From Running the Show to Joining the Team

By Dan Rafter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 19, 2006

Even before he took his job with the Reston office of consulting firm Accenture, Walt Shill knew he would need more patience than he ever had to show while running his own start-up business. All it took to remind him was his request for an e-mail address that didn't strictly follow the company's established formula.

An approval took three weeks and Shill's signature on several forms.

"In my own company, that would have been done in 10 minutes," said Shill, who has worked as a global managing director at Accenture since 2004.

Shill, though, isn't complaining. He willingly sold his business -- a firm that managed product returns for other companies, eventually selling the stuff on eBay -- after having run it for three years. He returned to the corporate world to take advantage of the many resources big companies have.

Shill isn't alone in making the transition from being self-employed to working in the sometimes confounding bureaucracy of the corporate world. The move is far easier if the person making it knows there are both challenges and rewards in returning to the corporate world.

"When you walk around with 'Accenture' on your business card, people recognize you. People answer your phone calls," Shill said. "When you're at a small company, it's almost as if you're anonymous. Now I work with senior executives at big companies. I remember once at my own company begging a junior accounts-receivable clerk not to shut off our servers. That doesn't happen at Accenture."

Ane Powers knows that neither the self-employed nor the corporate route comes without challenges. She owns District-based White Hawk Group, a career- and leadership-coaching firm. Before founding her own company, though, Powers worked in human resources for a large hospitality company.

Her advice for people struggling with the move from self-employment to working for someone else is simple: Workers must remember that not everyone is cut out for the corporate world, just as not everyone is right for self-employment.

Some people are tremendously efficient working by themselves. Others, though, do their best work when dealing with a team, Powers said. That type of person would probably do better in a corporate environment than would the worker who doesn't want to deal with the distractions of colleagues and bosses.

The key is for entrepreneurs to be sure they are well suited to corporate life before making the jump.

For instance, think about support.

Employees at large companies are blessed with big support staffs. That can be alluring to the self-employed who have long juggled every business decision they've faced. But it can also be a negative: These same workers may struggle to let others help them make the tough decisions they routinely handled on their own.

Gregory B. Fairchild, assistant professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, sums it up with this example: When the plumbing bursts at 3 a.m., entrepreneurs have to jump out of bed. Those working in a corporate setting may never even hear about the problem.

Which scenario is preferable? Different people will answer in different ways. And those who wouldn't think of getting back under those covers at 3 a.m. are probably better suited to remaining self-employed.

"When you're at a corporation, you no longer have to worry about what happens with the institution on a day-to-day basis. You now will have a finance person or cost analyst doing certain things for you," Fairchild said. "That frees up more time for you to do strategic thinking and less time to concentrate just on drudgery. Of course, that also may come with this feeling that you no longer have control over how things are going. You just need to figure out what you prefer."

Job hunters should also consider another fact: Not all corporations are alike.

Some value employees who have the ability to develop new ideas, think up innovative ways to market products or suggest new programs. Workforce experts consider these companies entrepreneur-friendly. It makes sense for formerly self-employed workers to seek out such employers.

"Self-employed people deciding to return to the corporate world need not despair," said Rebecca Shambaugh, president and chief executive of McLean-based consulting firm Shambaugh Leadership. "The key is selecting the right company. Since plenty of companies value entrepreneurship, self-employed people would be wise to seek them out."

Shambaugh suggests that people ask during job interviews how decisions are made at a company. Do employees get much say in the process? Or do folks atop the company simply pass decisions down?


© 2006 The Washington Post Company