How I’m Changing Our Sink or Swim Culture

Organizational Culture

It was with some bravado we used to say we lived in a sink or swim culture. The thought is that only the strong could survive our fast-paced environment and if you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep up, you self-selected out or were politely asked to leave. I even thought this strategy was a cool factor in our culture. I’m embarrassed by this notion today.

I hear this language and idea when hanging around other entrepreneurs, and it now makes me shudder. “Sink or Swim” is a reflection of a terrible HR strategy. Just think of the cost to an organization. You spend months recruiting, interviewing, checking references, and onboarding a new hire only to have 25-35% of them exit or burnout within a year. The potential ill-will this person brings to the market for your company can also hurt your brand. Above all, it’s not how anyone would want to be treated. High expectations for employees should be a given, but with those expectations come to the responsibility of a leadership team to provide the right environment, support systems, and training to achieve desired results.

Therefore, the “Sink or Swim” mentality has to go. Here are three main strategies CREW has focused on to accomplish this. My hope is that other businesses can learn alongside us.

  1. Financial Planning for an Appropriate Ramp-Up Period. This was our hidden issue. The reason we needed new hires to perform quickly is we set our budgets and targets too tight. We needed a lot of productive hours from new employees before they were ready for that level. Our budget didn’t allow a ramp-up period. Since we hire great people, they go to great lengths to perform, such as staying late working on strategies, project managing on the weekends, and doing anything to mitigate the learning curve they were experiencing. The result? Burnout. Or frustration on both parties. The solution lies in our planning. We are now building enough buffer financially to be ok with a smooth and methodical ramp-up period, estimating 50% productivity in 3 months, 80% in 6 months and 100% in 8 months.
  2. Clear Training Programs. We’ve always been pretty good at onboarding new staff and conducting the appropriate performance evaluations, but our training regimen was weak. What are the skills necessary to perform a role with excellence, and to continually develop? We employed a great HR consultant to help us develop a long-term strategy for this area. We are learning how specific skills are being taught, caught or experienced with intention and implementing continual feedback loops to ensure our culture is about learning quickly but effectively. Our goal is to be the best marketing training and development company, period. It’s lofty but I believe we can get there.
  3. A Focus on Retention. A service business (and especially a creative business) relies on the energy, thinking and long-term productivity of its people. We also want our staff to feel and know they are valued and appreciated. Millennials and creative professionals alike want a fun environment where they are challenged in their craft, get to work with great people, and are appreciated and rewarded as they build something great. Getting this environment right is where retention is gained. Be warned: it’s not easy and it requires leaders to model and work at it every day.

If you have a sink or swim culture, step up and be a lifeguard. You’ll not only be a hero to your people but you’ll get better results.


Make it great!