Ellie Hearne
Founder & CEO, Pencil or Ink

In the age of the gig economy and when approximately half of your college friends have gone on to found startups, working for a large company can feel limiting. But it can also be a career-building gift if you play your cards right. 

Here are just a handful of ways to become a big fish in a big pond. Done right, these techniques can help you excel— in your current company and beyond.

1. Make the rules work for you

This doesn’t mean breaking the rules necessarily; it means making established policies and norms work to your advantage. 

For example, don’t feel bound by a quarterly or annual review cycle — seek out feedback from peers and managers in between the established windows.

It can feel intimidating to solicit feedback, so remember: no one dislikes hearing the words “I want to get better at what I do and serve the team well.” Asking for mini performance reviews like this is a simple way to stand out as someone who is always improving and who is using their tenure at the company to grow.

Speak truth to power in the face of dated norms. If you notice inefficiencies in the way things are typically done, raise your hand and offer some solutions. Be positive and open-minded when you do (you don't want to offend whoever started the policy in the first place) and people will remember you for it.

2. Remember that the right move isn’t necessarily upwards

Large companies represent a unique opportunity to try out a lot of roles, teams, and functions without having a 5-companies-in-2-years problem with your resume.

Ask yourself questions like these: What do I like about my current role? What’s missing? Can I build new skills by moving laterally? For my next role (here or elsewhere), what skills would serve me well? 

Building a diverse skill set can in itself be rewarding, but done strategically, it can set you up better for your next job - at your current company or elsewhere. Many companies prioritize internal hires over outsiders, since they know the company better - leverage that expertise well and you might just be in for a promotion.

3. Find a sponsor or mentor

Any leader worth their salt is inundated with requests to mentor people. So get savvy. Don’t approach a senior exec and simply say “Will you be my mentor?” 

Aim to form a genuine connection. Research their background and tell them (without sounding creepy) what specifically impresses you about it. Think about what you bring to the table as a mentee - the best mentor-mentee relationships evolve into partnerships over time, so lay the groundwork now.

A mentor who feels invested in your career and speaks up on your behalf is a true sponsor, and can be a fast track to getting you noticed by other senior players. If that's what you want from the relationship, think about how you might get there - from carefully evaluating whom to ask to how you make your approach.

4. Carve out your dream job

The policies and bureaucracy of large companies can feel limiting, but sometimes the very thing that seems like a weakness can be a huge strength. In other words, a large company’s size can help you be more scrappy and opportunistic than you might be elsewhere. 

What do I mean by that? Well, in the larger companies I’ve worked with — be they tech, lifestyle, or other - strong managers are often open to helping their hires break the company mold. Some even let you rewrite or alter your job description. Provided you time your request well and explain why it will benefit the company, it never hurts to ask.

Short of that, you might be able to eke out what Googlers call a “20% project” — a pet project that isn’t in your official remit, but that grows your skill set while advancing company goals all the while. Sure, not all large companies are Google, but all of them are large, typically well-funded, and potentially open to exploring new projects so they can better compete with the competition.

Remember, at companies large or small, your job is what you make it. At large ones in particular, opportunities to stand out are usually present -if you're willing to seek them out. And if they're not, it might be time to evaluate your other options.


Ellie Hearne is an experienced leadership coach and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with leaders at Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Marriott — as well as numerous start-ups. She tweets about life and feminism here, and about leadership and communications here