Sink or Swim: A True Story

Most companies expect employees to sink or swim, the idea being that those who can swim as soon as they hit the water (enter an organization) are somehow better—the A players, the star performers. Swimmers rise to the top and only then do companies invest in them.

But this is a fallacy. Employees need training in order to glide through organizations. To become a “natural” swimmer, a young person needs professional development as soon as she joins a company—not just at the manager or executive level.

The “sink or swim” reference to workplace progress is a good analogy because it reflects the overall flaw in the system: learning to swim can be treacherous.

I learned to swim by being thrown into a pool at the age of seven. I never had swim lessons, and it wasn’t until I was a teen that I had enough experience to swim a full lap. Being thrown into a pool did teach me how to survive in the water—but learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard.

This lesson was paralleled in my work life when I entered my first full-time job as a financial analyst for the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs & Co. I was wholly unprepared—surprising, given that I graduated from Stanford University and Goldman wasn’t my first job. I’d worked as a retail associate, a waitress, and a bookkeeper. Heck, I’d even delivered Donnelley Directories. But when I reached Goldman—and what’s worse, even after our analyst orientation—I had no sense of what was expected of me, how to navigate the organization, or even how to make the best first impression.

So I looked for guidance. I turned to my peers—an icy blonde woman from Connecticut who wore Escada at twenty-three and said I should just be grateful I had a job, and the salt-and-pepper-haired Vice President with a wife and two kids who mistook my questions for flirtation—to no avail. I was one of the only Latinas in my analyst class; there weren’t any executives who were looking down and saying, “She reminds me of me. I think I’ll watch out for her.”

My family was no help. My siblings had refused to even go to my college graduation because they thought attending college made me “stuck up.”

Most business books were on management, and because I wasn’t a manager I figured they didn’t pertain to me. Lacking training and guidance, I flailed.

Still, I was acutely aware that others were making progress, and it made me assume that the reason I was struggling had everything to do with me. My emotions swung from excited to dejected daily. I had no sense of how I was perceived by my peers. I tried to lay low, but would often pull attention with a misguided verbal hiccup. I tried to adopt the reserved, competent look of my colleagues, but mainly felt wild, frustrated, and disheveled. I seemed to be missing something—something that everyone else knew but me.

I thought initially I could try and fight my way through the murky social order of investment banking with hard work. Then I had my first performance review and it devastated me. I didn’t have the emotional regulation skills or perspective to take the feedback in stride. I soon found myself drowning, and, not understanding what to do, I grabbed onto the nearest life preserver I could: grad school.

Law school gave me some time, but it was merely a flotation device. When I left law school I knew how to dress the part of a professional and I could act the part largely by staying to myself, working long hours, and being nice, but ultimately I was getting nowhere. To hide that fact, I simply kept changing jobs.

It wasn’t until I became an entrepreneur that I was forced to face my lack of professional development. Ironically, around the same time, I signed up for a triathlon and had to confront the fact that I was a weak swimmer. To get help I purchased basic adult swimming lessons at a local club.

At my first lesson, the instructor asked me to swim the length of the pool so she could assess my skill. I swam vigorously to the other side of the pool. When I popped my head out of the water and looked at her, I saw that she was laughing.

“You do what most adult beginning swimmers do,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“You think if you swim fast enough, you won’t drown.”

“Isn’t that true?” I asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said.

In that swim across the pool I demonstrated all my bad habits and my mental model of what made for good swimming. I thought swimming fast would save me, much like I thought working hard would help me at work. But I was wrong.

Swimming fast can get you across the length of a pool, but will leave you gasping for air and completely unprepared for open-water swims, much less rough seas. Similarly, working hard will not in itself lead to success at work—or, if it does, it won’t leave you with the skills to fulfill a leadership role. My swim instructor taught me to slow down, to turn my body in certain ways to glide through the water. The result is that I learned to swim longer and more easily, and without the fear of drowning.

With the help of a CEO coach and professional development courses in things like effective communication, I eventually learned to swim in the workplace. As founder and CEO of my company, I learned firsthand that self-awareness, an ability to give and receive feedback, and an ability to manage conflict are necessary for success. But these skills are not often taught or practiced in the business world, especially in start-ups. Instead, many companies expect people to learn them by osmosis—which is like throwing someone into a pool and hoping they figure out how to swim. At best, you end up with someone who can dog paddle.

The “sink or swim” mentality of the business world needs to change. No matter their background, young people in every organization, small or large, need professional development—the type of training that is usually reserved for managers or executives. If more people are given access to professional development sooner, we’ll see fewer people drowning—something that will lead to stronger, happier people and organizations.