Managing A Unique Office Species: The Always-Present Pilot Fish

Their chipper demeanor and bright smiles are a constant, and they orbit around your boss like the moon… every single workday. Here’s how to deal with the office species known as the “Pilot Fish”.

It’s not hard to read people’s motives if you watch how they position themselves in the office. When a coworker goes out of his/her way to be adjacent to the boss, or consistently makes positive suggestions, or this person laughs in unison with the head-honcho, you may be looking at a corporate pilot fish.

A pilot fish, by definition, is one that swims along or attaches itself to a larger predator. It’s a fitting title for many brown nosers.

I’ve worked with this kind of species several times. One woman I worked with, who was on an equal footing with me, always made it a point to plant herself next to the boss at every weekly meeting. These were not assigned seats, mind you, but at one point I took her assumed seat and enjoyed doing so. It ruffled her feathers, and the next time we assembled, she arrived early and was first to be seated… right beside the boss.

Figures. Those pilot fish employees have their eyes on the prize— a promotion, pure and simple, and they will not let anything stand in their way. When you have two pilot fish, it’s entertaining. They vie for attention, try to one-up one another, and sometimes it comes off like a white-collared jousting match.

First, here’s how to identify them, shared here in a manner not unlike an naturalist who identifies new species in the wild:

Height / Weight / Color / Gender: They are well-dressed, and if the corporate culture is business casual, they will make it a point to dress themselves with the perfect finishings. It could be a pocket-handkerchief in a blazer, or in the ad tech world, just the right dash of grunge and a stylish pair of smudge-free footwear. Their height, weight, and color are irrelevant, but they are always young in age… due in large part because older employees can’t put up with the B.S.

Corporate Pecking Order: “I’m next! I’m next!” They will cast everyone and their mother aside to get promoted. When a junior-management role is announced, they enter into a state of full-on suck-up mode. His or her caffeine intake doubles in short order and their desk is littered with spent Starbuck coffee containers.

Following protocols: If everyone in the company has their TPS reports due at a certain time, you can bet theirs is spellchecked, checked, and it’s delivered promptly. They never disappoint the boss and will make sure everyone knows their work was completed on time.

Location, location, location: Is the boss heading out to pick up a bite? The pilot fish quickly follows to inquire if he/she is doing so. Soon enough, you’ll witness them saunter toward the elevators for the third time this week, but the boss seems oblivious to it because… like a pilot fish, the shark is used to having him/her around her.

Demeanor: The pilot fish is a mirror in tonality. Is the boss in a sour mode? Watch the pilot fish drop an octave lower when he/she speaks, similar to a news anchor sharing news about sad highway accident. It’s as if he/she has got his/her hand on the pulse of ‘the man’—and subconsciously you’re screaming to yourself, stop molesting the boss for God’s sake!

Here’s How to Deal:

First, you have to make a choice. Is the pilot fish a shoo-in for the next management role? If so, he/she could represent an ally in the long run and be honest with yourself – are you keeping pace? Is the pilot fish more qualified, joining every available webinar, training session, etc.? Maybe this person deserves a promotion.

If not, you have to be more strategic. There are two places in the theatre of corporate America to participate.

The first is during regularly scheduled weekly meetings. Every divisional manager, in almost every single corporation, assembles his/her team once a week to take tabs, check-in, and assess. The best way to distinguish yourself is to out-hustle the pilot fish. When a pointed conversation takes place, wait for the pilot fish to contribute. Then, because you have researched the issue (or you’re fast on your feet), you come over the top with a better suggestion. Doing so, and complimenting the pilot fish prior, represents the best etiquette.

“That’s a decent suggestion, however looking at it at a different angle, here’s what I found.” Then, focus on the better idea.

How do you do it? Focus on pain points. What is concerning the boss, and what represents the root of the problem? It’s not easy but stay focused on the specific issue at hand. Does it relate to awareness of your company’s products? Perhaps marketing efforts are taking place on the wrong platform or media outlet? Ask yourself why and what would work better. Offer an alternative and keep it centered on the actual problem.

The other thing you can do to move one notch further ahead? Do the extra-credit assignment. Watch that three-hour training session, come up with some follow-up questions, and speak one-on-one with your boss about it.

Is the pilot fish focused on ass-kissing, or enabling the company to win? That’s what you should focus on: doing the work, and going the extra mile beyond what your boss may do him/herself.

A great way to do this without killing yourself with work hours: Industry podcasts, which you can listen to while you commute or play in the background while you catch up on low-priority email. Sometimes you can catch a quote from a leading industry expert, and then quote that person during the ever-present weekly meeting. Your boss may be familiar with the expert which will score you points.

Merit will always outweigh sucking up when the boss has an important role to fill. And they always seem to be important, right? That’s the problem with corporate culture, but junior’s got a college plan to pay for and you’re the breadwinner. Take pride in doing so because you’re working to give your kids a great future.

Stay tuned for the next article on corporate species: The Pitiful Python!

If you enjoyed this article, check these out too:

How to Manage/Identify a Unique Workplace Species: The Chicken Hawk Boss

When Your Boss is Napoleon

Your Boss Told You to Check Email During Your Family Vacation? Seriously?

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