How To Be Successful At Work: Swimmers vs Waterwalkers

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By Karan Bajaj

P&G was my first job after school and early on, I was fortunate to read this excellent article from James Lafferty, a senior guy, which greatly changed the way I viewed my work. Much of the writing on my blog is about creativity, yoga, meditation, etc. but done with the right spirit, a simple corporate job can be a tool for transcending your self. Or at-least a source of tremendous personal growth. James draws a distinction between two kinds of performers in this article:

Swimmer: A strong performer.
Water-Walker: The rare one-of-a-kind hire who changes the trajectory of any company he or she joins.

After reading this article, I hope you all decide to be WATER-WALKERS, treating your job as a tool for growth and never ever setting a low base. Over to James:

Having observed over time a vast array of different corporate training courses, there is a not-so-surprising consistency from our younger participants during the Q+As along the lines of,

“What is important to success in business?”


“how do I become top rated?”

and this genre of question.

As I have listened to lots of different answers to these questions, one could note that often the initial questioner is not wholly satisfied with the answer. Sometimes it is due to the fact that the response is more conceptual and less actionable, such as along the lines of, “Be a courageous leader”, “Have social intelligence”, and “Know your consumer”. I would not disagree that these are important for success, but the issue is it is sometimes hard for younger people to dimensionalize how they should behave differently the next day.

The second issue is we can fail to realize that as EVERYONE AT P&G is superbly talented, the question is often not about absolute success and failure—everyone is pretty good—but how to thrive in an environment where everyone is superbly talented and in reality become the “best of the best”. This is where the concept of “swimmers” vs. “Waterwalkers” comes into play. I’d argue everyone at P&G is so talented that we all can “swim” pretty well. But only a few ever get to the performance level of being labeled as a “waterwalker”—the kind of person you LOVE having on your team, and if you ever leave to start your own business, who you want to come and be a partner with you! Net, I think what people really want to know is, “What separates the swimmers from the waterwalkers?” I came up with 6 behaviors that waterwalkers consistently do, vs. swimmers.

1. When confronted with a severe business crisis, the waterwalker focuses all energy on how they will overcome the crisis and still deliver; the swimmer will often focus instead on doing a superb job of “selling” a lower base.

Waterwalkers see commitments as something one simply does not break—never. They don’t give up and they don’t accept missing. They will come to you with issues—but also with a plan to make up the gaps. Swimmers view commitments as a bit more malleable, and when the crisis hits their first course of action is first to figure out how to explain it, and they invest lots of time in refining the slick argumentation that allows them to “go down” yet still retain the appearance of being a waterwalker. It is a classical case of “substance vs. style”. Swimmers focus on the style of preserving standing despite the real delivery of the business dropping. Waterwalkers go for the substance of simply putting the plans in place to deliver the targets.


2. Waterwalkers consistently focus on self-improvement and asking themselves, “How do I get better everyday?” Swimmers focus more on self-promotion and ask themselves, “How do I sell myself and get myself positioned to get the promotion I deserve?”

Waterwalkers have noticed the real truth—everyone is talented and the difference over time comes down to who keeps growing everyday. They realize any career is a “long race” like a 42 KM marathon, and it is those who plan for the full 42 KM who win, not necessarily who is ahead at KM 5. They believe that by improving and delivering that over time they will “get what they deserve”.
Swimmers on the other hand have been led to believe that advancement is all about lots of secondary factors—skill in self promotion, degree to which you “sell yourself”, who you know. They thus come off looking political—no matter how “good” they think they are at disguising it, and they miss the importance of continual improvement. And along the way, the waterwalkers, who may have even been behind them, pass them by.


3. Waterwalkers make any assignment a great assignment; swimmers think success or failure is based upon having a “good assignment”.

Every time I have seen someone complain about the assignment and how it did not allow them to “showcase their skills” I have come to learn over time these folks were not even remotely waterwalkers—they were swimmers at best. Waterwalkers find the ways, are creative and innovative, to take even the tough assignments and make them great. They see the potential in the business and the people where others see only doom and gloom. And they see the futility of standing around complaining and wasting energy on the specific assignment. While the swimmers complain about it, expend energy worrying about it, and convince themselves of the “lost cause” in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, the waterwalker is off transforming the assignment into something special. A job is what one makes of it.


4. Waterwalkers always approach a topic from the standpoint of “how crisp and clear can I make it?” Swimmers tend to measure success by how long, how many charts, and how many numbers they can put on one page. They erroneously equate quality with quantity.

Waterwalkers are great to work with. They take pride in having such clear thinking and well defined plans they can meet for only 5 or 10 minutes; they can present their ideas in 1 or 2 slides. You never find yourself frustrated at the slow pace of things and they keep it moving along and don’t waste your time! Swimmers miss the power of clarity and simplicity and thus measure success by quantity. They give you business reviews that look more like books instead of incisive analyses; they have no qualms to book your schedule for always a minimum of 2 or 3 hours or even half-days. Even simple ideas it takes 30 or 40 slides to get the point across. They simply miss the big picture and get mired in small talk.


5. Waterwalkers recognize the power of developing people as THE way to achieving their business goals; Swimmers tend to prefer to “go it alone” and consistently believe they alone must be the major driver.

One often sees swimmers as “one person shows”. They work incredibly hard and they have huge personal productivity. But they never seem to be able to get teams and people below them “thriving”. They are too focused on getting “their” work done. Waterwalkers on the other hand know the key is getting others up to their pace, so they invest as much time, if not more, into training and development as they do anything else. They know that having 2 or 3 people, on top of themselves, cranking the projects at top quality is far better than one person alone. Whenever confronted with a choice, they ALWAYS go for training first.


6. Finally, waterwalkers tend to be thinking, “How do I change the game?”, whilst swimmers work on, “How do I grow the business?”

Waterwalkers realize that changing the game to our favor is the essence of great strategy and they spend their time defining out-of-the-box ideas and plans that always involve an element of risk. They know that breakthroughs only come via game-changing approaches. Swimmers are far more incremental. They tend to look at “just growth” vs. breakthrough and thus never go outside the box of current business approaches. They tend to “play it safe” and stay within boundaries of what has been “done before”.


This is of course one man’s view and I would not expect everyone to agree. But if it challenges your thinking in a new way, it served its purpose! As always, happy to talk and debate any of this as you see fit.

-J.M. Lafferty

Note from Karan: I hope you found this as useful as I did years ago when I first started working. And if you need more inspiration, don’t forget to sign up for my free meditation video course, Kerry’s nutrition guide, and a free preview of three chapters of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. Yes, they’re free!

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