Are you a big fish in small pond or a small fish in a big pond?

I have been asked this question many times by professionals that are mid-career and have already worked for more than one organization – Which is better for me? A small company or a large one? How do I decide? When is one more relevant than the other?

I wish the answer were a simple formula based one and I could point you to that. But here are a few questions you should ask yourself and then make the call.

  1. Do you thrive in chaos or like a more orderly environment? Large organizations need systems, processes, well-defined roles and responsibilities to operate effectively while small ones leave a lot of these ambiguous – often intentionally and sometimes there is just not enough value in defining them. One is expected to just pick up what needs to be done and do it to their best of abilities in a small firm while a large one has clear roles and responsibilities defined with clear hand-off from one role to the other.
  2. Do you like doing a lot of different things or just one thing in depth? Small firms may give you opportunity to try your hand at several functions over a relatively short period of time if you are a good performer while it may take several years to get a single role change in a large organizations and more formal skill evaluation and fitment for the new role.
  3. What is your appetite for risk? While business risks are equally contingent for any size of a firm, a big one might be able to withstand it better than a small one. While your role may or may not be secure, the larger firm typically survives better till it dies the dinosaur death. Small firms while more fragile to external risks, may be able to bounce back with a different business model relatively quicker. If you are they type, that loves the roller coaster ride, I say go for the small firms.
  4. If work life integrated well to your personal life? Your chances of making friends at work are higher in small firms where typically the boundary between personal/work lives starts to vanish. The same cannot be said of a large organization where organizational dynamics may force one to maintain an external image of self, which may be very different from what they are inside!
  5. Do you like seeing the full picture or are you ok with a more detailed view of a small part of the canvas? While small companies will provide most folks a good view of the overall business, large ones end up with multiple businesses, geographies and any one professional finds it hard to put the entire picture together in his/her head.
  6. How much accountability can you carry? Small firms expect you to carry a lot more accountability while a larger one may have several layers of safety nets in terms of processes/organization structure to ensure the ‘system’ takes the accountability

By the way you can replace ‘big companies’ with ‘mature businesses’ and ‘small firms’ with ’emerging businesses’ and my argument would still apply.

In my personal opinion, your career is incomplete if you have not seen both. While you can lead a lifetime in one cubicle of a F500 firm, you would definitely have missed the roller coaster of a ‘new business’. On the other hand, I have seen folks that have built very successful business models but struggled to scale them as the parameters for success and the operating principles of a mature organization were unknown to them.

By the way this is not an OR choice… go for gold… be the BIG fish in the BIG pond… Satya Nadella is in the news isn’t it…

More confused than when you started reading this… go figure…

Author : Tapan Rayaguru (IIT Kharagpur & IIM – Calcutta) is a student career coach at Sunstone Business School.

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