Guest Column | September 19, 2023

The Risks Of Trying To Emulate The 800-Pound Gorillas Of Business

By Greg Griesemer

Greg Griesemer
Greg Griesemer

Summer is over, but I’ll admit that even when I found myself at the beach, it was hard for me to disconnect from thinking about work completely. As much as I like the idea of settling in with a Hemingway novel, I’m much more likely to reach for a business biography or the business page.

Maybe a boring hobby in the eyes of some of my family members who will go unnamed, but I've always believed in the power of learning from others' experiences. There's a lot to gain from studying successful business leaders, especially when it comes to avoiding their mistakes.

However, it's crucial for organizations, particularly smaller enterprises, to understand the limitations of emulating iconic business figures like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. These individuals operate vastly different and often much larger enterprises. Most of them have a tolerance for risk taking that is easy to admire, but maybe stomach churning for us to actually emulate. That’s why I think it’s essential to take their examples with a grain of salt.

I've noticed that small company CEOs and leaders often use the practices of these big companies as a justification for their own decisions and frameworks. Whether it's a return-to-work policy or an approach to hiring, they tend to leverage the actions of iconic leaders to support their own choices. However, it's important to remember that these decisions are context-dependent, and what works for behemoth companies may not necessarily align with the reality of smaller enterprises.

For instance, when considering a return-to-work policy, citing Elon Musk's directive for Tesla employees to come back to the office might seem like a compelling argument – to you. However, it's crucial to recognize that your company is not Tesla! The scale, resources, and operational dynamics of these large corporations are vastly different from those of a smaller consultancy firm or a startup. Comparing yourself to these industry giants is akin to comparing an apple to a cement truck, or an apple to Apple — they simply don't belong in the same category.

When Hiring, Focus On Your Story

Another area where this emulation tendency becomes apparent is in the hiring process. Keep in mind how different the context is if you’re a start-up, a 100-person tech company, or a globally recognized brand. Smaller companies sometimes try to align their policies and ways of operating with those of big companies simply because they see it in the news. However, it's essential to consider the unique attributes of your own company, its brand, and its employees. Iconic brands like Nike and Tesla have established personas that extend beyond their executives, which is not the case for smaller companies. Attempting to mimic their practices without taking into account the specific context of your own organization can easily lead to misguided decisions.

To navigate these challenges, I often advise my clients to focus on their own story, rationale, and reasons behind their decisions. While external validation and support can be helpful, the foundation of your decision-making process should be rooted in a deep understanding of your employees, culture, and the direction of the market. Large companies can provide insights into general market trends, but it's crucial to evaluate them through the lens of your competitive landscape and talent acquisition needs.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t play to win when it comes to recruiting great talent. Maybe we can’t expect to compete head-to-head with behemoths like Microsoft and IBM for business contracts, but we can focus on distinguishing ourselves from other small companies — let's call them A, B, and C — by highlighting the unique strengths and capabilities we can offer to the talent who keep these companies humming along each day.

On the talent front, things become more interesting indeed. While we may not have the resources of the tech giants, we can leverage our agility and flexibility to attract the right people. We can create a work environment that allows our employees to thrive, offering benefits like remote work options that big companies may struggle to provide. This way, we can build a team of dedicated professionals who value our company's culture and opportunities for growth.

Ultimately, you need to run the race you’re in. Stay focused on your business competition and how you can attract great talent. Small businesses have the advantage of being nimble and adaptable, offering unique value propositions that differ from those of larger corporations. Embrace this flexibility and leverage it to your advantage in crafting your own story and direction. Ultimately, you must take ownership of your decisions and have confidence in your ability to make sound choices based on your specific context.

Greg Griesemer is founder and CEO of HR firm 1130.Works.