Sunday, July 15, 2007

How To Talk To Your Boss: Corporations And Small Companies

I've worked for huge corporations and tiny firms, and whenever I switch from one to the other I have to do a certain amount of unlearning and re-learning when it comes to social habits.

With a corporation, you should only tell your boss about success you've attained or problems you need him to solve. This is because corporate managers deal mainly in delegations, introductions, and schedules. If you tell a corporate manager about a problem only you can solve, he/she will think, ah, they're telling me about a problem they have, I don't know how to solve it, so I'll delegate this to XYZ person. Then you end up with XYZ person tripping all over the problem space, trying to figure it out, while you try to implement the solution.

You could have thought, aha, here's my manager, I'll just keep them up to date, but if you don't keep them up to date in the right way, your schedule could be compromised by their very attempt to help. Many people respond to this by blaming the manager, but that's because the tech culture has a very irresponsible attitude towards communication. If you're on schedule, you say something to somebody, and now you're off schedule, that's your doing.

Now conversely, with a small business, you need to justify your time. Small businesses are more budget-conscious. This is true even for prosperous businesses on expensive projects with well-funded clients; it's not a matter of being on a budget per se, but of focus. Large corporations aim for economies of scale. Small businesses aim for efficiency. This is why innovations always come first from small companies. It also means your client or manager will need a different level of detail.

Small companies also have much smaller social networks, so your higher-up will not be thinking in terms of, is this under control or do I need to do some delegating or make some introductions? Your boss, or client, or whomever, is going to be thinking more in terms of, is this done, and how long will it take, and what steps remain? (Also, if you charge a hefty rate, your client may want to be sure you're not doing anything simple or basic that they could offload to one of their more affordable people.)

It's important to keep this in mind. Talking to a corporate manager the way you talk to a small business owner results in the corporate manager thinking you're overwhelmed and don't know what you're doing. Talking to a small business owner the way you talk to a corporate manager results in the small business owner thinking you're self-important and wasting time. (And this is, of course, assuming in either case optimal corporate managers and optimal small business owners. Any dysfunctions in either case can of course mean further compounded communication errors.)

Update: somebody cursed me passionately on reddit for my comment about innovations always coming from small companies. They seemed like they were foaming at the mouth, but they had a point. They mentioned 3M, and Apple's another big company famous for innovating. But there's definitely quicker adoption of innovations among smaller companies.


  1. Sounds like you nailed it pretty good!

  2. Hey Giles - Excellent post

    There's just one piece missing :-)
    How do you deal with your boss's boss? In a corporate environment you rarely meet him / her. In a small business environment this can be more interesting. (I'd love your thoughts) Tim

  3. Giles,

    Excellent post. I'm copy/pasting it to everybody at ITT.

  4. Liked the post. I've always worked for small businesses, and I developed the communication pattern you describe. I think you got the reasons behind it spot on. Interesting perspective on communication in a large business. If I do ever work for one I'll take your words to heart.

  5. gracias all! glad you like the post. very cool to hear it's being copied and pasted throughout the world etc. :-)

    I think for communicating to your boss's boss, it can vary. one time I was in a group where we actually got our manager fired. (he had a phony resume and was basically incompetent.) in that case communicating to our boss's boss was a very delicate yet aggressive operation. it was kinda ninja-style. in most cases you basically just want to be friendly.

  6. eh. apple just packages stuff together well, polishes it very nicely, and markets the hell out of it. they certainly come up with some very nice (although closed) systems, but i wouldn't call it innovation.

  7. Hey Giles - Great thoughts!

    Adding my 5c to it: You got the symptoms right, the root cause however may not always be the overall size of the company. I work for a rather large one, but corporate culture "dictates" a focus on budget and efficiency - so the questions my managers are asking are rather similar to what you describe as typical "small company question". It may be more of a culture thing than originating from size.

    @Anonymus: Yes, Apple is mainly a packager and they sure do not do a lot of technological innovation. What they are doing very well however (and I don't think they get enough credit for this) is to show the rest of the IT community what it means to be design and customer focused. Imaging what great and usable products we would have if more vendors would take the same approach. Though it is highly unlikely that I will buy an iPhone I sure hope that Nokia, Motorola and all the others will take some of the iPhone design lessons to their heart!

  8. Brief and insightful. Thanks for the tips.

  9. "They mentioned 3M"

    And their killer app in the dozens of years since the Post-It Note has been ... what, exactly?

  10. Excellent website. Good work. Very useful. I will bookmark!

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