IF YOU want to build a successful career, you have a dilemma on where to start. Should you pick the most prestigious organisation, where you’ll be a small fish in a big pond? Or should you take the most influential position, where you’ll be a big fish in a small pond?
Kat Cole has an answer, and it’s not what you’d expect. At just 32, she became the president of a billion-dollar brand, Cinnabon. Her meteoric rise didn’t begin from a blue-chip company or a high-impact role. Her pivotal decision was to start her career as a waitress.

Although people are often drawn to the workplaces with the highest status, it is not always best to be in the biggest pond. In a 2017 study of professional soccer teams, researchers examined what happened to players who were just above and below the cut-off to get relegated to a lower division.

Being relegated to a lower division sent teams down to a smaller pond with weaker competition. Yet over their careers, younger players whose teams were relegated landed in stronger leagues and earned higher wages.

Why? They got more playing time because the stakes were lower and they faced less competition for key positions. As a result, they grew more.

The strongest opportunities for development aren’t always in the most influential place. They’re in the place where you can be the most influential, where you can accumulate skills and social capital. There’s evidence that although law firms that are new, small or low-status are more likely to fail, they are the very firms at which associates have the highest odds of getting promoted.

But if you’re looking for the best career opportunities, you don’t necessarily want to be a big fish in a small pond, either. There’s a risk that you’ll start to stagnate because a smaller pond might fail to stretch your skills or fail to send a strong signal about your abilities.

Research shows that bank executives are more successful in advancing their careers when they come from companies ranked among the most admired for operational excellence. So the big
question is whether there’s a way to get the best of both worlds.

When considering your next job, you don’t have to choose between joining a big pond and being a big fish. You want to join a growing pond, because that’s where you’ll become the biggest fish.

This article first
appeared in
The New York Times.

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