Tips For Surviving in a BIG Company


Jeremy Connell-Waite

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Ambassador • Stop the Traffik Trustee • Ten Words Podcast

I’ve got a bit of experience working at large companies. IBM has around 430,000 employees. Salesforce has 35,000. And when I was at Adobe it had around 13,000. I’ve learned a few things along the way about working in a big business. What’s good? What’s not? How do you survive? And more importantly, how do you thrive? Feel free to add your own pearls of wisdom in the comments to inspire others.

  • Have one win every day. Sometimes working in a big company feels like you take 20 steps forward and 19 back each day. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Our brains like to focus on the negative steps backward. But if you just make a note of one good thing that happened each day, and go back over it from time to time, you will maintain a much more positive attitude towards progress. And probably survive (and thrive) a lot longer.
  • The power of your network is greater than the value of the services you provide. It’s easy to learn a new product and have a good looking PPT deck up your sleeve with a clever talk track. But selling is a team sport – and a good network will get you a lot further than good slides.
  • The goal in businesses is not to sell to people who need what you have, it is to work with people who believe what you believe. Look for those people and find creative ways to include them. You’ll be surprised where they live and what they are capable of.
  • It doesn’t matter what band you are. Large organisations like IBM, NHS and the police have banded pay structures. I’ve often been in meetings where the conversation is dominated by what band everyone is. Big business works best when you stop worrying about bands and hierarchies and start focusing where good ideas come from.
  • We don’t always know what’s going to happen. At IBM we have had 6 Nobel prize winners in our research team and have built one of the world’s most advanced AI-powered analytics platforms. We like to think we are good at predicting things but our people are at their best when they take any event in their stride, listen to all perspectives before making a decision and then respond with empathy.
  • Big companies like to worry about what keeps their clients up at night. A better approach might be to think about what makes their customers bounce out of bed each morning.
  • There are more smart people out there than in here. IBM has around 430,000 employees. We have a lot of smart people. But thinking that we know everything creates a culture where you just broadcast all your information to the world. Our best work happens when we collaborate with people who have a different (non-blue) view of the world.
  • 8% of the people will have ADHD. If you consider than almost 1 in 10 high performers in large organisations are on the spectrum in some way and that will affect their performance, you start to have a lot more empathy for how they work. Some people are naturally great at a few things, but trying to get them to be good in other areas may only cause problems. Promote more mental health first aiders and allow them time and space to help others. (The How to ADHD YouTube channel is fun and an excellent starting point).
  • Focus on building peoples strengths not improving their weakness. (Also see above!). Large companies have a lot of employees. People will be more specialist than others. Unlike a startup where you may need to wear 16 different hats, you don’t always need to be as rounded at a large company. Embrace “T” shaped people.
  • You don’t need a title to be a leader. John Maxwell is regarded as the world’s top leadership coach. Study his work. A good place to start is the easy to read “Today Matters”.
  • Some people follow their managers because they have to. That’s the lowest form of leadership. Understanding that there are “5 Levels of Leadership” will help you create teams of people who will follow you anywhere.
  • Embrace wild ducks. There are always crazy ones. The square pegs in round holes. They shine and they stand out. But they often struggle in the framework of a large business that wants to act a certain way. So finding ways to have some kind of freedom within that framework where you can express your individuality is one of the keys to success.
  • The best big businesses act like a collection of startups. I like to think of IBM as a 109-year startup. Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup) wrote a great book about embracing the entrepreneurial spirit within a large organization called “The Startup Way”.
  • Big businesses have a lot less money than you think. IBMs marketing budget is around $1Bn. But once it’s split up across all the business units and 190 countries the budgets become really small really fast. Finding creative ways to do good things on a budget is a good skill to acquire. I hosted the THINK Climate conference in November. About 150 business leaders attended the event and we generated almost 1M comments and engagements across social media, including a comment from former Vice President Al Gore. I think it was one of the best events we have ever done and it cost just £1600.
  • The most successful people build things. We have over 250,000 consultants. And consultants like to talk. A lot. That’s what they get paid for. But the thing that inspires most people, from what I have seen, is not what people say but what people build. That’s one reason IBM is so focused on registering patents and investing in a huge research team.
  • Have a V2MOM. Everyone should have a personal business plan. It helps you know what to do, where to go and how to know when you get there. I think Salesforce have the best method for this, created by Tony Robbins and Mark Benioff.
  • Avoid Death by PowerPoint. It’s easy to hide behind ‘presenter view’ and read notes. Or worse still, read what is on the slide to everyone in the room. The best presentations think of slides like billboards where you need to communicate your message in around 3 seconds.
  • The best presenters don’t use slides. Some presentations need slides. Big companies LOVE PowerPoint. But if you know your stuff, have some flipchart skills, and turn up to a meeting armed with stories and Post-It notes, people will thank you for it.
  • People are not persuaded by what you say. They are persuaded by what they understand. The best presentations simplify complexity. They are also not full of words. There’s a lot of research to show that only 8% of what people remember is from words. The rest is props, venue, style, body language, tone….
