There’s a stereotype about what it’s like to work for a big corporation and how it’s very different than working for a nonprofit organization. In my 25-year career, I’ve worked for two nonprofits and two large corporations. Looking back, besides structure being an obvious difference, so much depends on the company’s culture and leadership team.
My first job in the United States was as a project manager at an association in New York City, which, even though it was a nonprofit, seemed like a very corporate environment. I felt like a cog without a voice, expected to mind my place. All the decisions were made at the top. Everyone did their job, but there wasn’t any coherent culture to tie us all together behind a shared goal or core values. The organization lacked that feeling of being part of a friendly, supportive team where everyone’s part is important.
LARGE COMPANY WITH A GOOD CULTURE
The next stop along my career path was 10-plus years at Western Union, a Fortune 500 U.S. company that employs a diverse team from all over the world. Some aren’t citizens of the U.S. and are here on a working visa. Being an immigrant myself, I felt very comfortable there, learning about various cultures and traditions and attending festivals for holidays celebrated in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and many other countries.
Even though it’s a large corporation, Western Union had a family feel when it came to working as teams. We worked hard, stayed late (when leaving at 6 p.m., people would look at me with surprise in their eyes, and my boss would jokingly say, “Half-day today?”), but we were all close.
Western Union aligned us all behind the purpose of helping to connect families around the world and achieve their dreams by sending and receiving money. We all felt like an important part of a larger mission, and I personally always felt like the face of the organization whenever I was attending an event or being asked about my job, even as a middle manager.
We had a series of charismatic CEOs and senior managers who took the time to speak with us, inspire us, and challenge us. The company was a great place to learn the ins and outs of a complex U.S. business, and we were given opportunities to shift roles and expand our responsibilities often.
In my 10 years with Western Union, I was promoted three times. Starting as a grassroots and events associate, I was promoted to events manager, then offered a position in marketing, managing advertising campaign launches with multimillion-dollar budgets, and I had extra markets added to my list of responsibilities year after year. It was an exciting place to work.
Unfortunately, as a business, Western Union couldn’t sustain its place among fast-growing competitors, and, after multiple rounds of layoffs, our whole marketing department in New Jersey was dissolved. Despite that disappointing end, I made many lifelong friendships at the company, strong relationships for which distance doesn’t matter. Former colleagues and I still meet up for coffee when they’re in town, and we stay connected on social media.
LARGE COMPANY WITH A POOR CULTURE
The next stop was a short nine months at a Fortune 100 company headquartered in Asia—another hierarchical giant where I felt the same way as I did in my first job in the U.S. The decisions were made at the top, and rank-and-file employees felt like we had no voice; we were expected to do what we were told without offering any input. It’s possible that other people would thrive in that kind of environment, but it wasn’t for me. Those feelings mounted to a sense of job insecurity, so I knew I had a decision to make.
If you ever find yourself working at an organization that you know is a bad fit for you, or if the company culture begins to deteriorate due to a restructuring, merger, acquisition, or new leadership, then it’s important to look at the situation as an opportunity for growth. To handle the situation professionally, continue giving your best effort even as you evaluate the state of the organization and your role within it with clear eyes.
Assess the pros and cons of staying with your current organization vs. beginning a job search and then chart a course forward. If you do decide to pursue other opportunities, then make sure to leave a positive impression and preserve as many professional relationships as possible. It’s never a good idea to burn bridges; you never know which former colleagues or bosses may be willing and able to serve as mentors or recommend you for a future position.
NOT-FOR-PROFIT WITH A GREAT CULTURE
As I reset my course, I found my way to IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants). Immediately, I experienced a culture of inclusion and understanding, where every person matters. The CEO knows everyone by name and takes new hires out to lunch to learn more about them. The leadership team is open to hearing our thoughts and ideas, and not only are we assured that we can speak up, but we’re encouraged to challenge the status quo.
That ethos comes from the top and penetrates all the levels of our organization. There’s a shared goal and instilled core values that everyone understands and refers to on an ongoing basis. The organization’s success over the past 10 years with this style of leadership is proof of what a company, either nonprofit or for-profit, can do when they invest in people and make them feel like they’re a part of something grand.
I don’t think that the structure or the size of a company necessarily dictates the experience that someone would have working there. Nonprofit organizations are usually thought of as organizations with a family feel where everyone is laid-back, and the corporate world is usually portrayed as a rivalrous, backstabbing kind of an environment.
But it isn’t the type or size of the organization that defines employees’ experiences. Rather, it’s the culture instilled by the leadership team that encourages or discourages employees to want to remain a contributing member of the organization over the long haul.