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5 ways to find the best place to start your career

Should you start your career at a big company or at a smaller firm? Five business leaders give us their advice.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: iStock/Drazen Zigic

You're just about to enter the world of work for the first time. You've bagged some qualifications, you've gained some experience, and you've refined your resume.

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You're a good candidate, but where should you try and find work? Would it be better to start at a resource-rich, blue-chip business, or should you hone your skills in a smaller company, where you'll have the opportunity to quickly become a big fish in a small pond?

Five business leaders reflect on their careers and give us their best-practice tips.

1. Find an organization that suits you

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, started out at a big firm but says the route you take and the size of the company you work for will depend on your personality.

"It's kind of like, do you go to a big university, or do you go to a small school? Where are you going to get the most out of it?"

Stoddard advises other professionals to think about who they are, to consider what they want from their careers, and to find an employer that offers a good jumping-off point.

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"If you crave diversity in what you do every day and some personalized attention, the way to go is to a small firm -- and you're going to learn better that way," she says.

"But if you're confident that you can be brought into a big company and given a laptop, a cell phone, and a cube, and maybe a partner to help you get acclimated, go for it."

2. Explore opportunities at companies of all sizes

Alex Hibbitt, engineering director at Albelli-Photobox Group, says you'll learn many skills at any organization. He advises up-and-coming professionals to work in both big and small firms. Where you start, however, is up to you.

"From my perspective, starting in a smaller organization and going bigger has allowed me to grow as my career has grown," he says. "So, I think that's generally a good approach, but people's mileage may vary. It depends on what impact they want to have."

Hibbitt started his career at Arts Alliance Media, which is a cinema software specialist. He was employee number 12 and learned a lot through the experience.

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"I think the one constant that's true is change," he says. "If you start in a small ecosystem, you can get a perspective of what change looks like -- and then you can apply your knowledge in a bigger ecosystem later on in your career."

Hibbitt says moving on to work for Albelli-Photobox Group has provided a fresh perspective of what change looks like in a bigger organization.

"Our engineering community is pushing 300 people," he says. "Being able to navigate change through an organization that size is a different skill to navigating change in an organization of 12 people."

3. Work for a business that provides fresh challenges

Lalo Luna, global head of strategy and insights at Heineken, is another business leader who says the size of the organization you work for at the beginning of your career isn't the most important factor.

"It's not about the company," he says. "It's more about how you exploit all the resources and all the knowledge that you have available. I think it's about how you can be open to learning new things, how you receive feedback, and it's about your ability to continuously learn."

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Luna says there are no explicit rules that dictate where you'll be happiest and most successful. While he's risen to the top in a huge global enterprise, he knows other people who've struggled to achieve their aims in blue-chip firms.

"I hear a lot of stories of people who left very big companies because they weren't happy," he says. "They jumped into smaller companies, and they're now very successful and more comfortable."

Luna says the company that feels a good fit for you personally is likely to be the right place to work, regardless of size. 

"It's more about the culture, the people, your reaction, and how you can adapt yourself to business challenges."

4. Think carefully about the people you'll work with

Not everyone moves from one company to another. Technology Adoption Manager Robyn Furby, for example, has spent her whole career at insurance specialist NFU Mutual.

The organization was recently named a Gallup Exceptional Workplace 2023, which was the eighth consecutive year it's received the award. It recognizes companies that concentrate on engagement and workplace culture.

Furby says NFU Mutual's attention to workplace culture made staying in one place an easy decision.

"The people and the environment [have] always been what's made me stay with the organization because I've been able to grow and learn with people who I really connect with," she says.

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Furby says the key lesson for professionals who are thinking about where to start their careers is that the human element is critical.

"My career has grown within one place, but I've always learned about lots of different elements within my organization," she says. "I think it's all about finding the right company for you."

5. Use your passion as a guide

Jay Meyering, senior manager for software development at CrossFit, formerly worked for tech giant Oracle and he says there are benefits to working at both small firms and their bigger counterparts.

However, working in a major enterprise means you can get exposed to some exciting things.

"The benefit of being at a big company like Oracle is there were a lot of people to learn from, and there were a lot of really smart people there and just cool things that other teams were doing," he says. "We did a lot of knowledge sharing."

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Yet Meyering describes his current role as his "dream job." He started doing CrossFit 15 years ago and moved to the company three years ago, merging his hobby with his passion for development and data.

"What I love about this smaller company is that you're exposed to so much more," he says. "I think that helps you get a lot of breadth, and there's almost a forcing function that says, 'no one else can do this.' So, I then get to jump in and learn this new thing." 

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