- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Is Working Smaller, Better for a Post-Military Career?

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), 99.7 percent of all employers are small businesses and these companies employ half of all private sector employees. Over the last 10 years, small businesses - those with fewer than 500 employees, according to the SBA - have been responsible for creating between 60 and 80 percent of the new jobs.

For those who have spent their professional life in a giant organization such as the military, working for a small business may seem chaotic. The hierarchical structure often is not, well, that hierarchical, and the processes may be less formal. Working for a small business may not be for everyone, but for some it is a liberating experience.

Candace Moody, vice president of WorkSource, a publicly funded workforce services agency in Jacksonville, Fla., put it this way - in a small business, there are no passengers on the ship, only crew. "Very often in a small business, you are a generalist, rather than a specialist," she said. "You have to do a bit of everything." Moody emphasized that those working for small businesses must eliminate the phrase 'This is not my job' from their vocabulary. "In a small business, everything is everyone's job," she said.

Frequently, employees have direct access to the business owners, which speeds up the implementation of new ideas. "In a very large corporation - and the military is a very large corporation - what happens often is that you wind up having to go through a lot of levels of management to get things done," she illustrated. "In a very small business, if the owner likes the idea, it's implemented the next day to the best of their ability."

This also means that good workers stand the chance of becoming a part of the leadership team very quickly, since one's impact on a small firm is much greater than on a larger one. Conversely, employees in small businesses have a hard time hiding when they are not doing their job. "If you miss a day of work, it hurts more in a small company," Moody said. "If you are not pulling your weight, or if you have a negative effect on the team, a small team feels that really quickly. There are fewer resources to cover it up."

In fact, many small business owners expect their employees to do not only their jobs, but also to determine what needs to be done on a daily basis. "In the military, there is always someone above you who knows what has to be done, and who tells you what to do and gives you orders," Moody said. "In a small business, you may not be given orders." This lack of structure can be disorienting to some, she concedes, but for self-starters, it is a very comfortable situation.

For those interested in climbing the corporate ladder, small businesses can be frustrating due to the lack of upward mobility - these organizations are small and there is not a lot of room to move up. Additionally, in family-owned businesses, the succession plan usually dictates that the company will be handed down to relatives, making it next to impossible for those outside the family to hold the top jobs. "The people in the head positions are the owners of the company or the family members of the owners," said Joan M. Koffler, veteran career consultant at Iowa Workforce Development in Waterloo, Iowa. "Sometimes that can be frustrating for veterans if they have been in the military for any amount of time, because they are so used to taking leadership roles."

Those who are happiest in small firms are flexible and ready to work with limited resources, since these organizations do not have an unlimited supply of capital at their disposal. This is not only demonstrated in how and when projects are executed, but in compensation and benefits as well. The trick to determining whether you are cut out for a small business is, Moody said, to ask yourself why you go to work everyday. "One of the most important things people can do is to understand themselves really well. To know what their personal attributes are, their personal inclinations as well as their skills and abilities, because then they can find the right environment," she advised. "The critical key to success in a small business is knowing what makes you satisfied on the job."

And, Moody added, working for a small firm can serve as a stepping-stone to future professional endeavors. "It's a wonderful opportunity, and just because a business is small today doesn't mean that it's going to be small tomorrow," she noted. "It can be a great opportunity to help a business to grow, and it can be very satisfying and great preparation if you want to be a business owner someday, too."

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor.


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