How to scare away your best employees

There’s a plague in American businesses, and it’s called “Mature Culture.” It creates an environment that will scare away your most talented employees, even if you offer monster salaries, fat pensions, and extravagant perks. I’m going to define this culture and then show you what to do about it.

The 3 signs of Mature Culture

Most businesses practice Mature Culture. The purpose of Mature Culture is to sustain the present at the expense of the future. To accomplish that, the business practices three self-destructive patterns:

  • Gollumization. Like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, a Mature Culture obsessively protects its few hit products. For employees, that paralysis undermines any sense of urgency, purpose, or agency in the company’s future.
  • Insignificance. Because nothing ever changes, Mature Culture teaches people to feel useless. People know they matter only insofar as they complete the repetitive work that keeps the business afloat.
  • Risk aversion. Combined, Gollumization and insignificance teach people to avoid taking chances. No one wants to be blamed for losing the company’s “precious.”

At Traeger Grills, and previously Skullcandy, I mentored employees who arrived from Mature Cultures. They wanted to learn again. They wanted to feel alive at the office. And to provide that, I developed an alternative culture.

The foundations of Deep End Culture

Deep End Culture metaphorically tosses people into the deep end of the pool. It requires everyone to do important, uncomfortable, risky work, regardless of experience. That work is not a homework assignment; it’s not studying at Top Gun; it’s the real dogfight. Deep End Culture produces faster and more agile companies than Mature Culture.

Deep End Culture also acknowledges that people don’t necessarily find “the meaning of life” at work. As mythology professor Joseph Campbell said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

$10,000 desk budget is worthless if you spend a third of your waking life at that desk feeling dead inside. We find the experience of being alive in chaos, where we face the possibility of failure.

If you want employees to stick around, you need a Deep End Culture. It has several rare ingredients. Here’s what they are and why they matter:

1. Folklore. Like kindergartners who turn a cardboard box into a castle and fight invisible enemies, Deep End Cultures invent an us-versus-them mentality. “Them” isn’t necessarily a competitor. It could be a business problem, a societal ill, or another modern dragon.

The folklore shapes the company’s mission and values, which, in turn, shape every risk taken and decision made. The us-versus-them folklore creates bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood by putting everyone in the game, on the same team, arrayed against an invented opponent. “I can’t let my coworkers down,” is what employees feel.

Thus, folklore convinces employees to take on grisly assignments they might otherwise avoid. People embrace suffering and rough learning experiences for the sake of the team.

2. Horsepower. Deep End Cultures hire employees based on horsepower, not only experience and job skills. In a small or midsize business, the CEO serves as cultural filter and interviews every hire. I consider it my most important responsibility.

Personally, I look for risk tolerance, intellectual curiosity, passion (for anything), humility, and a need to do big things. That way, I know we can toss any employee into the deep end.

3. No true failure. Risk takers aren’t simply left alone to sink or swim in a Deep End Culture. Leaders are mentors to people, not mechanics who fix machines. We talk about work issues, relationship problems, family struggles, or whatever may affect the wellbeing and success of employees. In a Deep End Culture, executives are available to every employee and willing to discuss any matter.

4. Celebrate mistakes. When employees mess up in a Deep End Culture, they know the executives support their actions. Deep End Culture celebrates calculated, well-intentioned risks even if they lead to failure. In his weekly, Friday afternoon meeting, my colleague Mark presents a public award to the biggest mistake of the week. It’s an old, beat-up BBQ tool. It celebrates adventures in the deep end so that employees go there again and again.

When mistakes do occur, Deep End leaders address the issue as peers, not supervisors. I never say, “Here’s what I want you to do…” Instead, I ask, “What do you think? How should we address this?” I want people to learn how to solve nasty problems on their own.

Deep End Culture is a business strategy and an approach to life. It believes that people discover meaning and feel alive when they do work that is risky, unpredictable, and important. If you want to keep your best employees, toss them in the deep end. Then jump in with them.

Jeremy Andrus is president and CEO of Traeger Grills. He joined Traeger in 2014 and acquired the business with Trilantic Capital Partners. Previously, he served as president and CEO of Skullcandy, where he helped grow annual sales from $1 million to nearly $300 million.