5 reflections on life in a small business vs a larger corporate


12 months into ‘deprogramming’…life in a small business after far too long in large corporate.

Thinking of making a move, read on.

As I sat down to write a reflective post covering the last 12 months, my first at Instant Impact, I must admit I struggled. It’s not that I don’t have lots to say (I always do!), I just struggled to frame it into something relevant and tangible.

The background is that although I worked in pubs and clubs, sold cars and served in the Army, before spending the 12 years leading up to 2023 working mainly in large organisations, both privately owned and listed, I’d got very used to climbing the greasy pole and chasing the title. Outside of my civilian career I continued to build my Army Reserve one, arguably the biggest corporate of all, working in the MOD!

It was only in the pub last week (where a lot of great ideas happen…), that an ex-colleague joked with me about how my deprogramming was going and from here sprung the realisation that in fact that’s what’s been going on. I’ve left large corporate; I’ve left the Army Reserve and I’m now more in control than ever before.

It’s a bit scary and it’s taken some getting used to.

So, I thought I’d write my 5 takeaways from the last year in the hope that it’s useful to anyone thinking about making the leap…it is February after all.

1. The right company is everything

When you shake your life up, you need to be as sure as you can be that the place you are going to aligns with your values and your personal non-negotiables. Getting this wrong, I imagine is much, much worse going to a small business than joining a fortune 500 / FTSE business. Make sure you know what it is you want from work and that the place you are going to can really offer you that. For example, I never wanted to miss one of my kids’ school events again, and I haven’t, no matter what was going on at work.

2. Responsibility hits differently

In a small business you get to know everyone and therefore at times last year, when it was tough, you looked around as a business leader and realised how much your decisions impacted these people. I’m not saying they don’t in larger organisations, but the feeling is mainly ring-fenced to your team and other teams are cells on a spreadsheet – it sounds awful to say that, but it’s largely true.

3. Justifying time to yourself

It may sound strange, but I spent probably the first 6 months over vocalising my time spent doing X & Y. It was clearly conditioned into me that I had to demonstrate how hard I was working, rather than the outputs. No longer did anyone care when I logged on or off or took a 2-hour lunch-break. What they cared about was what me and my team were achieving. Even though I find myself writing this in the evening, it’s my choice and no one cares. So now it’s me, and I know what I need to achieve, but when I work to deliver the outputs is much more in my hands. This has been one of the hardest adjustments, I actually had no idea what to do on days when I logged of at 5pm, I felt lost.

4. Impact & shadow

It’s often said, ‘as a leader you must be aware of the shadow you cast’, and I think that is even more true in a smaller business. The impact of what you do and how you do it is felt far beyond your own team, so if anything, you must be much more aware of your actions. The flipside of this is that you can have real impact. You can make decisions and see the output of them unfold in real time. That has probably been one of the highlights of my year is looking at the changes I have driven and the impact it has made, not just on the business and processes but on some of the people. It’s a balance, and you see the consequence of your actions play out a lot faster.

5. Back to Player / Manager

I’m pretty sure I had some roles where my job was mainly going to meetings and passing out actions, with little input in the delivery. Plenty of strategy not much execution. In a small company, for want of a better phrase, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves. I remember coming out of my first few meetings and thinking ‘right, who do I get to do this…’, then I remembered at that time there was no one, it was me. I had to get good at planning and executing simultaneously again, which I hadn’t done for a while. The lesson here is, if you make the jump, there is no job below you, until you scale up, you’re the expert and you lead delivery.

Bonus Tip – Talent Density

Because that’s the person I am, I thought I’d offer up a bonus tip. If you’ve read ‘No Rules Rules’, you’ll know what I’m referring to. You need to make sure you have only the very best talent around you. If it costs a bit more or takes a bit longer, don’t sweat it. In a small team you can’t carry people, you need the very best in every role or you’ll never get done what you need to and never delight your clients. When adding headcount think of it like a sports team and not a family, you only win trophies with the best players in every position that know how to play as a team (the play as a team is super important).

I’ve really enjoyed my first year here and hope to have many more. I certainly can’t see myself rushing back to my old life as an SVP in a listed company any time soon, and the mission here is that as we scale, we remember and stay true to what made it great in the first place.