From Managing a Company to Managing a Corridor

or 5 Ways to Start Over and Lead a Startup Culture Inside Your Large Organization

By Christos Tsolkas

Last year, I was transferred from a position where I had territory, customers, operational control, many employees, lots of resources, and significant financial targets… to one where I had limited resources, indirect authority and a blank slate.

It was not a demotion at all – simply a chain in the succession planning and career development strategy of the company. Leading a strategy tank. I can’t deny that I love the pressure of working on the line in tough situations. My small office in a quiet corridor at corporate headquarters was a tough adjustment.

Officially, I was now responsible for coordinating and developing commercial strategy and given the assignment to create a new vision for the company in the Sales space. Unofficially, I decided to conduct an experiment.

I’ve always believed that big companies become vulnerable when they are successful because they lose their edge. In contrast, the energy, creativity, and sense of purpose at a startup is exciting but they are rarely successful because they lack resources, know-how and experience.

I’ve always wondered what might happen if you could combine those strengths, so I set out to try and infuse our big company with a startup mentality. To do that, I formed my own startup team in-house as a showcase for what I wanted our global organization to look like. Here’s how I made the shift in my own mind and in my team as the starting point for trying to influence others:


  1. Adopt the mindset of a founder

Corporate executive rely on big budgets, lots of direct reports, and a calendar full of meetings. Startup founders don’t care about any of that stuff. Too many employees means the burn rate is too high. Big budgets waste money. Short-term profitability limits future potential.

“Minimal viable products” are better than fully established brands for figuring out what customers really want.

This can be a difficult leap for any corporate executive, and requires new ways of thinking about success and progress, but it’s also very freeing.


  1. Less leadership and execution, more collaboration and lateral thinking

At startups, collaboration is critical because you’re making up the path to success as you go along. You want creative, empowered people on your team who come up with new solutions all the time on their own initiative.

That sort of environment and mindset is tricky to achieve. You need to rally people around a vision, not concrete goals. You need to establish a culture in which people thrive on feedback, purpose, creativity, hard work, and fun.

We brought young people on board for this reason – they’re drawn to a looser hierarchy because it isn’t as restrictive. But I still needed to help shift people from linear to lateral thinking. My motto was:

Think like an artist not an engineer”  


  1. Create a play room where culture and innovation can grow

Your work space changes the way you think and relate to others. I wanted a home-like environment where people would enjoy hanging out. Like a startup, we made a point of using as little budget as possible. IKEA furniture. Couches and coffee tables between desks and chairs. A basic foosball table and a stereo for playing music. We hung pictures of our faces on the wall to identify who sat where.

The result: we were more social. We got up and moved around when we talked and traded ideas all the time. We invited colleagues to visit and have coffee, and we took time to chat about new ideas and possibilities. People who came for meetings didn’t want to go back to their own offices.

When team members were transferred out, they didn’t want to leave!


  1. Throw Away the To Do List and Forget about the Budget

In established companies, focus and execution according to plan and budget leads to success. But improving on processes and ticking off goals only gives you similar outcomes with slightly better results.

Startups are trying to change the way the game is played. I told my team to get rid of their to-do lists, forget about small ideas, pretend they didn’t have any money, and think about how we could reinvent processes, products, business models and even markets.

Sometimes we just need to simplify to the fundamentals to discover solutions that break through the existing paradigm.


  1. Build an ant colony

Our team focus isn’t on a product, but on culture and a way of thinking – we want to be a source of creative disruption to ordinary approaches inside the company. If you want to have an impact on your organization, you need to market and sell your ideas.

Startup founders do the same thing. They pitch constantly to influence important people like investors, suppliers, established companies, and customers.

Our investors and stakeholders are the people in other departments and geographies. So we network a lot, and in the process our single corridor is becoming connected to other parts of the company, like an ant colony, carrying ideas and people back and forth, and helping to bring change everywhere.

Big corporations need to profit on existing business. But in parallel they also need to figure out how to disrupt themselves in order to anticipate existing and new competitors. That’s what we are trying to help accomplish and we’re having fun doing it.

Picture: Our Office


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