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The scene is familiar in most companies which have grown from small to big in 20-30 years. There are some people in the organization who have a claim on it. They pose as if they almost own the company.
These were the people who had started working with the entrepreneur from the beginning. Everything was informal; a small office, little work, too many worries, and no differentiation in responsibilities. All was done in a day’s work. The hard work paid off; business started growing, the business owner became affluent, and the employees got little reward. Growth brought money, which brought expansion, and new staff joined. Responsibilities were reassigned. New people with better skills got better portfolios and better pays; old ones got hold of a key position and stuck to it. Not a day goes by when they do not tell the stories of their oldness, loyalty and closeness-with-owner; how they toiled to build the business and how much their importance in the whole scheme of things is.
These are the Big Fishes in Small Ponds.
Three types may be differentiated.
- Winning Big Fish – This type has grown with the growth of company. The merit is usually loyalty and longevity thereby creating a sort of trust in between. This variety is less commonly seen. But if they are there, they are hard to cope with. They are more loyal than the king, more snob than the owner and treat all others with contempt. They would take the high position at all times and shall try to give input into all functions, some of which they may not even understand. Frequently, they would refer to the old days and previous success stories; how they surmounted this obstacle, and how they steered the company out of that horrible situation. The owners trust them for their loyalty and do not pay attention to problems created by them. Major problems created by this tribe is silo formation. They raise walls around them and their staff. They do not allow others to enter into their fiefdoms, much less raise objection against them. Talent is not the required commodity; flattery is. I have been told that in a rather large sized organization, when the CEO enters the meeting room, all senior managers stand up and then speak in praise of the CEO one by one. If it is really so, it is the height of sycophancy, but not impossible.
- Boasting Big Fish – These guys (it is almost always men; rarely women) were less fortunate. Due to capability or capacity issues, they did not go far in the organization. They were nevertheless rewarded by giving a reasonable position, which was mostly administration related. Admin is an interesting area because it may be done without adequate qualification, and it can cover the entire organization. This variety is even more loyal than the king and bigger snob than their successful counterparts. They have similar stories of battles fought and won and how they were the ones who actually brought the company where it was today. Owing to the trust earned over the years, they are close to the owners. They are also the eyes and ears of the owners. They keep a watch and supply big and small news to them. The news is accompanied by their own analyses, biases, likes and dislikes. The espionage system thus created causes fear in employees who prefer to stick to their desks; work or no work.
- Lamenting Big Fish – These are the least fortunate of the old guard. They could not grow to any decent position; and they are doing small work at small pay. They have seen everything growing around them but missed the bus. Reasons may be capability, capacity, consistency, loyalty or else, but the result is that they are now stranded. They cannot go anywhere, and they cannot live here happily. So, they turn into chronic lamenters. They have a complaint against everyone and everything; the bosses, the co-workers, the system, the circumstances, the fate, and all. They are the prophets of doom who tell everyone they would have no future in the organization. They tell them how thankless the company was and how poorly it had treated them. These unhappy guys create a toxic, demotivating environment which hangs in the area and affects many others.
In all the above types, the Big Fish factor is common due to their large influence zone. Big Fish are usually seen in small and medium enterprises, or in certain industries even of a large size. The Big Fishes in Small Ponds keep banging against all others and the walls. The unfortunate happens if they somehow go to a large pond. There, they would become small and unimportant which will be severely depressing and debilitating.
Big Fishes in Small Ponds are a reality, more common than is probably appreciated. Not everything is bad about them, but they are generally a negative influence on other employees, a detriment to culture, and obstacle to organizational transformation. The subject is important but touchy and is likely to remain unattended, as it is now.
Who is responsible for creating and maintaining Big Fish phenomenon? We shall discuss in the next post.