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Big pond versus big fish

Updated on January 22, 2015

The fish-and-pond analogy has been around in business for a long time. It’s a good way to view one’s position within a company. It’s impossible to select one over the other, since it depends on a lot of factors – the economic environment, the physical environment, a person’s ambitions, a person’s financial and emotional needs.

A small fish in a big pond would be exemplified by lower or middle management in a global organization. If a person is ambitious, and the position is in the corporate headquarters city, this affords the person a wide range of possible promotions leading to the top management levels. The pay scale is good and there are bonuses available. Eventually, when reaching the top level, the person becomes a member of the industrial/political/military complex which can lead to a political career with a corporate backup. The person has opportunities to travel the world and to learn many big corporation venues, such as company planes and teleconferencing.

All that sounds very appealing. But it is a world of office politics and high competition. There is no guarantee that the person will advance. And in hard economic times, low and middle management are targets for corporate “downsizing”. No longer do companies have loyalty to loyal employees. The person can become so entrenched in one niche that it is difficult to find re-employment. The person needs to not only know the responsibilities of his/her employees, but also business acumen – and how to handle office politics. This person has to be thrifty, even with a good income, to not be overly in debt in the case of losing his/her job; there may be quite a dry spell in between employment. This type of person must be rather confident about his/her ability to manage the position without a great deal of accolades from upper management. Since this little fish may have to change residence as s/he climbs the corporate ladder, s/he needs a supportive family, willing to move; this is difficult with teenagers.

A big fish in a small pond would be upper management in a small organization. Smaller businesses are more local, often within one state, and have a more horizontal organization chart. Management is small in proportion to employees. This is good for a person who has a need for recognition and a bit of job security, since there is less competition and more power. This person may act as a spokesperson to the local newspapers and as the company’s representative with other companies. Employees and management all know each other so there is no anonymity; this offers positive feedback for a good manager. It is possible to make positive changes in the organization without getting strangled by red tape. This is a person who, if so far successful, will probably survive any culling of employees during economic crisis. Small companies have more appreciation of their management, and tend to prefer not changing horses mid-stream. Rather than part with more money, small companies tend to reward this person with “perks” such as a company car or even a home.

The big fish will be paid less than an equivalent in a large company, and must understand the entire company’s lifeblood to maintain support and appreciation. There is little chance that this person would advance into the military/political/industrial complex, but there would be a good chance for advancement within the company due to his/her visibility. This person needs to be more circumspect about his/her behavior. As in a small town, all employees’ demeanor is watched – and judged. No corporate jets, no Nobel prizes. And there would be a cap to promotions; if the person is still ambitious, it may require a lateral move locally to open avenues for advancement.

Small companies tend to hire from within or locally, preferring a “known quality” over an “interloper”. Whether a long-term resident of the area or someone who moved to the area to take the job, this person has a need to keep the job. This may require careful and politic compromise.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner


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