One of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, talks about “the phenomenon of relative deprivation – the ‘Big Fish – Little Pond’ effect” in his book, David and Goliath, as it pertains to the education system. What the ‘Big Fish – Little Pond’ effect describes is that those people who are “at the very top of the class are going to face a burden that they would not face in a less competitive atmosphere.” Students at “great” schools (Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the like) look around them and see nothing but elite students; “the more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.” Gladwell argues that it would behoove these students to go to a “good” school and be at the top of their class rather than be at a “great” school and maybe fall to the bottom of the class, and possibly drop out of school all together.
More often than you might think, I believe the same phenomenon can be used to describe what occurs with my candidates. One of these such candidates and I sat down over a cold beverage and talked about his career and how it has evolved. He had started his career with one of the Big 4 accounting firms (one of the “great” firms), and by all accounts was going to be promoted to partner within 2 or 3 years. He was well respected, created value for his clients, and clients loved dealing with him. But he also worked, on average, 60-70 hour weeks, competed against other Senior Managers also vying for partnership, and had over a dozen partners above him. He debated whether he could do the work that he loved in another firm but was worried that moving to a smaller firm (a smaller “pond”) would be a detriment to his career. In fact, as Gladwell suggests, it had the opposite effect. The type of training and expertise that this candidate brought to the smaller firm was more valued. He was fast-tracked to partner, was sent to leadership conferences, and he became the top billing partner in the office.
One of my other candidates had been a VP-Finance for years in a multi-billion dollar, international company was tired of the politics, was one of half a dozen other VP-Finances within the company, was traveling over 50% of the time and was working 70 – 80 hour weeks. She decided to bring her expertise to a smaller, privately company where the company’s President was blown away by the improvements she brought to his business, whilst quickly identifying and resolving issues and risks.
My recommendation therefore is this: strongly consider the “Big Fish – Little Pond” effect on your own career. If you are in a huge audit or tax department in the Big 4 in Toronto, consider relocating to another Big 4 firm but in a smaller city like a Kitchener or Ottawa. If you grew up in Saskatchewan but now work in Calgary alongside 500 other Big 4 employees, why not consider moving back home to a Tier-two firm in Saskatoon or Regina?
Being a Big Fish in a Little Pond may be the best career decision you ever make.