Sizing Up Your Options: Working for Large Firms v Small Companies

Apple Pear

When guiding people as to their next career move, I first tend to ask them whether they prefer working for a large or a small company.

There are many pros and cons to both scenarios and there is no right or wrong answer. People’s preferences are often based on experiences with one or the other, and the right way forward will very much depend on the stage of your career.

I would always argue that you should keep an open mind, though: not all big companies are the same, and certainly no two smaller businesses are either. But there are some definite themes among the benefits each can offer. Here are some to consider.

Professional procedures

“A large company” is a very generic label for a business that may be global, publicly listed or corporate in nature. This means there may be management boards or shareholders to whom you will ultimately report.

This, in turn, means that reporting lines and expectations will be obvious, and your career development plans clearly defined. Processes are – theoretically – well structured, and there will be tried and tested systems in place, all of which should help to make your day-to-day job easier.

But this fixed way of doing things can frustrate some people. Writing reports, filling out timesheets, getting sign-off for everything – all of this can be seen to hamper your actual day job. Working in a smaller company instead means you can focus on what you do and what you are good at. You can give clients your full attention without needing to rush back to the office to get through your admin. 

International opportunities

The advantages of working for a large international company are obvious when it comes to pursuing dreams of living and working abroad. Moving overseas with a company is an easy way to do fulfil these ambitions, and overcomes issues such as visa eligibility. Transferring to a global location with the same company can also be reassuring, as it takes the stress out of many elements of moving abroad.

But perhaps relocating overseas is just not on the horizon for you. And if it is, who cares? There are plenty of companies out there, and multiple places in the world to move and work.

Career development

Training and development programmes in a bigger business are often unparalleled by those offered at their smaller competitors, who are unlikely to have the same resources. Working for a large business – operating across multiple sectors with many different service lines – undoubtedly means you are also presented with far more opportunities to sidestep or diversify your career than you would be when working in a small firm. 

But if you are happy with exactly what you’re doing, and your career aspirations match your current role and the trajectory ahead of you, then the chance to diversify what you’re doing becomes irrelevant.

In terms of day-to-day career progression, training and development may not be as structured in a smaller firm, but on-the-job exposure and the chances of gaining knowledge from hands-on, practical experience are limitless. The opportunities to gain more client access and more responsibility earlier on in your career, for example, are increased at a smaller business.

Still, the chances for advancement depend on the company. Working in an old-fashioned, independently owned business that is not progressive or innovative in its approach can well and truly stall your career. If you work at a small firm, take a broader view on where it is heading.

Career stability

Working for a large firm may be considered a safer bet in an unstable economy. The scale of services offered in such a business means that, by default, it is hedging its bets to ensure its business model is sustainable.

Working across multiple sectors and markets ensures your employer should not come unstuck financially: when some sectors are quiet they are carried by others, and vice versa.

But it is also the larger firms that are more likely to make mass redundancies and staff cuts if things get tough, often with no warning. Besides, smaller businesses operate like specialists because that’s what many clients like. You are also likely to be far more important to your employer than you might be, in a big company where you may just be regarded as a number.

Leadership

Working in a large company often means you have a respected and experienced professional at the helm, a high-profile figure who has earned the right to lead from the front at a well-recognised and successful business. 

But you may never even meet them. The reporting structure in a large company means you may only get access to your line manager and, perhaps, their manager, but that will be it. You are unlikely to have any insight into what is really going on at the top.

Working for a smaller business often means the direction of a company is far more visible. Business plans and performance are transparent and communicated to every staff member directly, which you will never experience in a big firm.

Salary and benefits

At a large firm, you are likely to benefit from all the bells and whistles you’d expect when it comes to a benefits package. Such extras may include a bonus or car allowance, private health insurance, life assurance, a fantastic pension and potential share options. You are also more likely to be in line for an annual pay review without compromise.

Smaller businesses don’t tend to offer such benefits, while pay reviews may be more sporadic. But owners of such businesses often take this into account when it comes to remuneration and they offer a higher base salary to compensate. This ultimately means more cash in your pocket rather than pension funds or private health insurance, which you may not really be interested in. 

Keep your options open

Ultimately, every company is different, and what can be said for one large firm may not be said for the next. Nonetheless, having worked with hundreds of companies over my career – from one-person outfits to large PLCs – there are parallels to be observed when it comes to work environments and what people are or are not looking for. So my advice would be not to rule any company out based on size alone.

Melani King, Director, Heron Partnership

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