This Advice Sounds Fishy

Consultant Debunking Unit

Give a consultant a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to talk about fishing as a metaphor for management, and you open up oceans of opportunity. How else to explain the schools of consultants who exhort their clients - and sometimes their own firms - to "fish where the fish are"?

MacRae Ross, for example, a marketing consultant at Ross & Co. in McLean, Virginia, says that over the past nine years, he's told more than 5,000 companies to "fish where the fish are." "It communicates a simple but powerful idea," he explains. "To sell what you're selling, you have to be talking to the right crowd."

Or catch the wisdom of Peter Economy, 42, coauthor of Consulting for Dummies (IDG Books, 1997). Economy, who works at Nelson Motivation Inc., a San Diego-based training and consulting firm, says he recently reeled in his coworkers by using this phrase. "I told them that we need to fish where the fish are," Economy says. "That is, we need to expend our marketing dollars in places where we're likely to be seen by our highest-potential prospective clients."

The phrase has even become enmeshed in the Net. A site called "jobfind.com" (www.jobfind.com), with more than 10,000 online job postings, has tried to lure users by casting the "Fish where the fish are" slogan as its advertising hook.

Good advice - or just another fish story? Fast Company asked its Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) to trawl among some of the nation's most experienced fishermen to see where and why the fish are really biting. They all agreed on one thing: Beware of being hooked by such simplistic advice.

The CDU first cruised to Aitkin, Minnesota, home of Steve Fellegy, 44, walleye angler extraordinaire and two-time winner of the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail Tournament. Fellegy, who travels more than 50,000 miles each year on the pro "trail," says that simply fishing where the fish are isn't enough. "I've often been in the middle of a cluster of boats, with great fishermen all around me, and my boat has been the only one to pull in one fish after another," says Fellegy. What made the difference? "The other guys didn't follow through. They just fished where the fish were - no more, no less."

Next dock: Saint Cloud, Minnesota. If anyone knows about finding fish, it's Dave Genz, 50, one of America's leading ice-fishing authorities. Genz, who helped lead the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 1992 World Ice Fishing Championship, warns against mindlessly following the "fish where the fish are" precept. "When people go ice-fishing," he says, "a lot of times they just follow other people's tracks. They figure that there must be fish there, because there's a hole there! Of course, that assumes that the guy who first drilled the hole knew what he was doing."

We next dropped anchor in Worcester, Massachusetts to speak with James Bender, 48, owner of the Lower Forty, the largest specialty fly-fishing store in central New England. Bender, who has been fly-fishing for 32 years, brooks no controversy: When you're fly-fishing, he says, it's best not to fish right where the fish are. "You have to get your fly so that it floats in the natural feeding line of the fish," Bender says. "You're actually fishing not where they are but where you think they will be."

So how do you land the catch of the day? Al Lindner, 56, president of Brainerd, Minnesota-based In-Fisherman Communications Net- work, says the biggest catches usually come from fishing where the fish aren't. "Many of the biggest fish are taken by nonskilled anglers in nontraditional ways," Lindner says. "Those people are fishing in the wrongest place at the wrongest time. Yet they catch the biggest fish out of that body of water for that year."

The CDU's big haul: Don't swallow anybody's advice hook, line and sinker. There are plenty of catches to fishing where the fish are. Any consultant who tries to tell you otherwise is just throwing you a line.

Lisa Chadderdon (lchadderdon@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. At the age of four, she won a fishing contest by catching a sand shark.

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