Act Like a Startup: 5 Lessons Bigger-Company CEOs Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

5. Keep it personal
One advantage of the small company culture is familiarity. Everybody knows the CEO by first name and nobody thinks twice about sending him or her an email or stopping by the office for a chat. Bill Raveis remembers that time well. He founded the William Raveis Real Estate, Mortgage & Insurance company 40 years ago in a 10×10 office above a grocery store on a busy street in Fairfield, Conn.

Bil-Raveis“I thought if I had a big desk, I’d look important,” Raveis recalls. “My desk was almost as big as the office, so nobody could come in.” Four decades later, he still hasn’t forgotten why he went out on his own: he’d been working as a systems analyst for a large company in Manhattan’s Pan Am building. The company threw a dinner at the Biltmore to celebrate an IT system that Raveis’ team had built for a client, Westinghouse. “They recognized everybody but us for doing it,” he says.

So Raveis left. Today, his soup-to-nuts home homeownership company is the third-largest, family-owned real estate firm in the U.S., with more than 3,000 sales professionals in 100 offices across seven states in the Northeast. “One of the things we do here is [to] recognize the work people do. We look at our salesforce, rather than the end client, as our customer. Because if we can support the sales force, they will gather the business.”

Corporate America is filled with silos, a situation which creates a culture of distance and apathy, he adds. “There’s no organizational chart here. We’re all on the same level. I’m equal to the receptionist—we just have different responsibilities.”

Raveis’ goal continues to be treating every employee like family. If someone has an illness in the family or a new baby, the company’s senior management reaches out to them. The key, as a company grows, is to maintain communication, whether it’s by phone, by email or, when possible, in person, he says. “You have to pick up the phone and call people. Let them know they can call you any time. It can’t be a mindset of, I’m a big shot and they’re a little shot. We’re all just helping each other succeed.”

One more thing to learn from startups? “They have fun,” says CCL’s Ryan. “They have a sense of humor. I’m struck by how seriously we take ourselves on boards and in senior management. I know we have scale, complexity and regulations—all that stuff, and we do need to take our jobs seriously—but not ourselves. We should make fun of ourselves much more often.”