Being a corporate salmon: the benefits of swimming up-stream

Written by Neal Archbold, Head of Innovation and Strategy at Big Radical

Salmon anatomy.png

Run towards the safety of the ‘known’ or the opportunity of the ‘unknown’ – a choice all leaders inevitably make. Despite the constant pressure of navigating and communicating change, managing stakeholders and finding time to reflect, we’ve identified the behavioural patterns of successful leaders and the attitudes they adopt. In a form of biomimicry, these patterns can be compared with millions of years of survival and adaptation within the animal kingdom. In particular, the salmon.


By the end of this article you’ll understand how, like the salmon, you too can avoid extinction and continue to thrive. Brace yourself, you’re about to battle bears, make a splash and leave a legacy that will nourish your team beyond your retirement (I hope you like metaphors).


Let us take a moment to consider the noble salmon and its lifecycle:


They start as an egg and then a small fry living in a safe, freshwater stream. With growing scale and confidence, they decide to break out of their small secure river-bed ‘nest’ to swim down stream and into the big expanse of the salty oceans and seas.


On average they spend 4 years in the ocean, fattening up, living well and relatively risk free ; often travelling vast differences.


Then a hard-wired need to spawn kicks in and they leave the relative comfort and safety of the ocean to travel far, swim up-stream,  face numerous ‘alien’ challenges (waterfalls, bears, fisherman), undergo permanent and life changing physical metamorphosis, compete for spawning rights and then, once the next generation of fertilised salmon eggs are sitting safely in their nests…..the males and females die.


Question: Is it really worth it?

  1. Yes of bloody course it is! If every sodding salmon in the world decided to say…. “Do you know what Jeff? I think I might leave the spawning thing and just hang around in this nice big, safe ocean!”….then the entire species would cease to exist within 2-10 years.

  2. Secondly, I am no anatomist or animal psychologist, but I don’t believe salmon consider the “worth” of their task. It is hard-coded. It is hard-wired. It is a massive combination of instinct and of years of evolution to drive the process.

It is in their DNA


I have for at least 15 years thought and used this metaphor. As a challenger, disrupter, I seem to have salmon-like tendencies in my DNA also.


This has led to waterfalls, bears and numerous other challenges. Often, I have considered ‘being less salmon’ and maybe it would be easier to float around in the deep, dark and safe depth of corporate and career oceans. But I can’t. It’s hard-coded for me to swim up-stream.


As I now lead innovation and strategy for Big Radical, I am personally and professionally ‘salmon-like’, pushing myself forward to make Big Radical and the wider Etch Group as awesome as possible, striving to find new breeding grounds and striving to continue the evolution and success of the ‘species’ – whilst also working with our amazing clients and partners to embed our ‘intelligently rebellious’ mantra into teams and helping them to build outcomes, processes and capabilities that lead to positive opposition to the norms.


So how can we all be more salmon?


Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Escape the ocean: Get out of your comfort zone


The comfortable ocean is a fast route to extinction. Many salmon will never get the chance to spawn and only the fittest and most determined manage to survive and breed. The ocean is deceptive. It’s full of risks and is not the secure place it feels.

Comfort Zone.png


This is the same in a career. The over used expression of “Getting out of your Comfort Zone” is key. When an individual consciously moves to different environments they learn more, they experience more and they benefit more. Beware of the deceptive comfort of the deep blue sea!

2.   Respect instinct and learnt skills: Use insights to help you find your way


Salmon have been known to travel 3,000km to find the exact spawning ground where they came into existence. From what I have read, it is achieved through a combination of tacit knowledge (orientation of location to the moon, changes in the temperature and salinity of their surroundings) – whilst simultaneously being ‘assisted’ by tracking the pheromones released by other salmon on their journey.


Person Brain.png

This is identical to how I feel one does this with their role. Years of learned experience gives us the genuine ‘gut-feel’ about the right path to take and how we achieve these goals, objectives and outcomes. This instinct is complemented by ‘pheromones’; looking at data, speaking to customers, collaborating with colleagues.

Everyone reading this is fully aware of the real path they should be taking. I implore you to take it.

3.   Embrace the Bears: Confront your challenges head on


Bear and Salmon.png

The hazards are real. As said, bears, waterfalls, fisherman all add barriers to the salmon. We all face these barriers. Salmon get through them in the same way we need to:


  • By being fit, healthy, strong and resilient to the challenges ahead

  • Using inherent instinct and learnt skills to navigate the best channels

  • Going forward ‘arm-to-arm’ (or ‘fin-to-fin’) with others, safety in numbers

  • Willing to take the risk and to navigate the uncertainties

  • Knowing that the end game is worth it

4.     Be comfortable with personal metamorphosis: feeling lasting changes in yourself


By the end of their lifecycle, male and female salmon are physically very different creatures. The bodies (particularly the males) mutate to make their chance of success greater. All their efforts have gone into making them right for the journey ahead.

Changing Fish.png

This is a male Sock-eye salmon and the changes it takes on to take on this epic journey and win. They become more noticeable, their body shape makes swimming against the flow of water easier and they become more able to fight with others to succeed.


My tip is; to succeed you need to change and adapt yourself. Your DNA will still be ‘you’ but by honing your skills, altering your strengths and embracing a different version of ‘you’, your chances of success will massively improve, as you augment existing and new capabilities. You cannot get to the spawning ground if you don’t change.


5.   Embrace ‘death’: it isn’t the end

When I wrote this article, I didn’t know a fundamental and inspiring part of the salmon’s journey. After spawning, most species of salmon die within 3 weeks. I knew this, some people might.

What I didn’t know was that the dead salmon are either eaten by other fish in the water or simply decay in the stream creating nutrients that are then used by life in the river – including tiny salmon ‘babies’ as nourishment. In death, the parent fish give their offspring the ability to grow and succeed. They have enabled the continuation of the species.

Salmon Eggs.png


This really resonates me from a career perspective. With current transient roles, we are likely to leave many businesses and ‘pass on’ to the next life/business. However, our essence and our value remain. I would recommend all of you to ensure that your value, passion and vision is a legacy that lives long beyond are short corporate existences.

I have a lot of respect for salmon and the ‘choices’ they make. I encourage you all to embrace your inner ‘salmo salar’ and strive every day to leave a lasting legacy for your careers by being brave and strong enough to swim up-steam.

 If you’ve enjoyed Neal’s take on biomimicry and would like more insights around innovation and leadership he will be explaining ‘The Art of Possiblism’ at our upcoming Intelligently Rebellious event on Growing a Healthy Habitat for Innovation. For tickets, please register below.