When you’re making a career move, your new role is the most important factor to evaluate, but you also need to carefully consider the size of the hiring enterprise—and what the company can and cannot offer in terms of career ascension and skill building.

Sometimes there isn’t a great deal to consider—CIOs at large firms typically won’t consider a move to a smaller company unless they can move up significantly in the management hierarchy. Many ambitious and young IT pros believe it’s best to move ahead with bigger companies—the perception is that there are bigger dragons to slay and bigger rewards for slaying them.

But that’s not always the case. Before you make any assumptions or quick decisions, you need to seriously evaluate the pros and cons of being a big fish in a small pond or one of many in a larger pond.

Understand the differences
The more obvious differences between the medium-size firm’s CIO and the large firm’s role are titles and reporting relationships, scale, distance, politics, and middle management.

The top IT pro is typically titled CIO in medium to large organizations and vice president of IT in smaller organizations. In general, most large company CIOs report directly to CEOs, while small company VPs report to CFOs.

Small company VPs I have worked with over the years see an enormous distinction between their roles and the CIO role—essentially, they’re not part of the executive management team, while CIOs typically are. CIOs are involved in setting corporate strategy; VPs are supporting a strategy already established by others.

The large firm role deals with an organizational scale with more of everything: equipment, applications, and employees. This larger scale poses organizational and logistical problems unique to very large organizations.

The management distance issue also differs. CIOs at small and medium-size firms can “see” all the people who work for them and, possibly all the people they support. The CIO at a large firm must manage people across large distances whom he or she will only occasionally, or never, meet.

Larger organizations promote more complex and creative politics, often requiring a CIO to master specialized skills to deal with them successfully, such as learning to manage through layers of middle managers.

Weigh the options
In examining which role is best for you, consider the following:

  • Travel: The larger the firm, the more likely the role will involve significant travel. Does that work with your personal obligations?
  • Technology vs. business focus: It is very difficult to stay close to the technology as a CIO at a medium-size or large firm. A move up to a larger firm will require a shift in focus toward business and people management and away from technology.
  • Tactical vs. strategic focus: As you move to larger firms, you’ll need to delegate the tactical and focus on the strategic decisions. When deciding on company size, decide which kind of decision making best suits you. Are you better at the 10,000-foot level, setting direction and reviewing the performance of large groups, or are you most effective at detail-level decisions?
  • Scale: You must honestly assess your management skills. Do you have the ability to articulate and impose your vision and plan across the country or across the ocean? Or are you most effective when interacting directly with the people doing the work?

Other pros and cons
There are many advantages and disadvantages to both company environments. Experience in leadership of a large, complex, multinational IT organization is rare and valuable. To put it simply, experience in a large firm qualifies you to work in other large firms; so, if you take this road, it can be a big step if you’re aiming for a high-profile career.

In the smaller enterprise, you get to be the top IT decision maker much earlier along the career path. You get to make both tactical and strategic decisions. On the other hand, it’s often difficult to make the jump to a larger organization if you’ve worked for several smaller enterprises.

The need for self-assessment
In addition to management power and reach, many other things differ between the two types of companies.

For example, politics will play out very differently in small and large firms. The political power resides in individuals in smaller firms, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Budgeting processes can also play out very differently. The obstacles to getting your budget approved may be unfamiliar and place you at a disadvantage.

Overall, when considering which size firm best suits you, the first step is deciding which job responsibilities appeal to you and which don’t—essentially you need to outline how you want to spend your workdays. Then, do an honest assessment of your managerial strengths and weaknesses. And, finally, keep your eyes open for the likely pitfalls and opportunities each offers.