What no one tells you about working at corporates

While freelancing I was often told to avoid the big bad corporate. “You’ll be a slave” is something I would often hear from people having “done their time”.

I shared this belief for a very long time.

I had a hard time working for someone else and often left jobs to freelance or run a business. My start-ups would fail and I would struggle to find clients all while trying to pay the bills. I would then lapse back into working for small companies where the cycle would repeat itself and my frustrations would grow.

Even though I felt that the grass was not always greener on the other side, I eventually came to realize that at the very least the grass might be less dead.

Every job or company has its pros and cons and not all of them are created equal. A large corporate, like most businesses, is a complicated organism made up of complicated parts: Culture, hierarchy, politics, infrastructure, processes, regulations… All of these factors give an organization its identity.

Eventually the stress and anxiety of working for myself made the decision to move to corporate much easier. I applied for a developer role with much less responsibility than I currently had — with the goal to lesson my workload.

All I needed was to find a company with the right type of personality— attributes that suited my career aspirations and interests — the right mix of opportunities.

I realized very quickly after starting this new role that I was never prepared to run a business, but more importantly, that I had just walked into a world of opportunity.

Corporates have a lot to offer and I would like to share some of my learnings, as a designer and developer, in an effort to help those that are unsure about whether corporate should be their next move.

Culture and interaction

Culture sits at the heart of an organization and gives it its unique personality. Without culture a corporate would be a soulless factory, and you truly would be a slave. It is what makes Apple and Google such desirable employers; even though they offer completely different working experiences.

As humans we need social interaction and support.

While freelancing I often felt isolated while sitting at home with just my thoughts and pressing deadlines. This lead to frustration and depression and ultimately my work suffered . Working at home requires a lot of discipline and at the time I refused to admit to myself that I needed help.

Corporate culture was what I needed — to be part of something bigger .

There is something meaningful to belonging to this organism, whether you’re chanting a corporate mantra or part of a team vital to executing an executive strategy.

In reality you cannot experience corporate culture at this level as an outsider. There is the surface level stuff that you might get access to as a contractor: casual days, Friday beers, year-end parties… but this happens very rarely and you never really build comradeship with colleagues. Outsiders rarely get to experience the values and behaviors that truly build a company’s unique environments.

Google has an excellent understanding of people’s wants and needs; offering flexible hours, creative freedom, organizational trust and access to incredible people; all of which won them best corporate culture in 2018.

Other cultural activities could include extramural sports teams, meetups, internal talks or sharing sessions, clubs. Google’s award winning culture

If you still prefer working remotely then you might be in luck as many corporates have started adopting a work from home policy. These policies vary, but some might even allow you to work from home five days a week provided you are available for important meetings. Working from home, for a corporate, also has some advantages over working remotely as a freelancer as you still get to experience the culture on some level.

Not all companies have good culture and a toxic environment could leave you wanting to leave. The good news is that culture is only one aspect of what makes corporates great; and there is still so much more to learn.

Institutional knowledge

It should no longer be a surprise to you; but machines are coming for our jobs. I’m not necessarily talking about Skynet; but the reality is that robotics and AI are improving at an almost uncomfortable pace and we need to be prepared.

One of the ways you could future proof yourself is by acquiring extensive institutional knowledge. A better understanding of how a business works, at scale, could eventually see you move from an execution or production role to a consultative or strategic role — which is much harder to automate.

As a developer I’ve gained copious amounts of institutional knowledge on various topics: IT infrastructure, server maintenance, different programming languages, change management, operations, traffic, business strategy… I am by no means an expert in any of these specialities but I know enough to make critical decisions about my career.

This knowledge could come from various sources, but generally you accrue this over time just by doing your day job and interacting with systems and people. It’s an incredible feeling; piecing together this institutional puzzle as you gain more and more exposure to its different parts.

A good source of information could also be an innovation or research department. Many larger organizations will have one and they will be open to sharing their learnings with others; whether it’s interesting new tech, big data or access to proof of concepts. Collaboration is also a common theme in innovation and research; so don’t be surprised if you spot an opportunity to work on interesting projects for the benefit of the company.

