The Fish-Pond way of career planning

I sometimes envy military or civil service for their complete ownership of career planning of its people. All the folks have to do is to perform. This seems a great convenience when those in the so-called open and free work-world have to make career choices and decisions frequently. They need to plan their career themselves. Left to itself, it goes nowhere. 

Make no mistake: making one’s career is one’s own responsibility. The military or civil bureaucracy do so for their own sake. Planning and executing careers of its men is required to achieve their objectives in their gigantic systems. They don’t really love you for nothing. 

So what’s for us – the lonely warriors. Hopping from working at a startup to giant multinational to starting our own shop which fails and takes us back to safety of a ‘job’. 

I always like to use models to give context and structure to a problem. Well, here is one – what I call the “Fish-Pond” model to analyze and plan your career. It’s a 30,000 feet view – so don’t consider it prescriptive. It’s a framework to think, not set of instructions to follow. 

ImageA pond of water has fish. Big fish, small fish, fish in-between. Big fish eat small fish. Fish eat weeds. Fish grow within the pond as they eat and move around. Sometimes the pond grows bigger. Sometimes it shrinks. At others, it disappears. A smaller pond can get intruded on by outsiders. It can get dried up. The fish are of a variety. The fish can outgrow the pond. The pond can get overly populated. All fish in a small pond know each other. Fish in a big pond may never have crossed each other. While the fish can move everywhere in a small pond, fish in a big pond have territories. Generally, big fish have more say than small fish (they can eat them, remember!). There may be alligators and turtles too, but consider them as minorities. 

Lets consider organizations as ponds and us – the workers – as fish. Assume that we, the fish, can jump from one pond to the other too (after all it’s my model!). 

Here are four types of possibilities (or stages) that can exist:

Small-Fish Small-Pond This is a newbie in a small set-up, may be a startup, may be an old shop. Being a small pond, the newbie fish can move around freely, possibly doing everything that can be done in the pond. It can get to know everyone. It will have to do everything – tend to the weeds, clean the pond, serve the bigger fish, secure the pond. There are less strictures and constraints. The newbie has small fins and it can swim everywhere. The big fish are right next to the newbie. Provided the pond is clean and the fish not hungry, it’s a great place for a newbie to be. It helps him grow up fast.

However, as the newbie grows up fast, but the pond is not growing alongside, then it starts getting small, and then suffocating. It’s like a bright hockey player, who has outgrown his local league. 

A small pond is also likely to be intruded and muddied easily (most likely by running out of money or a takeover). No one would care of the small fish – for that matter the big fish. 

 It’s a great place to start. But either the pond becomes bigger (i.e. the organization flourishes) or the newbie fish has to jump outside. 

Small-Fish Big-Pond (For example, a junior to mid-level engineer in a big multinational) That is a possible place for the newbie fish to jump to. It’s a bigger pond. There is more variety of fish. There are more places to go, more weeds to see, more fish to meet. Its like a village kid coming to a city. The not-so-newbie learns that there is more to the world than what he saw in the small pond. He sees a bigger canvas, a bigger horizon. The world is a different place. 

However, there is more noise too. There are also a million other newbies like him around. He is not as prominent as he was in the small pond. There may be no-go areas, strictly guarded by some very possessive fish. His habits of poking around everywhere in small pond can actually ruffle some feathers (or scales). He soon realizes that the bigger pond is run by different set of rules. And certainly a lot more of them. He has to be careful, mindful and cautious. The big pond does not always look a big pond after a while. 

But with the right weeds, help of the right fish and enough splattering around, the newbie can soon grow big and be a prominent fish. It can avoid being rolled over and suffocated. Good part is that the big pond is difficult to be intruded and muddied easily so there is relative safety. 

Big-Fish Small-Pond  (For example, CEO of a small firm). Its a common place for a grown-up fish from a big pond to come to. Either they hop in on a existing pond or create one of their own (startup). That’s a good place to be. The growing up experience of the past helps. The big fish enjoys more freedom and less strictures. It’s a newbie in small-pond all over again, just that this time he gets to do more. He is probably the only big fish or one of the very few. Everyone knows him. Everyone depends on him. He’s like a big man in a small town. He can grow the pond and if successful he gets the most out of it. 

However the downside is the same as the newbie faced in the small pond. If the pond does not grow alongside or gets trumped over, the big fish has the most to lose. It’s easier for a newbie to jump to another pond, its relatively difficult for the big one. Also, being a big fish, it can get suffocated earlier than the small one. It may run out of food soon or the food may start tasting the same very soon. 

But the experience that he gets out of being the big fish is invaluable and life-long, sometimes addictive. Even in a failure, he may do it all over again (ask a startup founder why he starts up a new one every time). 

Big-Fish Big-Pond  (For example, a senior executive in a big organization). Its arguably the best place to be for a big fish. He may have jumped into this pond or may have grown his small one into it. You are not only big, you are big in a big pond in a big way. You are visible to everyone. The fish elsewhere know you too. Unlike a newbie in big pond, the big fish can really do a lot. The experiences of the past – both as big and small fish in big and small ponds – help a lot. He has been there, done that already. 

Again, it’s a 30,000 feet view. Not all careers fit into this mold (a quintessential entrepreneur will be born with his startup and be married to it). Neither are these possibilities exhaustive (there can be an amphibian model and we didn’t talk about the alligators). But it gives a framework for career progression – with experiences in one stage helping in the next. 

As they say that measuring anything and in anyway about a commodity is better than not measuring at all. Similarly, having a framework to start thinking about your career is better than just dancing in the dark. The owls may appreciate you but that would be just about it.


2 thoughts on “The Fish-Pond way of career planning

  1. Interesting; depends on one’s agility (KSAs – knowledge, skills abd abilities) to jump from one pond to the other one. Those lacking in that have no choice but to rot themselves as well as pollute their pond too.

    • Absolutely! The ability to recognize the ‘right’ moment to make the jump, the actual ability and skills to jump and the ability to land smoothly in the new pond are critical life skills. Many thanks for your feedback.

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