Large Companies Can Learn Big Lessons From Small Startups

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Aug 17, 2020

Large companies looking for ways to build success often look to other large companies for best practices. At some level, it’s understandable to try to gain insights from businesses similar to yours. However, there’s a lot that enterprises can learn from their smaller counterparts.

For starters, you can rediscover the agility you used to have. 

Remember when you launched your flagship product, or made your big acquisition, or faced that big public lawsuit? You took on risks. But over time, you’ve probably become somewhat risk-averse. However, you can still take on risks. The reality is that startups face existential crises every quarter, for years. Yet they take intelligent risks because they know that that will ultimately help them succeed. You can do likewise by addressing the rigidity and safeness of staying inside the lines.

I once heard that in small companies people manage the business, and in big companies, people manage their careers. It hurts to hear that sometimes, but there is truth in it. In normal times, people keep their jobs by never being the one trying to break the rigidity of the system. But COVID-19 has shattered the system, or big parts of it. This creates risks and opportunities that require rebellious thinking. So connect people to the original mission, vision, values, and purpose — and encourage innovative ideas from everywhere. 

Tips for this? Erase your strategy from the “whiteboard” and start anew. Take the tie off and go for a long walk and see what your gut tells you is right. Then, when you make those monumental decisions about all the really hard stuff — layoffs, furloughs, pay changes, changes to benefits, etc. — infuse them with real care.

Just as in startups, you can’t hide behind corporate headquarters or boardroom doors, you should also face your people. Give it to them straight, but do so with the deep humility of someone who knows you can lose everything at any moment. 

In a crisis, it is critical for leaders to communicate early and often to their employees, as well as ensure everyone has access to the same information. Often, because startups have a smaller employee base, this may happen more organically, resulting in a tighter-knit community with a sense of closeness. Research shows that when information flows freely, employees are three times more likely to feel connected to their organization. It’s therefore important for larger businesses to leverage technology to overcome communication challenges to engage all their people.

And then listen to their people. Poll them about their desired work environment, their level of connection and engagement, how included they feel in the culture, and how they are handling stress. This is especially critical because some of the hallmarks of startups — creativity, agility, innovation— require three things: inclusion, wellbeing, and engagement. Our research shows how incredibly connected these things are, and it’s obvious when you peel it apart. 

Inclusion means you feel comfortable sharing; your voice will be heard and your ideas valued. Wellbeing means you have the wherewithal to have energy, time in nature to think and a mind where stress is there but not banging your skull like a drum. And engagement means you are leaning in to work, and that you care enough to share your ideas with your teammates.

Most importantly, large enterprises should stand for something bigger than beating competitors or quarterly earnings. Great companies know where they came from, know the values they’re sworn to uphold, and know where they are going. Tell a consistent, real, emotional story about something meaningful to your people and the world. Then execute on that vision.