd be leading other leaders. I also found I ended up further away from the work."
It's not easy for executives to move from a small or midsized company to a larger corporate structure. But Brenk says it's valuable to have a growth plan in place before day one at the larger organization that accounts for three C's: culture, confidence and change. A successful transition also requires preparing for a different pace.
"Smaller organizations tend to move a bit more nimbly, with fewer decision-makers and processes," she says. "Larger organizations might move more slowly, with more alignment and collaboration required to execute decisions across more people or more locations."
Diving into the Deep End
Here are seven nuggets of advice from c-level executives who have successfully made the jump from small pond to big pond.
1. Check your ego at the door
As the new kid on a very big block, you may go from having a loftier title and more instant decision-making authority at your old company to being just one (less-recognized) voice on your new executive team.
"Accept that you haven't yet experienced business at a larger scale and take it as an opportunity to grow and learn," says Jamie Viramontes, CEO of California-based Konnect HR and a former executive at Chipotle.
2. Emphasize day one and week one in the transition
Executives who are shifting to a large employer should focus on understanding the culture and values of the new company.
"During the first week, executives should prioritize building relationships with key stakeholders and decision-makers, including peers, subordinates and superiors," says Jonathan Westover, organizational leadership chair at Utah Valley University. "Take time to familiarize yourself with the company's goals and objectives, as well as any ongoing projects or initiatives."
3. Focus on building trusting relationships with your peer leaders
Brenk says she handled the trust issue by listening as much as possible and simultaneously demonstrating who she is as a company leader—and as a person.
"By transparently showcasing my personal brand to my peers, I've been able to quickly build critical trust," she says. "Equally important has been delivering on what I say I represent."
Brenk adds that it's essential to empower your direct reports and set expectations with your internal business partners.
"While I can't be involved in every day-to-day activity, my peers have a clear understanding of how they'll partner with my team and trust that teams will escalate concerns as needed," she says. "At a large organization, your teams should know how much space and decision-making ability they have, and it should be quite a bit."
In addition, Brenk keeps a notebook to jot down personal details about her team. "As teams get larger, I find taking notes helps me stay better connected, which builds more trust," she says.
4. Build trust within your department
New executives need to get to know their teams as quickly as possible so they can start delegating work and identifying pain points and opportunities.
To do this, dedicate part of your first week to getting to know your direct reports by scheduling one-on-ones with each of them or taking them to lunch.
"Do so with the express purpose of asking questions about what they do on a day-to-day basis, what they'd like to be doing and what their biggest challenges are," says Matthew Ramirez, a serial entrepreneur who sold his first company to Chegg, an education technology firm "You can also use these meetings to get an idea of areas you need to dive into deeper."
For example, suppose a direct report mentions that she's waiting on approval from another department before she can move forward on a major project. "That's an opportunity for you to reach out to that other department to learn more about their processes and see how you can help move things along," says Ramirez.
5. Launch pilot programs and grow from there
Incoming big-company executives need to learn the art of piloting programs. This may take some time to feel natural.
"Smaller companies have the flexibility to roll something out and squash it quickly if you feel it's not working," Viramontes says. However, there's often a different reality at larger companies.
"Great leaders find a pilot market and test their theories so there is time for feedback, pivoting or adjustments," he notes. "It's better to have a small fail from a pilot program than to have something completely blow up in your face, especially early on in your tenure at a larger company."
6. Sharpen your influence skills
At smaller companies, you have fewer people to convince. The opposite is true at big firms.
"When working for large companies, you're constantly having to get buy-in from other leaders across the organization," Viramontes explains. "It's much more difficult to steer an initiative across the finish line if you have other leaders working against you due to competing priorities and opinions."
This goes back to prioritizing building trust with colleagues. The more people you have on your side, the easier your life will be as a big-company decision-maker.
7. Set goals and get feedback on your performance
During your first quarter in your new role, set specific goals and objectives, and track your progress toward completing them.
"It's important for an executive moving from a small company to a large one to seek feedback from peers, subordinates and superiors, and to adjust your management mindset as needed," Westover says. "It's important to have open communication with the team and establish a culture of transparency and accountability. Regular check-ins with superiors can also provide valuable guidance and support."
Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).