Most of my career was spent managing stores with a national retailer, where there was a huge focus on standardization and consistency. As a manager, you had to think in big numbers — how do you keep 2,000 or 20,000 employees motivated and still maintain consistency and equality. The answer tended toward managing in a very structured organizational culture where it was more important to follow the rules than look at the needs of the individual.
Then Came the Transition
When I transitioned careers and went into human resources, I also ended up moving to a smaller company with under 50 employees. I had to figure out quickly what would translate from the highly structured environment I came from to one where no one had an office and they had happy hour every Thursday.
I knew some things would transition well into a smaller culture — building relationships of trust at all levels of the company, probing into what was great about the company and what needed adjustment, and helping get the right people in the right seats on the bus.
But some things did not translate to a smaller organization. Here are some pitfalls that you can avoid if you are making that same transition in any leadership capacity.
1. Stringent adherence to policies and rules
Rules serve a purpose, especially in keeping you out of lawsuits. However, what I found in a small company was that a velvet glove was better than an iron hammer.
My first experience with this was when the senior managers thought that we should tighten up the attendance policy. They felt that people were taking advantage of work-from-home time and believed we needed a little more structure.
I emailed my HR peers and asked for their attendance policy and went on an HR website for examples of attendance rules and regulations. I crafted an airtight attendance policy complete with progressive discipline guidelines and spreadsheets for tracking.
One word: overkill! After discussing it with my boss, I put together a gentle reminder about expectations on attendance. That was enough to get everyone back in line without hitting them over the head with a baseball bat.
Things change fast in a smaller company. You have to learn to be more nimble because the business needs can change quickly, and you have to pirouette to keep up. It’s the big battleship versus the small speedboat comparison. You don’t really feel a turn in big a battleship, but you certainly do in a speedboat.
As the HR person, it's important to understand strategies and priorities of hiring or performance management, but you have to understand that those strategies might change quickly and you cannot get upset or frustrated because what you spent hours on last week is suddenly no longer a priority.
3. Not calming down
In a big company, it seemed that everything was a five-alarm fire, and we were constantly ready to slide down the pole and go flying down the street with sirens blazing.
In my first weeks in a smaller company, my boss made a suggestion about a project he thought would be good for the company.
Like a good little soldier, I got right on it and banged out what I thought he wanted to see. When I presented it to him, he looked at me like I was crazy for spending so much time on something that was still in the discussion stages. Take a breath and ask for direction on prioritizing projects.
4. Being a tight-ass
In my big company days, I had to wear a black suit every single day. I would never think of not shaving for a day, and even business-casual attire involved wearing a sport coat.
In my first days at my new smaller company, I dressed as professionally as possible: nice jeans, button-up shirt, and sport coat. Then my boss, who rode his bike to work some days, carried his bike up to the office, and proceeded to change from his bike-appropriate Lycra into his shorts and flip-flops.
It was time to unwind and go with the flow. I can now say that shorts and tees are part of my regular work wardrobe, and I get fussy if I have to put on dress shoes.
The humor is much more risqué, and yes, the occasional adult beverage is consumed in the office. That’s all part of the organizational culture, and part of what makes this such a great place to work.
The sense of urgency and structure that I learned working for a big company has served me well. But what I learned at my current company is that our employee value proposition has a lot to do with having a good work-life balance, not being uptight, and having fun at work. We still have a laser-focus on getting results, but what I have learned is that you can leave a lot of the structure behind and still be successful.