Benefits of Being a Hybrid Professional
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Benefits of Being a Hybrid Professional

It takes a mix of skills to succeed at a big company or a startup. Here's what businesses of all sizes can gain from flexible leaders.

When I moved from a large corporation to a startup, it was a huge shock. While the business fundamentals remained surprisingly similar (except the decimal point was in a different spot), the mindset, day-to-day priorities, and rewarded behaviors were miles apart. Ben Horowitz describes it well in his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: “When I was managing thousands of people … there was an incredible number of incoming demands on my time. … In contrast, when you are a startup executive, nothing happens unless you make it happen.”

Spending nearly two decades working at big corporations taught me efficient time management, the ability to juggle many competing priorities, and how to deliver extremely polished presentations. I knew I needed to have all the right answers, brim with confidence, make my boss look good, and support the overarching company strategy. Nevertheless, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, as I do, the urge to make decisions without building consensus and to create something of your own eventually becomes irresistible. 

That thinking led me to apparel company American Giant in its early days. I knew I was in a different world when founder/CEO Bayard Winthrop said to me, “I would feel so much better if you would just tell me when you don’t know what you’re doing.” After 20 years of fake-it-till-you-make-it at large corporations, I was suddenly being encouraged to say, “I’ve got no idea. Please help.” 

Of course, this makes sense in an entrepreneurial environment where there are no tried-and- tested playbooks. You can’t know the way, because no one knows the way. Here, everyone has to be transparent and share issues and problems—because there are lots of them, and without urgent action, they can be fatal. There’s no room for egos or personas—which was like a bucket of cold water over the head for me: a wonderfully refreshing but rather sobering experience.

At a startup, you quickly learn the impact that all your decisions have on short- and long-term cash flow. You learn to generate work, not direct it. You learn to problem-solve all the time, yet there is no one to advise you or approve of your solutions. It’s all on you—which is the beauty, and also the pain, of being an entrepreneur. 

It would be great to see moving between startups and large companies become more of a norm.

Many large companies want to recruit entrepreneurial-minded professionals who challenge the status quo, while startups want big-company people for their industry knowledge, contacts, and knowledge of processes and structures, as well as lessons learned from having been mentored and managed by seasoned executives.

Yet entrepreneurs often fail in big companies because they feel stifled and bored. It can be hard to understand why days are spent preparing for internal presentations and repetitive meetings. Knowing all the answers, fitting in with the culture, and avoiding risk are often rewarded but can seem alien to an entrepreneur used to a by-the-seat-of-your-pants environment. 

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Similarly, stellar executives from large companies often fail at startups. It can be hard to accept there are no clear—or perhaps any—answers. Fast-shifting priorities and strategies can be bewildering, and the constant need to come up with ideas and create initiatives takes mental stamina. The pressure to deliver quick results can be daunting. I experienced high levels of anxiety and stress as I transitioned to a startup culture, and managing it was yet another new skill to learn.

Despite these cultural stumbling blocks, it would be great to see moving between startups and large companies become more of a norm. Just as transitioning industries can benefit employee and employer alike, diversity of background in terms of size and type of employer can bring a richness of experience and approach. 

To encourage such cross-pollination, consider a hybrid model in which big firms tap into the innovative approaches of entrepreneurs, in return for support with resources such as legal, financial, or HR. A mutual mentoring program between a large organization and a startup could offer remarkable value for both parties. Or, with office space needs changing rapidly, flexible subleasing to entrepreneurs or startups could allow for informal learning and sharing to happen organically. Innovative approaches can unlock benefits in low-risk, low-cost ways. 

I love the independence and fulfillment that entrepreneurship brings, but I also love being part of something bigger, the camaraderie and security that a large company can provide. I am perhaps the embodiment of the hybrid model I suggest, spending half my time consulting for a large company and the other half running my own business. It may mean that I’m not maximizing my financial opportunity with either one, but it certainly satisfies my different drives, and I can’t imagine having to choose between them.

After years of running consumer goods brands including Champion activewear, Bali, and J.W. Hulme Co. in St. Paul, Claire Powell now owns her own business, Bella Virtu Organics.