Stumbling into a Small Pond

I’d like to be able to say that I invented my Big Fish in a Small Pond approach after years of careful research and thoughtful analysis.

But that would be a lie.

The truth is that I sort of stumbled onto the idea after stumbling in and out of various “ponds” of various sizes. With time, I learned that some ponds seemed to fit me, whereas others did not.  And the nature of the pond had little to do with how comfortable I felt there. It was the size, not the substance, that mattered.

Thus I had held, and then gave up, a number of prestigious jobs at wonderful companies in my chosen profession (journalism.) I was able to land jobs that other folks could only dream of …. I was a producer at CNNfn, the predecessor of I was a vice president at Primedia, a massive publishing conglomerate with hundreds of titles and brands. I was an editor at Bloomberg News.

But those jobs didn’t work for me.

But other less prestigious and less remunerative jobs that I’d held over the years — Midwest bureau chief for the Journal of Commerce (an historic, but less-than-well-known brand covering transportation and trade); editorial director at tiny MBT Media, which covers innovations in banking; running the one-man bureau in Lexington, North Carolina, for the Winston-Salem Journal newspaper; senior writer for Vance Publishing’s The Packer newspaper, which covers the fruit and vegetable industry; etc.  — those jobs resonated with me.

In those small ponds, I fared well. But in the big ponds of journalism, I did poorly.  There were exceptions. But even those exceptions supported, rather than undermined, my theories on being A Big Fish in a Small Pond.

I took a job once at a small publisher covering a small section of the petroleum business. It appeared to be a perfect Big Fish gig at Small Pond company.  But it was a terrible fit.  A few years ago I took on a job managing the editorial team of a small brand covering  industrial metals. It too seemed like a perfect Big Fish gig. But it wasn’t.

Both of those jobs failed to meet the core requirements for being a Big Fish in a Small Pond role. In both jobs I reported to people who wanted to run things in a manner quite different from how I wanted to run things. I could just say that those people were micromanagers. And that would be true. I could also say that I found them to be … and I struggle to find a diplomatic phrase here … less than brilliant. That would also be true.  But the real problem with micromanagers and knuckleheads is that they turn small ponds into bureaucratic quagmires.

Because for a job (or anything else) to qualify as a “small pond” it must be a place:

  • where your authority is clear, even when you are not the sole authority or the leading authority
  • where you lead more often that you follow
  • where you are often responsible for others, but seldom responsible to others

And if you’re reporting to someone(s) whose primary concern is maintaining the status quo and his/her own authority,  you’re in a swamp, not a “small pond.”

Not that any of this has always been clear to me. Rather, as I said at the start of this post, I’ve stumbled on to the insights that led me to stumble on to the Big Fish approach.

And the most important of those stumbles was in late 2004 when, on a whim, I started a blog that made me “Internet famous” in the very small pond of business-to-business journalism.

That blog led me to stumble into consulting. And it was as a consultant to publishers that I found myself moving from pond to pond, from brand to brand, across much of the business press. For the first time I started to notice what sort of work environments tended to have happy, successful people. I noticed too what sort of place was filled with sullen, frightened and angry workers.  I learned what type of brand I liked to work with, what type of people I liked to meet with, and what companies I liked to help.

By contrast, I also learned what type of brand, staff and ownership structure wore away at my soul.

In an upcoming post I’ll write what Big Fish strategies were the basis of my first blog, how they led to the creation of a consulting business, and what I learned about Fish and Ponds as a consultant.

— by Paul Conley