Resolving the big company / small company paradox

Resolving the big company / small company paradox

Someone asked for advice on a tech leadership forum

Hi everyone, I was wondering if anyone has experience being in a client relationship where the client is a big corporate business that likes to dictate much of the tech decisions. This was fine as we were growing, but now it’s destroying morale for our team. We’ve some important structure changes to make as we’re expanding rapidly from a startup, but this client relationship is a difficult one. I’d love a mentor to help 😀

I’m making a bunch of assumptions here, as the author didn't go into the dynamics of the situation much. But, what follows ought to be generally useful.

tl;dr Grow your capacity to become a trusted advisor to your client organisation, without triggering its immune system and ejecting you for insubordination / making people look bad / etc. There are many ways of doing this. I’ll describe one such way.


Large corporate clients likely go to you because they are unable themselves to hire or develop or retain the skills and experience you bring. The irony is that as soon as you’re involved with the client, they try to make you work in a way that they’re comfortable with — not recognising that it’s your very way of working that allows you to do what they cannot.

This is one of the fundamental paradoxes of working with larger companies.
So what to do about this? What’s a way out of the paradox?

When I was consulting to a large bank some years ago we developed an approach that helped us work with this. It comes from the observation that a client most easily sees a person inhabiting just one role, just one kind of relationship to them. And this gets in the way of providing the client with both implementation work and actionable advice.

What I mean is, if you’ve had a team, say, implementing some features that the client needs, the client sees that team in the role of “do stuff we tell you to do”. The team may be much more capable than that, and have feedback (or even push-back!) like “here’s a better way to do this” or “if we use technology Y instead of X it will be more robust” or whatever. But, in order to hear that feedback the client would need to see the team as both “doers” and “advisors”, and seeing the same team in two roles is not easy.

What we did

What we did was have three roles in contact with the client at three different levels, doing three different things. And all the roles collaborate as peers within your company, but are presented to the client as a strict hierarchy that they are more familiar with. So there’s a skill in agreeing the direction and intention behind the scenes, then letting it play out with the client in a particular stylised way.

You may already have these three roles, as they fall out of how companies tend to work with large enterprises, but often the potential of working these roles is left under-utilised. These three roles are:

  • the doers: a team that takes direction from the client, and either says “yes, that’s fine” or “sounds good, and there are a few points I want to look into, can I get back to you shortly?”
  • the advisor: someone who is not seen as part of the doers, who cultivates and maintains a different relationship, often with a different level in the client business than is instructing the doers.
  • the account manager: more than just looking for new business, the account manager grows a different kind of relationship with senior leadership in the client organisation, where there’s an ability to have trusted and candid conversations in private, and hold the client to account for decisions they have made, and whether advice was acted on or not. I like to call them account(ability) managers.

Doers are present every day, advisors every week or two, and account(ability) managers perhaps monthly.

Note that the same person can be a doer with one client and an advisor to a different client. But it is critical that no individual is both doer and advisor to the same client.

The account manager role in this model requires more experience, subtlety and emotional intelligence than in what might be a typical account manager role. In large part, this is because they need to have a level of gravitas and respect with the client’s leadership that supports having challenging conversations.

There's a regular weekly huddle of all the roles working with a particular client, as well as a private Slack channel for timely knowledge sharing. The huddle serves two purposes:

  • Getting into alignment about how to deal with requests to the Doers, advice and how it is received, and reassuring everyone about the whole set-up.
  • Having a place for everyone to vent frustration, and get support, in doing the emotional labour of supporting the client with positivity and optimism.

Support is particularly important for those in the Doer role, as they are required to accept requests from the client without getting into disagreements.

Of course, we're talking about approprite professional requests and direction from clients, which we might strongly disagree with. If there's something inappropriate, harassment, bullying, and so on, that falls outside of this model, and there should be other processes to fall back on.


