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Transitioning from large corporate HR to an SME

Hi all, I’m curious to know people’s experiences of transitioning from large corporate HR within a specialism to working as an HR Generalist in an SME environment. How have you found it? Do you prefer SME over large corporate HR? Any tips on deciding if it’s the right move? Thanks, Nick

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  • Hi Nick
    My personal experience is that SME roles are preferable for me. Whether it is right for you will depend on your values and skill set and on the specific culture of the organisation that you work in.
    In my experience, a smaller organisation offers more variety, the ability to make a more visible contribution across the business and less bureaucracy. When I worked in larger organisations, I experienced less commercial mindset in the HR team and bureaucratic processes made it much more difficult to deliver a positive outcome for clients, colleagues and individuals. The drawbacks are that you are often in a standalone position so you are doing everything, from strategy to admin and as a generalist, you will not have specialised teams that you can refer to for more challenging situations.
    Good luck with your decision!
  • Thank you Fiona, really helpful :)
  • I've always worked as "generalist" in SME's more so than large corporate organisations during my HR career and this suits me as I enjoy the variety I get each day. One thing I would note is sometimes the different behaviours or approaches I've noticed between the two. I can be "corporate" when needed but equally sometimes SME's need a more down to earth approach to HR.

    I've noticed when working with HR colleagues in the past who have primarily worked in more corporate HR environments that they've struggled to switch up their approach to the less formal, more down to earth approach that SME's sometimes need (depending very much on industry of course). I'd consider the industry you're looking at moving into.

    My HR role in a manufacturing SME for example certainly wouldn't have benefited from a more corporate HR approach when I first joined it. The employees and management would not have taken kindly to that approach and my job would have been much harder than it needed to be, as the business developed and grew then we slowly worked towards some more corporate approaches as it were but certainly never reaching the levels you might see in much larger entities.

    My current role now is probably a hybrid of the two approaches, working in tech we're perhaps more corporate in some aspects but equally we're a small business so we still take on some of the less formalised approaches of some SME's. For me it's finding the healthy balance between the two.

    I agree with Fiona in that it will largely depend on your values/skills set but also how you prefer to work. SME's can be very challenging but in different ways to perhaps what you are used to. And, as Fiona also rightly points out, HR roles in SME's are usually standalone so you rarely have someone else to bounce ideas off of, split the load with or have higher escalation point. Sometimes you are the highest escalation point within the HR department.
  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    9 Jan, 2024 12:37

    Hi  ... I was sure this had come up previously, but am still trying to the thread(s)!

  • To add to the great replies you've had already, I've worked in organisations with nearly 20,000 employees and ones with just under 250 and do prefer the smaller organisations.

    The main reason being that I can get to know more people on an individual basis and I find that makes it easier to get a feel for what may or may not work for the business in terms of HR solutions.

    The downside to this is that it can be harder to remain detached from drama and issues that people may be experiencing and whilst its lovely to know that people trust you enough to talk to you, it can take up a lot of time.

    In smaller organisations you may also end up picking up things that would be outside of HR's remit in a larger organisation - Friday night saw me on the 'door' of a post panto staff party, ticking off names and handing out drinks vouchers!
  • Hey Gemma, this is something I am finding in my current role at the moment. How did you support yourself through the transition from corporate to small?
  • Hello Nick,
    I moved in 2019 from a large public sector organisation to become a single handed HR manager at a SME. It was certainly an eye opener for me. The ability to act quickly, lack of bureaucratic hurdles to jump through to get things done has been great. I am obviously closer to the work force and have been able to influence our directors to improve HR matters at the company. I have directly impacted on the bottom line and have been seen as an asset to the company. Its not all been plain sailing as our CEO (company owner) has dated views on how to handle HR matters. But slowly over time that view is changing. As some of the other replies have said you do everything from Strategy to hands on admin. I am doing work I last did over 30 years ago. Its been refreshing as far as I am concerned.
  • I've been perm and am currently a professional interim and have worked for big Corporates or big organisations and SMES in both capacities. I would say transitioning between the two is about flexibility, the ability to manage ambiguity, pull on a a range of skills sets and respond to where the organisation is at rather than where we might want them to be. Those could equally apply to both settings I know but I have found that sometimes moving to a SME from a bigger, more mature organisational context can pose challenges for people.

    I don't have a preference for either setting. To me they can offer slightly different opportunities, challenges and risks.

    I decided whether the position was right for me dependent on the role, the people I was going to work for, the offer and whether I felt the chemistry, trust (was there) and culture was a good fit for me. I do feel that SMES can offer more opportunities to be both strategic and long term but also often require me to roll up my sleeves, pull on areas/skills muscles I've not done or used for a while - as usually in a bigger organisation you have a bigger team who cover some of those areas, and that the pace can be very different. Someone explained to me that in a SME/ start up/ scale up you need people who are comfortable with the scrappiness that can be present when businesses are growing and haven't reached their maturity. If you can handle that, it's probably a good place for you.