Winning Big in a Small Company

Every person’s career journey is unique. About 18 years ago, I was given the opportunity to help pilot an R&D “start-up” organization within a large pharmaceutical company. The job was 50 percent doing and 50 percent creating as there was not a defined path for this organizational model. It changed how I evaluated career opportunities and what my expectations would be of a work experience going forward. It became less about ticking the boxes of climbing a career ladder and more about what will I learn. It was the best of both worlds. I got to see what it might be like to work at a start up without the risk. I wasn’t looking for Start-up Bio Tech, but I was so glad it found me. And let me tell you, from day one I was hooked.

If you are thinking of taking the leap into a small company, here are SEVEN pieces of advice I would share:

1. Be open
Never make decisions out of fear. Many people like the safety and stability of a large company and never even look at start-ups as being for them. I was that way once, until I realized that I needed something else. Something that would allow me the space to grow and have the kind of balance I needed in my life at that moment. If I hadn’t been open and willing to take a risk, I would have missed out on one of the most meaningful times of my life.

2. Embrace the chaos
The price you pay for less bureaucracy, layers and the ability to be entrepreneurial is controlled chaos.  If you come from a large company to a small one, you will be looking around for someone to give you permission or pull you back. Get used to figuring things out on your and never having any two days be exactly alike or at all predictable. 

3. Grab every opportunity you can to learn…and there will be a ton
One of my favorite things about working at a small company is how hands-on you get to be no matter your level. At big companies, the more senior you are, the less you get to do the actual work that you love and that propelled you into management. On the flip side, when you are more junior, you don’t always get to own projects or develop strategy. Small companies flip that entire equation around.  You will be a part of the conversation and have the opportunity to make an impact on things you wouldn’t have in a bigger company.  For me personally, I’m touching so many things for the first time at a senior level: Corp Comms, neuroscience, gene therapy.  Everyday is an opportunity to learn. 

4. Get comfortable not knowing it all
By the same token, you have to be willing to be vulnerable. Ask questions that you really don’t know the answers to. Befriend smart people who can help you learn – even when you are already at a leadership level. A small company is truly a team environment and where I learned to be resourceful.  It’s also the place where you learn equally from the team’s successes and failures. 

5. It’s not for the faint of heart
Just like camping, it’s not for everyone. You have to be ready for anything and prepared to do everything. The kind of person who thrives in a small company has ingenuity, grit and enthusiasm. I personally love the blank sheet of paper it provides where you have the rare opportunity to build facets of the organization while executing in your role.  Get ready for the fact that there is not a lot of extra staff.  There will most likely not be an IT help desk or procurement department. It will be being built around you as your organization grows.  It’s a leap of faith, but one worth taking. 

6. Never lose authenticity
Many times, people will join a smaller company for a bigger title. In a large company, you may have been a director and suddenly you’re VP without the wait. For better or for worse, there are reasons why it takes more time to grow into leadership positions. Don’t miss the opportunity to figure out what kind of leader you want to be. Look around you at leaders you admire and some you don’t. Emulate the best of what you see and abandon the rest. But remember: Build your unique brand of leadership – that’s why the small company hired you. Don’t be so swept away by the title that you lose your authenticity. Small companies are great place to shine your own special light.

7. Strap on your seatbelt for the most exhilarating, frightening but rewarding ride of your life
After working in a small company, I never looked back. I love the nimbleness of a start up. I love really learning the process of drug development all the way through to the patient. I love being part of something where I can have an impact and influence it and see it either succeed or fail and learn from that. The bonds made in the proverbial foxhole are set for life. You will always keep in touch and look back fondly on those crazy early days of a start-up regardless of the outcome. Most important, don’t forget to have fun!

In conclusion, small company life is not for everyone. It is a game of Twister, your right elbow is on yellow while your left foot is on green doing multiple jobs at once. You’ll touch a lot of things and have some opportunities you would never have at a large company. There is no such thing as “that’s not my job” at a start up. You pitch in where you are needed. No job is too big or too small.

In addition, I love start-ups, but I do recognize that not all small companies are created equal, so choose wisely. Pay attention to the culture. Do a little homework on who they are. How they make decisions. How they communicate and what they stand for. Make sure it’s aligned to what you stand for. Understand the patients whom they serve. The patient story becomes part of your story. There is great reward in knowing you are impacting the quality of someone’s life. You need to make an intellectual, emotional and mental connection.

When I first met the female leaders of SwanBio, I knew I was in the right place. At Swan, we always say, “For us, this is personal.” I have a family member who has the potential to benefit from our work. So, I show up every day, not just because I’m passionate about my job, but because it’s a true opportunity to make a difference.

About the author

Carolyn Carroll

Carolyn Carroll

SwanBio Theraputics, Chief People Officer, Winners of 2021 Life Sciences Pennsylvania Emerging Company of the Year

Carolyn M. Carroll brings to SwanBio more than 20 years of experience in organizational leadership and cultural development as well as human resources expertise in health care, global pharmaceutical, and biotech industries. In her current role, Carolyn serves as the architect of people and culture initiatives, focused on preparing the company for the next phases of growth.

She is a passionate strategist focused on positioning the company for near-term and future success from a science, business, and people perspective. SwanBio relies on Carolyn’s ability to be an innovative and practical problem solver and ensure employees collaborate in concert with a strong leadership team.

Prior to joining SwanBio, Carolyn held several senior leadership positions in both organizational development and HR for the transnational R&D business of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals. Most recently, she created and led her own organization development consulting business, specializing in providing innovative HR and organizational development solutions for start-up to mid-size companies.   

Carolyn’s educational background includes a BS in human resource management and business strategy from Temple University and master’s work in Human Organizational Sciences at Villanova University. Additionally, she holds certificates in MBTI, High Performance Team diagnostics, and Neuro Linguistic executive coaching, and is a certified executive coach.

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