A typical interaction might look like:

Client: “Do X but use technology Y”

Doers: “Sounds good, and there are a couple of points we want to look into, and get back to you shortly, if that’s okay?”

Doers to advisor: “OMG, they want us to use technology Y!”

Advisor to client architect: “We advise that most organisations of your kind are moving from Y to Z, for these reasons. If we use Y, the following may happen, and you’ll need to budget for it.”

(Some time later)

Account manager to client leadership: “It appears advice was given about this, but didn’t change anything, and we see what happened. We could be giving you better value for money if our advice were taken into account more.”


Account manager to client leadership: “It appears advice was given about this, and some changes were made, and we see what happened.”

In either case, the client leadership is enabled to deal with credit or blame as they see fit (large companies run on credit and blame, of course, and part of providing service is enabling your client to take credit, while also sometimes helping to absorb blame), and also to work with not only a service provider but a trusted advisor.

Looking for mutual benefit

It’s possible to charge comparatively more for a legacy skill set. This reminds me of how Cobol programmers have long been in demand, and able to charge top rates. The key question is, does the story around your rate-card make sense to your customer? When the story makes easy sense to your customer, you can do a lot of things.

Consider the loss aversion principle — most people prefer to encounter a discount (that they might earn) than a surcharge (that they might incur). This applies to people in everyday life, and also to assessments by procurement departments in large companies. So, perhaps a “new technology discount” might work, where you’re eating some of the cost that the client would incur in introducing a new thing. For example, maybe you could offer free training in the new tech, if the client agrees that you can use it? You get the benefit of avoiding legacy tech in this case, while the client gets a lower cost on ramp to something new and valuable — so a win-win.

Double-loop learning

Large companies get pretty good at single-loop learning, and have all sorts of systems set up to manage and improve this. For example, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), SMART goals (where the constituent letters are taken to mean different things depending on who you ask). In each case, as typically practiced, the goals provide a fixed North Star, and whether we should consider a different star is rarely considered.

Single-loop learning: The repeated attempt at the same problem, with no variation of method and without ever questioning the goal.

This learning strategy is effective when things are straightforward and well understood, but risks heading at full-speed in the wrong direction when the situation is more complex.

We can serve our large-company clients by helping them engage in double-loop learning, in addition to the single loops they are already good at.

Double-loop learning entails the modification of goals or decision-making rules in the light of experience. The first loop uses the goals or decision-making rules, the second loop enables their modification, hence “double-loop”. Double-loop learning recognises that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem.

Which of the roles of Doer, Advisor, Account(ability) Manager help your client engage in double-loop learning?

If you thought Account Manager, you’d be right! At least, from your client’s point of view, this is where sensitive conversations about changing objectives are most productively held. But skilful and well-informed shifts in decision-making need the combined insights of all three roles. Many key insights come from the Doer role working hands-on with day-to-day challenges.

Why can’t the large company get insights from their own Doers, and benefit from double-loop learning without your help?

Because they’re a large company, almost everyone working there is subject to and rewarded by single-loop goals. The corporate status hierarchy that works to keep the company functioning at scale by delivering objectives down the hierarchy, also prevents adverse information from flowing in the opposite direction.

So it’s your regular huddle behind the scenes, among the three roles, that creates an information channel that is not subject to the client company’s ordinary rules. The account manager benefits from eyes, ears, and hands in all the places where the work happens. And when the relationship with your client’s leadership is strong enough, this can turn into actionable insight that is both relevant and hard to get elsewhere.

Be like a pilot fish

The photo at the top of this article is of a Blacktip Reef Shark, Carcharinhus melanopterus alongside a Golden Trevally Pilot fish Gnathanodon speciosus.

The pilot fish’s relationship with sharks is a mutualist one; the pilot fish gains protection from predators, while the shark gains freedom from parasites.

Note also that the pilot fish is careful to not act in a way that might freak the shark out and risk being eaten.

Photo credit Carol Buchanan / Shutterstock