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Big To Small: 5 Lessons from My Corporate Career That Make Me a Better Small Business Leader

by Jennifer Laible

Three years ago, I moved from a career in Fortune 100 corporations to a leadership role at Antenna, growing and running a small business. When I tell people about my career shift, I hear the same questions over and over. What was it like? Why did I decide to move from corporate America to a small company? Do I love it? I can feel my colleagues and friends in the corporate world dying to know: What’s it like on the other side?

After reflecting on my fifteen years working for Fortune 100 businesses, I’ve realized just how much I learned in that setting. Big companies are tremendous training grounds, and I value the skills I gained starting my professional life there. Earlier this year my colleague, Brendon Schrader, Antenna’s Founder, shared five skills every professional should learn from entrepreneurs. I thought I’d share my perspective: five skills small business leaders can learn from the corporate world.

1. Tell a compelling story.

In a large company, any idea (a business plan, a product idea, etc.) is only as good as the people you can persuade to help make your idea happen. In a corporate setting, you depend on the people around and above you to fund ideas and move them forward.

Your ability to tell a story in a compelling way is what sets your idea apart. You need to be able to quickly share your vision and know your audience.

Here’s an example: If I wanted to get an idea funded, I was probably going up against at least 20 other people who also wanted their idea funded. I had to be ready to share my vision whenever I had a chance -- whether that was in 15 seconds in an elevator with a C-level leader, a detailed “pitch deck”, 5 minutes in my boss’ office, or an hour-long group presentation.

I had to tailor my story based on my audience. A CFO is interested in different things than the leader of the cross-functional team who will be responsible for getting the work done. I learned to think about my audience’s perspective, envision the outcome I wanted, and craft my story appropriately.

I also learned how to tell my story over and over again. The first time you tell your story isn’t the only time -- you have to keep at it. Even once an idea is approved, you have to remind people why it’s important and the results you’re shooting for. The storytelling never stops.

Now, in a small business setting, I’m telling my story every day -- to clients, employees, potential partners and vendors. I’m telling a story without the brand cachet a big business carries and success depends on our ability to quickly tell a compelling story. The same principles I learned in the corporate world still apply. If I have someone’s attention for a few minutes, I need to be able to communicate an interesting story and vision. Why should they work with Antenna? What’s the big idea I can quickly share? Why does this matter to them? How can we help?

2. Data matters.

Just having a good story isn’t enough. Data substantiates ideas. I learned quickly that if I was going to move an idea forward, I better have my facts ready.

I might be a little biased here since I have a background in finance, but in a corporate setting, data matters. A lot. The people who succeed in big companies know their way around important numbers and data, and they can talk about them with ease and confidence.

Data is just as important in a small business, even if the numbers on the balance sheet and conference room tables are smaller. Entrepreneurs are great at having good ideas and trusting their gut. But to really scale an idea, you need to substantiate and measure it with data. In fact, in a small business, when you have fewer resources to work with, every dollar matters more. Knowing how and where to invest is critical.

When I came to Antenna, I knew what questions to ask and what KPIs to measure to understand our business and drive it forward. You can’t grow and scale a business without a backbone of strong data and financial acumen. You need to know how your business is performing.

3. Be confident.

In all the large corporations where I worked, I saw that the people who were consistently confident -- in themselves, their team, the company and their ideas -- rose to the top.

Confidence is contagious, and when someone knows their facts, can tell their story, and doesn’t waver, other people listen. People like to follow confident leaders who believe in their ideas and are assured about the team’s ability to make them happen.

Confidence is incredibly important in a small company. As a leader, you often don’t know exactly how you’re going to get from Point A to Point B. But if you’re confident in your vision and your team, you know that you’ll figure it out.

4. Don’t get discouraged by ‘no.’

On the other hand, even the most confident leaders face roadblocks. You’re going to hear “no” a lot -- from superiors, from clients, from team members, from partners. But I learned to know the difference between a real “no” and “not right now.” If I heard “no,” maybe I needed to gather more information. Maybe I wasn’t hitting the funding cycle at the right time. Maybe I just needed to wait.

The same applies in a small business. When I’m talking to a prospective client or partner, I might get a “no,” but if I believe in the relationship, I know that the answer might be different in six months. I figure out how to reframe the conversation to turn the “no” into a “yes.”

5. Relationships matter.

People often think of big corporations as soulless -- big places with tons of departments and people. But the important word there is people. People matter. In a big company, you need to know who to call to get things done. One of the most important lessons I learned is that relationships matter, and you need to constantly nurture them. The people I saw thriving were the ones who surrounded themselves with great people, and who could successfully navigate and draw on their relationships.

One thing I didn’t expect was how important relationships would be in a small-business setting. Now, I don’t have a huge in-house team of experts to rely on, so I rely instead on my ability to be a connector. My network of consultants, partners, past colleagues and friends are more valuable than ever. Knowing I have a network of smart people to tap into gives me the confidence I need (see No. 3 above!) to make good decisions and keep looking forward.

So, when I get questions about my transition from the corporate world to a small business, I’m quick to answer: The lessons I learned in my corporate career were invaluable and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. The skills I learned will benefit me in this phase of my career. The most rewarding part is that I absolutely love being in a small business, and feel confident in my decision to move from big to small.