  • Tell stories that matter. In order to be a good corporate storyteller, you need to have a lot of good stories up your sleeve. Learn customer stories that might have nothing to do with your part of the business. Because as Seth Godin said, “If you wait until there’s a case study in your industry you waited too long”.
  • Always have a clever piece of research up your sleeve. Read some papers. Memorise some stats. Know the methodology in case someone challenges you. Everybody likes to look smart and will appreciate you giving them a useful insight that they didn’t know.
  • Read the FT everyday. Ginni Rometty once told me that the best piece of advice is to go into meetings more informed than anyone else. And one of the best ways of doing that is to read the FT every day. It also gives you a deep understanding of whatever industry you are focused on and helps you to see things from a different commercial point of view. Yes it is expensive (and your expenses may not cover it!) but it’s worth it.
  • Most leaders move every 18 months. Especially the good ones. I have spent some time studying IBM leaders and the trajectory of their careers. It’s amazing how many move from role to role in under 2 years. So if you need to get “buy-in” from a senior leader in order to get your project off the ground, you might need to move fast or widen your network.
  • Do your best work in the first 90 days. When you move into a new role, your success will likely be determined by exactly what you do in your first 90 days. This book will help you.
  • Go into every meeting more prepared than everyone else. It’s amazing how few people do serious research on who is in the room. Even if they are your colleagues. Scan their Linkedin. Scroll through their Instagram. Read their last blog. It will make all the difference.
  • The majority of executives are overwhelmed. Data shows that around 80% of execs are overwhelmed and feel under-prepared for the challenges their business will face over the next 5 years. Not every leader will ask for your help. But anything you can do to help them feel less overwhelmed will be rewarded sooner or later.
  • The top leaders are a lot more accessible than you might think. I’ve had several 1:1’s, breakfasts and dinners with our most senior leaders. Not because they asked me. But because I asked them. You may get a calendar invite that is months away, but 10 minutes with someone serious can change everything in your world.
  • Big companies are bad at social media. They just are. Mostly. They’re risk-averse. Nervous of over-sharing. Often lacking personality. And keen to avoid any PR-crisis. They love push notifications and broadcast messages with meaningless hashtags. This means that most people don’t embrace social media in large organisations. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or get into trouble. But those who do, and do it respectfully by understanding social, media and business conduct guidelines, are the ones who stand out and get noticed. Regardless of their age or experience.
  • Your co-workers are smart and they have good intentions. People do silly things in large organisations. Sometimes unintentionally. Sometimes trying to make a name for themselves. But if you let yourself believe that everyone has good intentions, despite what it looks like, you’ll find it easier to cope when people do dumb things.
  • Manage down don’t manage up. Large companies like to fast-track the top talent. But that can easily encourage a culture where you focus on your next job and the leaders who are above you. But I have found that the happiest leaders manage down and make sure that even the youngest members of their team feel a sense of belonging.
  • Some people just don’t get on. Personality clashes. History. Past performance. Egos. Everyone brings baggage and personal agendas. And a lot of time can be wasted trying to build up team spirit, happiness and morale. Sometimes (but not always) the best approach seems to be to get your team aligned around a common vision that they all believe in, rather than trying to create team harmony.
  • Study “Ikigai”. With all of the stresses, challenges and opportunities within a large business, you need to find a way to combine what you love, with what you’re good at, what you get paid for and what the world needs.
  • Have fun. There is an unofficial manifesto I share at IBM about our purpose. I stole it from Biz Stone at Twitter. Feel free to steal it from me: “We can build a business, change the world and have fun”. Do as much of the last part as you can.
  • Big businesses can change the world. IBM prides itself on trying to make the world work better. It doesn’t always feel that way when you are bogged down in admin, process or red-tape, but when a big business really gets behind something and puts its mind to something meaningful, it really is a sight to see.
  • The grass isn’t always greener. When I moved from Salesforce to IBM I was surprised at the amount of times I got asked “why?”. “People move from IBM to Salesforce, not the other way” I was told! Like many companies Salesforce looks exciting from the outside. It has Dreamforce. And space hoppers. And a team spirit it calls “ohana”. It is a great place to work, but it’s not better than IBM. It’s just different. And like IBM it’s not for everyone. It has it’s own set of very different challenges and problems. It’s easy to get frustrated in a big company and move to somewhere that looks more exciting. But the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else. The question we should be asking is how can you navigate the corporate machine where you are (with all its faults) in order to make a difference?
  • People don’t leave companies they leave managers. I mentor a few people and am often asked for advice about moving jobs or companies, because they don’t like their current job. One big advantage of a large organization is the amount of opportunities to move anywhere and do something completely different. 2 years ago I was in the middle of a long career in marketing working with e-commerce brands. I now work in sustainability and climate change doing meaningful work that is really making a difference. I would not have had the opportunity to do that, learn new things, and get paid well for it, at most other companies.
