Should I work for multinationals or SMEs?

By Robert Half on 13 February 2018

When it comes to your working environment, it's important to find one that best fits you. 

Whether that's a large enterprise or a small business, weighing up the pros and cons can help you make a better decision about which work setting suits what you're looking for in your career.

We talk to two professionals who’ve experienced life at both multinational companies and SME companies to get a feel for what it's like working in the different environments.

Cian McLoughlin, former Business Partner Manager at SAP and now CEO at Trinity Perspectives.

What was it like to go from working for an IT company with a market capitalisation over US$100 billion to running a small sales-training business?

Bracing! I no longer had access to an IT, HR, marketing or finance department. The fancy office and perks such as full health insurance were a thing of the past. Then again, the increased autonomy and reduced stress levels were a definite improvement.

How does the business-travel situation differ?

At SAP there were frequent overseas conferences, and interstate travel was an almost weekly occurrence. The option was always open for a job relocation elsewhere in Australia or overseas, but I was happy in Sydney. I travel less now, which is a positive for family life. For obvious reasons, SME companies will need to justify the cost of flights and accommodation, so there usually needs to be a compelling business reason to travel, preferably for multiple meetings.

What’s it like being on the staff of a big company as opposed to a small one?

In an open-plan corporate office, you are interrupted more frequently and my week would often be consumed with meetings. Regardless of the size of your organisation, you can and should make friends with the colleagues around you, although in big companies this can be more difficult, particularly if they have a hot-desk policy.

Office politics can be an issue in any business, but given that multinational companies have many different business units, often with conflicting agendas, the chances of office politics can potentially increase. In my experience, on-the-job learning occurs in most small businesses, but working in a bigger company gives you easier access to training opportunities.

How do the different-sized budgets impact on the employee experience?  

There’s more money available in multinational companies due to the scale of their operations, but there are also more hoops to jump through to access it. With SME companies, the owner of the company often holds the purse strings. As the money is coming out of the owner's pocket, you will need to able to prove there will be an impressive return on their investment.

What’s it like being part of a large organisation’s strategy as opposed to a small company’s?

Those working in management at big businesses have to deliver value to shareholders and meet market revenue expectations. That usually means trying to deliver strong and consistent growth, but it can also reduce the appetite for risk. SME companies can often be more agile and innovative in their decision-making, but can sometimes run into challenges with execution due to a lack of resources.

Sharon Melamed, formerly of Prestige International, Sitel and Serco, now Managing Director at Matchboard

How does business travel between small and large organisations differ?

While working at multinationals, I would often travel from Sydney to San Francisco to New York. While in New York, I travelled to Tokyo 40 times. It was always five-star hotels and a generous daily allowance. In a small business, you tend to have smaller travel budgets, so therefore it’s budget airlines and the business can’t always afford the cost of many trips so you need to make the most of your international meetings.

How would you describe the day-to-day experience of working for a large organisation compared to a small one?

At multinational companies, you won’t know most of your fellow employees. At SME companies, you will. So there’s usually less politics and more of a team spirit at smaller organisations. You are also put in more of a narrowly defined box at a bigger organisation. There’s generally less formal staff training, but more wide-ranging, on-the-job instruction offered by smaller employers.

How do the decision-making processes differ?

SME companies have smaller budgets but greater agility. On the other hand, while multinational corporations have larger budgets, that comes with lots of gatekeepers to satisfy, stakeholders to lobby and paperwork to fill out.

How do multinationals and SMEs differ in their approach to risk-taking and innovation?

Multinational corporations can afford to be complacent, at least for a while. SME companies can’t. Almost by definition, those who’ve founded smaller businesses have an appetite for risk. Of course, that can turn out to be a bad or good thing for their staff.

How do you determine whether you're likely best suited to a multinational or SME?

McLoughlin: If you like autonomy, variety and multitasking, go for the SME company. Opt for multinational companies if you prefer stability, a more structured working environment and having a manager on hand to support you.

Melamed: One shortcut is to ask friends and family members who share your personality type what sized businesses they’ve most enjoyed working for. There are conservative SME companies and innovative multinational corporations. But as a general rule, if you like structured environments with clearly defined targets and deadlines, go large. If you prize flexibility, go small.

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