Until quite recently I was a very small fish in the great big career pond that is a major UK bank. Then, suddenly in September 2007 I was netted and whisked into (comparatively speaking) a puddle when I joined SK Chase as their Marketing Manager.

Part of the reason I was so ready to make the move was to see what value my skills actually held for a business. I was quite used to seeing my work disappear off to some distant board somewhere on a report with my boss’s name on it, and had started to wonder if I could personally make a difference to a company’s bottom line.

Apart from anything else, I was craving some autonomy and the opportunity to work for an organisation that would notice me and my work – without having to spend hours investing in (to me) nefarious political self-promotion schemes.

Very quickly after my move I worked out that the main difference between working for a small company and a large one is that everything you do matters more in a small business. Whether your contribution is positive or negative, the impact you’ll have is far greater and will be noticed!

This is great news for talented staff looking to work hard and prove themselves – not so good for anybody used to a free ride in a big comfy company.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t quite a free-rider in my old job but I certainly wasn’t working to my full potential – not even nearly. A combination of lack of motivation caused by lack of recognition, and my natural sceptical reaction to rules, rules and more rules, meant that I wasn’t quite firing on all four cylinders.

Moving into a business with (then) only four other full-time staff turned out to be just the kick-start I needed to turn me back into the passionate and hard-working businesswoman I believe I truly am.

That’s not to say, however, that I haven’t encountered challenges with my radical change of working environment. Along with increased autonomy and recognition, came increased responsibility for my own workload. Like I said, everything matters more in a small company – so when my personal task prioritisation went spinning slightly out of control a couple of months into my new role, I immediately had to address the gap in my skills and tighten up on my workload – fast!

Without wanting to be overly critical of large organisations, I have definitely noticed that there just isn’t the same capacity (or tolerance if I’m being completely honest…) for underperformance in a small business.

I remember my old frustration with the “all mouth and no trousers” promotions, rife every March and September throughout the bank, for second-rate staff who happened to have the right connections and a nice line in chatting up managers. However, I also learned (the hard way) that to consider yourself “above” working the politics in a large organisation is to smack your career progression very hard on the head, with a bag of anvils.

I guess the main difference (and my favourite so far) between working for SK Chase and a large corporate organisation, is that the traditional female work ethic of “get your head down and do a good job – somebody will notice” actually works here. To date, there’s been no need for me to find sneaky ways of making sure that my boss’s boss sees my achievements (mostly because my bosses don’t have bosses – but you know what I mean…)

All that said, I don’t regret my time with the bank at all. There are some professional skills you just wouldn’t acquire without working for a heavily regulated, complex and diverse organisation with rules for rules, and for every line manager I had who casually took credit for my work, there was always another who encouraged me to develop and made sure that the decision-makers around them were aware of my potential.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t do what I do now without the benefit of the experience I gained in my large pond, which makes me believe that ultimately size does matter – whether it’s good or bad for you just depends on what type of fish you happen to be.

My top tips for small fish in a big pond:

  • Make sure your boss’s boss knows who you are and is aware of your achievements.
  • Take every development opportunity you’re offered. If you’re not offered, then ask for them – at the very least it’ll be a networking opportunity.
  • Take advantage of the flexibility of a large organisation, move around and do different jobs – you’ll expand your network and acquire useful skills.
  • Learn the “corporate language” for each area you work in – if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, people will believe you. Bingo – instant credibility!
  • Don’t assume that the route to promotion is simply doing a good job. Look at colleagues who are being promoted around you- the personal qualities they have (whether you like them or not) are what you might need to start displaying if you want to get ahead.
  • Remember, the next restructure is probably just round the corner – keep your skills developing and your networks active.
  • Watch what you say about colleagues and managers – you never know who you might end up working for after the next restructure…

…and then if you find yourself in a small pond:

  • Try to work for someone who believes in you. You won’t have the same opportunity to move about in the organisation, so it’s really important that you feel valued where you are.
  • Work hard. Don’t mess about trying to look as if you’re working hard.
  • Stick to plain English – that “corporate language” you learned in the big pond is great if you happen to need a bank loan, but otherwise you’re likely to be (a) wasting time, and (b) unintelligible.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of generating income for the business. A sound piece of advice that my boss gave me about prioritising my work was, “do the stuff that makes money first” – after all that’s where your salary will be coming from.
  • Be flexible. You can’t afford to hand tasks off to some call centre or other if you don’t fancy doing them – the chances are you are the call centre in one way or another.
  • Smile – the whole company will see you and will feel good!