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March 11, 2011

Can Goliath Work Like David?

In describing their biggest hiring frustrations, Owners/CEOs often mention hiring someone out of a big company who was not able to adapt to the challenges of a mid-sized company. One Owner recently told me about one of his hiring mistakes – a VP-level hire who had worked at IBM – as follows: “He didn’t know how to create something from nothing. It’s like if you already have a crank, he can crank, but he can’t actually build the crank.”
big challenge with hiring someone out of a big company is what one Owner called “the resource issue” – i.e., that the person is used to operating with a lot of resources. (“Big company” Goliath was used to having a full complement of armor and weapons, while little David had only a slingshot and the ability to improvise.) Another Owner said, “They have to realize that in a company with $30M revenues, they are the resource. They have to make everything happen themselves.”

QUESTION SUMMARY: In your experience, is it hard for people to transition from big companies to new ventures, or is this issue overblown? If it is hard, what are the biggest challenges, and what are the best ways to address those challenges?

Some big-company people can work well in mid-sized firms. What indicates which big-company hires will work out? The following characteristics were proposed:

  • Within the big company, the person has succeeded at a variety of very different jobs across many positions and units, which suggests an ability to adapt.
  • The person has had some international assignments, which often demand more entrepreneurial skills than do domestic ones.
  • The person has enough self-knowledge to know if she fits better in big companies or in new ventures, and what stage of a new venture’s life cycle would be the best fit. Relatedly, the person is aware that the situation is "radically different" in a new venture, regarding resources, financing, and the need to wear many hats.
  • The person is comfortable with the fact that the probability of success is a lot lower in the smaller company.
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