Choosing employers based on personal Learning Styles or Which one to work for – a Corporation or a Startup?

Which one should I choose to work for – a big, established company or a small starting one? A well-known multinational company or a start-up? This kind of question, though posed in differing variations, is probably shared by many young people who are embarking the first steps in their career path, including myself a while ago. I didn’t think I could come up with a new perspective on this matter, after that much of consensus widely acknowledged out there. And I used to think that there’s no clear cut answer – it’s all dependent on personal preference. But I turned out to find out a new perspective regarding potentiality for growth rooted in compatibility of each environment with learning styles of different individuals.

That already-gone question came back to me again on a recent Saturday evening when I met with some old college friends. I asked a friend who came back to Vietnam lately after her master’s program about her job. She told me that she was confused between 2 options:

(1) the current one – a ‘chaotic’ company where she now assumes the role of a ‘COE’ (and no, it’s not a typo, it’s a fun slang we used to mean ‘chief of everything’) in her department yet she works on things that are new to her;

and (2) a new offer – a structured company with an experienced boss yet she will be doing things that she used to do before going abroad for her study.

I immediately thought about that seemingly century-old question above, as well as its commonly known answers. Those who favor working for startups, for example, will highlight that as in a startup, one will be exposed to many kinds of problem and thus have abundant opportunities to learn a wide range of things while working for well established companies will lead to a narrow skillset in a particular field only. Yet those who are advocates of big firms argue that working in an established company offers opportunities to learn from more experienced people and do big things that small enterprises haven’t been developed enough to encounter.

Both option has its own merit. There’s no absolute winner. Thus the question is not about which is better, it’s about what you prefer: breadth or depth, exposure or expertise, creating ‘your own path’ from the beginning or extending a known one.

These answers are so familiar, and hence probably somewhat conventional, that I had never thought I would ever be able to come up with any new perspective about it. Yet, at that moment, triggered by my friend’s question, I suddenly realized that knowing what we want is only half of the answer. I recalled the theory of learning styles by Honey and Mumford which was briefly introduced in a recent training session at my company, Nielsen Vietnam, and suddenly realized that it could actually shed light on the other half to make a well-rounded answer.

According to Honey and Mumford, there are 4 learning styles. Each of us tends to find 1 style easier for us to learn than the other 3. Learning in the most compatible way will help us learn more easily, learn more and learn faster.

Based on how we learn best, we can be:

  • Activist: learn best by DOING
  • Reflector: learn best via OBSERVING
  • Theorist: learn best via THINKING
  • Pragmatist: learn a thing best via PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

We can draw out some implications about which company should we choose based on such theory as following:

  • Those who learn best via observation need ‘good examples’ to observe, and thus, to learn. These people, hence, are likely to find it easiest to work for well-established firms where there are knowledgeable seniors for them to learn from, or, good practices that the company has had previously for them to refer to. Well-established companies also tend to formulate models, templates, frameworks, and thus, can accommodate Theorists’ learning style.
  • Activists or those who learn best via doing, on the contrary, prefer to figure everything out on their own, with no need for reference to examples nor instructions. All they need is a task on hand. They’ll learn most in an environment where there are new experiences for them to try and learn from. These people, as you can predict, are likely to handle very well a job in a forming organization where everything is at the starting point and no precessors are there to set models. Moreover, in such a place where everything is almost so ‘unready’, they’ll have lots of opportunities to work on all-new things, and thus learn a great deal out of the job.

Now looking at the aforementioned question from this angle, the answer is not just about what prefer but also about what we are most capable of. To answer the question of which company to choose, it’s not just about figuring out what we will learn (whether it’s aligned with our preference) but also about how we will learn (whether it’s in line with our learning style or not) in a company. The ideal is a combination of both for us to develop at the fastest pace possible.

However, the theory only talks about a ‘favorable’ style, not an ‘exclusive style’. So that you are, say a Reflector doesn’t mean that you can’t learn by doing. It’s just that you’ll learn faster via observation than action. Moreover, learning is a creative process. A Reflector doesn’t necessarily need a senior, for example, an experienced boss, to learn from. If such a person is absent, a Reflector can always learn via another ways of ‘observation’ such as reading case studies, researching how competitors/bigger companies have been doing, etc. Therefore, that you are learning-via-observation type doesn’t necessarily mean that you will not be capable of working for a young, starting company. Just be prepared that you may encounter more hardship or have to spend more time while doing so.

So, again, it’s not simply a matter of what you want to do, just as it’s not merely about what you are capable of, it’s a combination of the two. So decide what the combination is for you. If you really want what a particular workplace (though not the most favorable for your learning style) can provide you with and you are willing to embrace the challenges it may pose, then go for it.

Some resouces for you:

Check your style with this questionnaire:

Understand your style through some brief explanations here:

(I intentionally tried to write this post in Vietnamese. But I really struggled for quite a while to express my thinking with simplicity and articulation. I switched to English just to have a starter with a hope that as things were starting to fall into place, I would find it easier to write in Vietnamese. But the writing process ended up being like this. Thanks my Vietnamese readers for your patience)

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