Healthy Competition

by Sharlyn Lauby on February 2, 2010

Admittedly, I’m a very competitive person.  My father was extremely competitive and I learned it from him.  But over the years, I’ve tried to direct my competitive nature as appropriate.

Here’s an example:  I’m the owner of a small human resources consulting firm.  There are other owners of small HR consulting firms that offer the same services.  When bidding on business, some days I’m selected for the assignment.  Other days, another firm is selected.  And, some days I partner with another firm to work on a project.  That’s because our combined talents are what’s best for us and the client.

In theory, is that other consulting firm a competitor?  Sure.  But they’re also a potential collaborator.

Should you pay attention to what the other firm is doing?  Absolutely.  My guess is they’re paying attention to you.  But that doesn’t mean everything someone else does will be right for your company – and vice versa.

Over the years, I’ve discovered the best way to deal with competition is to point it inward.  When I meet people who really have it together and inspire me, instead of focusing my energies on squashing them…I use that energy to make myself better.  There are two reasons for doing it:

  • I get better at something.
  • I can eventually collaborate with that awesome person.

Obviously, there are moments when the situation calls for one winner.  And that’s fine.  When it happens, being a gracious winner and/or loser will say volumes about you.  Are you allowed to celebrate the win?  Hells yeah. And your competition (for lack of a better word) will be happy for you.  Because now you’re inspiring them to be better.

That’s what competition is all about.  It’s a balancing game.  It’s about knowing the difference between situations that only allow for “winners and losers” versus opportunities to create a “win-win”.  If you play your cards wrong, it can alienate people.  And when you need collaborators, none will be around.

But if you play the cards right, you can “win” beyond your wildest dreams.  And, isn’t winning what competition is all about anyway?

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{ 10 comments }

Wally Bock February 2, 2010 at 6:52 am

I think this is great as a personal development strategy. And it’s a good strategy for most small professional service firms. But some companies are in industries where cooperation is a way of painting a target on your back. In those cases, you have two choices. Don’t cooperate. Or make cooperation part of your distinctive competitive advantage.

Afton Funk February 2, 2010 at 9:29 am

I agree with Wally – Sharlyn you’ve outlined a great tack for situations where the cards just don’t play out the way you hope they will. It is so easy to focus on the spirit of the competition (always trying to be better than your opponent), whereas you should really focus on trying to better yourself.
You are fortunate to be in a situation where many of your competitors also have the possibility of being collaborators – in a lot of business situations there is only win-lose when it comes to bidding on a deal, and it becomes even tougher to take the high road.

laurie ruettimann February 2, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I think the old way of seeing competition — acquisition, assimilation, destroying the brand — is an old & outmoded way of advancing your company’s interests in the 21st century. Think of all the big pharma mergers. One competitor devoured another, the brand was erased, and the intellectual property was absorbed into an existing line of products. Some people got rich, yes, but the industry hasn’t benefited from the gladiator-style way of thinking about how to succeed. In fact, some argue that this style of competition has set the industry back, worked against the trend of efficiency in the workforce, and stifled innovation.

As small businesses and women-owned businesses become the revenue-generating engine behind the economic recovery in 2010 and beyond, I think Sharlyn’s model of competition will prove to be the one most successful.

hr bartender February 2, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Believe me I get the win-lose dynamic (just ask anyone who really knows me). Sometimes competing to win is required and there aren’t any other options. Is it possible, though, to get so caught up in that competition that you miss out on opportunities that only collaboration can bring?

I agree with Laurie that as the business landscape changes so should our preconceived notions about competition. The point about the customer ultimately getting the shaft as a result of corporate competitors devouring each other is spot on.

Thanks for sharing your insights on this topic!

Michael Haberman, SPHR February 3, 2010 at 9:54 am

Sharlyn, you are right on the money. I have always thought collaboration was good for business. I have been able to take on larger projects by collaborating. I too am competitive. (Can you be a business owner and not be?) But I have never turned down the opportunity to meet with a competitor. I figure I can always learn from them, even if it is what not to do. It has worked for me, I have been doing this 20 years now. I am no Alan Weiss by any means, but I enjoy what I am doing.

hr bartender February 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

Thanks Mike! You bring up a good point. Sometimes working with your “competition” can bring some energy and creativity that might have otherwise not taken place.

Benjamin McCall February 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Wish everyone took this approach. Instead of crabs in a bucket – have each one help to create the ladder of collaboration!

Twitter: @BenjaminMcCall
Website: http://ReThinkHR.org
& LinkedIn

hr bartender February 4, 2010 at 7:42 am

Thanks for commenting Ben! I like the “ladder of collaboration” phrase…might have to use that sometime.

Jennifer V. Miller February 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Sharlyn,

You and I *could* be considered competitors, because we offer similar consulting services in the training space. However, I know first-hand that you practice what you preach in this blog post. Thanks for seeing me as a potential partner for collaboration!

My position is that there’s ’nuff to go around for everyone. And if I don’t happen to get the contract, there’s a darn good reason for it.

hr bartender February 4, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Jennifer – it’s so true! The day I announced I was going into consulting, someone told me “Great! There’s plenty of room in the sandbox for all of us.” I never forgot it.

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