  • Building a community and engaging with employees are not the same thing. If you want to understand what a true community looks like, read this from M. Scott Peck. Now go any try to replicate as much of that as you can within your business.
  • Embrace the triple bottom line. Study Doughnut Economics. Understand that the key to success in a large business is as much about your impact on people and the planet as it is about generating profits.
  • Act like you are running for office. I recently helped IBM to set up a Sustainability and Climate Practice. Managing so many different teams and working collaboratively across a few very different business units wasn’t easy. But approaching it as a political campaign where I was on a campaign trail to win the hearts and minds of different stakeholders made it easier. It also made it more fun. To regularly listen to David Axelrod’s Masterclass on political campaigning for inspiration and advice!
  • Find your why. No post like this is complete without a little Sinek. But it’s one of the best pieces of guidance I’ve ever received for surviving in corporate life. Just fill in this sentence. First with your contribution. And then with your impact. It’s a lot harder to do than you think, but if you use it as a filter, it will help you to make better decisions. “I want to _________ so that ________”.
  • Find your teams why. There are many expensive coaches and workshops out there but this book “Finding Your Why” is about £17 and will probably be more valuable than all of them if you read it.
  • You don’t always need an MBA. Big companies like experience. They like big company names on your CV. They like MBAs, Masters and PhD’s. But not everyone has them. (I dropped out of university to start a business). The important thing is to never stop learning. There are many excellent free courses on EdX and will give you more life lessons than you can shake a stick at. Use your commute as a 30-minute classroom. And then share what you’ve learned with your colleagues. (Here’s 10 Masterclasses to help you to be better at your job).
  • Become a thought leader with an opinion. Just sharing other people’s stuff is not enough. Just sharing corporate ideas and strategies are not enough. You need to find the time to create your own opinions. Tom Friedman is currently my favourite opinion writer from the New York Times. He’s won a few Pulitzer prizes so he knows a thing or two about how to have an opinion and write about it. He explains his process here in 2 minutes.
  • Everyone should write a book. (But not everyone should publish it). Sage advice from marketing author Seth Godin. Sharing a book or a paper you wrote is far better than sharing a business card. But if you are not wired that way and don’t want to share your stuff publicly, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. I’ve written four books. Only one of them was really fit for publication. But they all helped me to find a point of view and tell better stories.
  • Write your personal thoughts long hand but your business notes digitally. I use Box notes and Pocket to tag all my meeting notes so that I can find them quickly, but if I am trying to write a presentation or a speech I always write it long hand. Your brain slows down that way and you remember it much faster.
  • Draw your presentations. If you don’t know how, have a look at thisthis or read everything Nancy Duarte has written.
  • Have a scrapbook. Cut stuff up. Keep quotes, articles, poems and pictures that you like. Not enough people are analogue in big businesses because they have to move so fast. Find ways to be creative and slow your brain down.
  • You’re not a number. Except when you are. The people who manage your expenses, payroll or budgets may be in a different country. They don’t know you and you will probably never chat to them personally, go out for a drink or network with them. They don’t always see you as a name and they don’t understand the context of anything your boss may have promised you. So treat them well and don’t take it personally.
  • Friday’s for future. Long before this was the name of a youth climate movement, I have spent a few hours every Friday to focus on the future and read or write. Without any phone, tablet or distractions. It’s not always easy and it can’t always be done in work time, but finding a few hours once a week just to process your thoughts and all the conversations you’ve had or heard at work is time very well spent. Invest in yourself more! (The header image for this post is the kind of thing I scribble on a Friday to try and make sense of things).
  • “Be kind. Be useful”. Great advice from Barack Obama to the executives at Dreamforce 2019, the big Salesforce conference in San Francisco.
  • It’s not about you. I write the same quote at the beginning of all my notebooks. It helps me to keep some kind of perspective on what I’m trying to do. It’s a great quote from sales trainer Zig Ziglar and a great manifesto not just for corporate life, but for life generally… “You can have everything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want”.
Making sense of my thoughts on a Friday

Bonus tip! I am convinced that Erica Chenoweth’s 3.5% Rule works just as much for influencing business movements as it does for social movements. 3.5% of any given group has the capacity to change the hearts and minds of everyone else in the group. You may think you are just 1 small voice in large organisation, but if you’re in a team of 100 people, you might only need to recruit 2 or 3 other like-minded corporate activists to become a catalyst for change.

This post was originally Published By

Jeremy Connell-Waite

Jeremy Connell-Waite

Communications Designer @IBM • C


Categories: Technology

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1 reply »

  1. Excellent. Thank you.
    To ADD: (Related to overwhelmed management)
    When presenting a problem or complaint, ALWAYS include one or more candidate solutions or paths to a solution. However, do not insist that your solution be used. It is just an illustration of one mechanism. Explain this when you are told of a problem and a candidate solution.
    Look upstream. Often people unnecessarily stipulate an imagined solution mechanism as their way of expressing some underlying need. That mechanism might be only one [inferior] way of many of fulfilling the actual requirement. When the customer solicits drill bits, maybe your laser or water jet is a better way of providing the holes that are really what is needed. Satisfy the real need.


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