When Goliath Wants to Become David

There’s been a stark  trend in career transition over the last 25 or 30 years. Many mid and later career executives in “Goliath”-sized companies have decided that often it just makes more sense for them to work for “David” -sized firms. Call it “Career Downsizing”.

Why would this be? There are many reasons, most having to do with an increasing emphasis on the “values proposition” when it comes to making career choices.

In the immediate wake of World War II, it was typical that business executives felt lucky to have a job, particularly with a large multinational company like Boeing, GE or IBM; and believed that if they kept their nose clean and head down, they would be at the company for many years. They may have suffered at the hands of abusive bosses or enervating work, but they stayed, they persevered- mainly in the interest of a committed work ethic and belief in the corporate mission.

In the mid to late 1960’s, this attitude began to change along with a change in cultural values. The “me generation” held that it was more important to focus on internal satisfaction, quality of life, and the pursuit of whatever personal values one held as paramount than to simply have a job for the sake of working.  A sense of frustration with the big, slow moving and impersonal bureaucracy associated with big companies  began to creep into worker’s consciousness.

This trend has only intensified and expanded  as we have moved into the first part of the 21st century. Gen X’ers and Millennials are increasingly demanding when it comes to locating those jobs and companies who cater to their specific value system,  or which validate their view of what is important in life. Some of those values include the ability for  personal development, autonomy, time flexibility, impact, and involvement in mission strategy.

Big corporations and multinationals are often slow to recognize and adjust to these changing values. Some of this is simply the result of the limitations that go with size- it’s always harder to turn a battleship than it is a row boat. Impersonal boss, peer and subordinate relationships are simply more often a fact of life in multinationals and large corporations where policies and layers of matrix mitigate against forming intimate partnerships and mentoring situations.

Younger employees recognize the “belt notching” value of working for the big Goliath companies early in their careers–  some of which are great training programs, resume building, future connections with prominent thought-leaders, etc. It is assumed that a stint with Microsoft, Boeing or General Electric will help catapult them into bigger and better positions.

If these blossoming executives have any entrepreneurial instincts at all, however, they begin to quickly realize the limitations to their career growth associated with being wedged into a multifaceted, bureaucratic structure. They want to get noticed, make things happen, have more impact. Additionally, as they start families,  smart executives realize that a long career with a multinational is likely to require multiple geographic relocations with the associated costs to family and pocketbooks.

So,  at around 40+ years old, and increasing into their 50’s, these executives decide it is time to make the necessary trade-offs to get more influence, autonomy and impact by searching for a new position in a smaller company- becoming a bigger fish in a smaller pond. They come to the conclusion that the resultant give back in terms of compensation, benefits and perks may be worth it to finish off their careers in jobs that are more fun, with people whose values they embrace, and where they can make a real difference.

As Lee Corso, the former football coach and commentator on Game Day might say: ” NOT SO FAST!”

Job seekers seeking to downsize would be well advised to understand and confront an uncomfortable truth of the modern labor market:

The same perceptions about the failings of large corporations that drive aspiring executives to seek a change from Goliath to David firms are the very same perceptions, held by many owners of smaller businesses,  that render them resistant to hiring employees from large corporations! Ergo, a classic Catch-22.

Many of my small to mid-cap clients demonstrate great reluctance to hire candidates who come out of large national or multinational corporations. While they may not articulate it, they harbor a deep-seated belief that candidates from such companies will likely not be nimble, entrepreneurial and aggressive enough to succeed in a small company culture. Hiring managers believe they will be much too used to having big staffs to whom they delegate everything, and will over-analyze every bit of available data before making a critical decision.

Given these and other perceptual hurdles standing in the way of top candidates making an effective transition from Goliath to David cultures, here are some suggestions:

  1. Emphasize, in resumes, cover letters and during interviews, that despite being part of a big company, you have operated as if you were an entrepreneur who could be depended on for nimble decision making and creative thinking.
  2. Work to convey an active embrace of autonomy and independent action, albeit within a team environment.
  3. Convey enthusiasm, a penchant for directness and lack of patience with political posturing.
  4. If you have stints with smaller companies, even if these were not completely successful, suggest that these were beneficial for exposing you to the different demands of start up or fast growth organizations, and what you learned from it that experience  that positions you for success.
  5. Work comments  into the interview about your impatience with bureaucratic dithering and lack of direct action, and how this is leading you to seek a change to a more entrepreneurial environment.

While the impulse to downsize is laudable and likely sensible in late career, job seekers need to be prepared to meet and overcome the natural resistance of small and mid-cap business owners to taking a risk on hiring executives they perceive as too steeped in big corporatism.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *