It is ironic how one can write a dynamite resume, prepare for interview questions, practice salary negotiation, and do thorough research to uncover companies hiring your type of talent, but not be prepared to clearly evaluate the offers when they come in.

If you seek opinions on the benefits of working for a start-up vs. a large corporation, they will vary across the map. The opinions from ten people can show the general perceptions of what makes a "good" company and the different biases of big vs. small, start-up vs. established, and emerging vs. mature. Though helpful, that feedback cannot be applied with the level of accuracy needed to make one's own decision on which path to pursue. It is like getting the map of a town to find a house without the actual address.

It is impossible to generalize that all big established companies are great to work for any more than one can generalize that all start-ups are populated with kids that work tirelessly until you drop. Making choices among corporate cultures and environments must start with your unique set of career values and criteria. What is one professional’s job hell is another's heaven. A number of years ago when speaking to a group of rising women professionals, Casey Cameron of Sun Microsystems described her job as the front page editor of the Java.sun.com webpage as "hideous fun and horrifying job satisfaction". She went on to describe the demands, pressure and stress in this work environment.

Does that description fit the picture painted to you of a big company, such as Sun was, or a start-up? My point is that nobody else can tell you where the best place for you to work is, even if you worked for them previously at another organization. People change and all corporate cultures and environments are different. Many an executive has regretted the day that they took the low hanging fruit of an offer from a former boss or colleague to work at a new company with them. Your colleagues, former managers, and even your mentors can only relay to you their opinions which are subjective at best. You may like “hideous fun” or you may not.


In evaluating corporate cultures, start with your own self-evaluation. Though you may never have worked in a start-up or a large company, it is possible to come up with a set of criteria to evaluate the offers. This is called ‘values clarification’ and is a standard technique used in career decision-making, and often employed by many search consultants to close candidates. A search consultant knows that a person makes a job choice based on a set of criteria or values, not just the money offered. They use that information to try and meet the candidate's criteria as part of the offer package to increase the likelihood of acceptance. If you are not clear on your top criteria, the bouquet of flowers for your spouse or partner, the board members calling and wooing you, the 5-star dinner or large hire-on bonus just may flatter your ego enough to get your commitment.

In fact, money may not even be among a candidate's top criteria in choosing one offer over another. Many kinds of criteria and values come into play and they differ with each executive. Choosing among career values is an indispensable process that generates clarity and enables focused decision-making. We would love a world where we could get all our values satisfied, but some are conflicting and others realistically require trade-offs. The trade-offs are the key points where confusion and internal conflict occur. You may say to yourself, "I want this and I want this as well". There are always trade-offs and even then no guarantees. In clearly identifying your top career criteria, choosing among offers, even with the trade-offs, becomes far less complex.

After identifying your top criteria, the task becomes one of finding out which industry, company and even business unit will fully satisfy your criteria. That is done first through in-depth research of industries and business sectors, followed by a review of the breadth of companies, and their sizes and stages of maturation. In smaller companies, the founder's style, track-record and background are also key drivers, whilst in larger organizations you’ll need to evaluate the business unit and in small companies, the team, culture and working relationships. What are the company's core values (both spoken and unspoken) and how do people work together? Does your assessment of a particular company's culture and values fit well with your own? Is it a better fit than any other companies who have interviewed you? If you can't answer those questions, recheck your own criteria for clarity and then get more information about the companies. You may not have enough information either about the companies or yourself or both.

Ask Questions!

Asking good questions based on your values before and during the interview process should give you enough information to make a decision as to which company would best fit who you are and support what is important and valuable to you. This is not a quick and easy process. It requires serious reflection, and a review of your work history with successes and failures to date. You serve yourself well when you take the time to compare and contrast career criteria even when the company wants an immediate decision.

It is well worth doing the process as most professionals leave their positions not because they didn't like the work, but rather the value satisfaction wasn't good sufficient to stay. In the end, professionals leave jobs in hopes of increasing the satisfaction factor of the criteria that are important to them - namely what they value.

About the author - Patti Wilson

Patti Wilson and BlueSteps Executive Career Services (BECS) provide expert career coaching with personal branding, Web 2.0 job search and Social Networks to give executive clients a competitive edge. Patti coaches Fortune 500 and startup executives on how to optimize their careers and successfully transition to new opportunities. She has a Masters in Career Development and consults to MBA schools and was an Employment Manager for SUN Microsystems and a recruiter for Apple.

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