These are only some examples of informative sources you’ll have access to at a large organization. This is not to say you won’t learn anything while working for yourself, but it is called institutional knowledge for a reason. They have more resources, larger budgets and most importantly, many employees to network with.

Networking

Firstly know that you do not need to be an extrovert to network with people in an organization. This is because networking is not about making friends, but allies that align to your values and principals. This is not to say that friendship is not a potential outcome, but it should not be an objective.

The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity. @Ferazzi (Twitter)

The above quote perfectly sums up my experience of networking: It is a result of the value you add to the lives of people in your organization.

Just like you; people have their own agendas and needs. Whether it is career advancement, getting a project over the line or just making it through the day. Strong networks are built by helping other people meet their needs. What you gain in return is their trust; and the likelihood that they will one day return the favor.

This is not to say that you cannot network outside of a corporate environment, but I find it much easier. You have access to thousands of talented people from all walks of life and levels of experience, in a setting that fosters collaboration.

That said, networking might be much harder in some corporates than others, and this is largely dependent on the value it places on hierarchy and the overall corporate culture. You might not have access to other teams or departments due to the institution’s structure— but there are ways around this.

If you have won the trust of your manager, team leader or colleagues they might take you along to important meetings; giving you the opportunity to add value. There is also no harm in asking directly to be invited to a meeting, especially if you know you can add value. You might find your colleagues are quite receptive as long as it is relevant to your field of work and your intentions are honest and clear.

Another way to grow your network is through problem solving. Computer not starting up? No problem, you get to meet someone from your IT department. When you are faced with challenges in your day job you are given the opportunity to interact with people capable of helping you solve these problems and most people are very open to helping others.

Also never underestimate the value of a shared lunch area. It is true that smokers make a lot of friends and for good reason — nothing brings people together like shared values and interests — especially in a captured space.

Lastly, and this might seem obvious, but consistently connect with as people you meet on LinkedIn. Send an invite after a meeting whilst their memory of you is recent and be sure to personalize the request with a message. Stay active by sharing content that is relevant to you and your network to maximize your exposure and grow your reputation.

Building a network takes time but is immeasurably valuable. Be patient; don’t job hop too often and give those relationships time to grow. The partnerships you form at a corporate could very well be the cornerstone for that promotion you want.

Career growth

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

Sometimes the agendas of others might make you feel like you are stuck in Game of Thrones. Quoting Littlefinger might seem dramatic, but in reality if you plan on staying in corporate then the climb might very much be one of your primary objectives.

As you grow your network you will be presented with opportunities to move to new teams or be promoted into new roles. These decisions are often difficult and might require you to make sacrifices. Consider your team and remember that loyalty is often rewarded.

The corporate ecosystem is built to perpetuate success. As you climb the corporate ladder you will get more exposure to culture, gain more insight and knowledge, grow your network and identify more opportunities.

If you are not interested in the political game then perhaps you could take up some of the training and advancement opportunities your Human Resources department offers. Remember that you are an investment and leaders want to see you succeed; which is why large corporates will have budget allocated for training. Other programmes could include mentorship or coaching; or even scholarships for further studies.

Lastly make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and professional. When working for a reputable company you might get bombarded by recruiters wanting a piece of you, especially if your skills are in high demand. This is not to say that you should be entertaining every single offer; but grab the opportunity to grow your network and keep an eye out for offers you can’t refuse.

Other benefits

It goes without saying that there are many other benefits to working at a larger company. I’ve covered some of the not-so-obvious ones, but there are plenty more:

  • Competitive salaries
  • Yearly compensation
  • Additional leave (including family responsibility)
  • Subsidized services and products (food, dry cleaning, medical etc.)
  • On premise services like grocery stores or gyms

These are only to name a few; all aimed at making it easier to maintain a work life balance.

What’s next?

If you find yourself questioning what you do, like I did, you might consider broadening your horizons by applying to a corporate. Or perhaps you are already working at one and you weren’t aware that there truly is greener grass on the other side.

Many people eventually leave corporates to build start-ups, businesses or very successful freelance careers. Could they have done it without their corporate experience? Perhaps.

My question is, what do you really have to lose?

This article is purely based on my personal experiences and biased opinions — I would love to hear your views down in the comments.
Vernon Joyce, a full-stack unicorn