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The Power of an Enemy

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I’m an extremely competitive person. As a kid in sports, I played my heart out, hated my opponents and cried when I lost. Admonished by my mother and father for unsportsmanlike behavior, I eventually matured and forged a stiff upper lip in defeat. But behind the façade, the agony gnawed my gut – it still does. I have no regrets; In fact, I consider the repugnance of losing a special gift. There is no doubt in my mind that my ferocious competitive spirit is responsible for my success in corporate life.

The late French author Andre Maurois once said, “Business is a combination of sport and war.”

Maurois was alluding to the notion that those engaged in war, hate the enemy. In business, your competitor is the enemy. For most of my career, I operated within intensely competitive arenas where fractions of market share points were worth millions of dollars. The companies that employed me were generally the underdogs in battles against bigger, better-financed organizations. Against mounting odds, we did more than survive. We thrived.

Competitive situations create a distinct individual and team behavior. From my experience, these six characteristics encapsulate the competitive business culture. If these environments stir your senses, then you and I are kindred spirits.

1. Always have a sense of urgency.  

This is a tremendous competitive advantage for the smaller player. In the race to the future, there will be drivers, passengers and road-kill. Nimbleness will get your ideas to the future first.

2. Clearly define your goals. 

Like a sports scorecard, competitive spirit demands measurement and accountability of performance. Your success or failure can be quantified by such measurements as market share, financial ratios, brand awareness, new products and deadlines.

3. Live a culture of innovation.  

Nobody wants to compete in a financial spitting contest. You cannot outspend the giant competitor. You must outsmart them with entrepreneurial thinking.

4. Never rest on your laurels.  

Even when you pull ahead, run up the score. Why? Because you never give the enemy a break. Increase your lead, and while they are catching up, you are embracing the next innovation.

5. Know the enemy.  

Go ahead, hate your competitors. But don’t be so obsessed with them that you allow yourself to be drawn into an emotional price war. Winning at any cost is a signal that you have lost sense of the business objectives. All you have to do is make them think you will compete at any cost.

6. Focus on the things that matter. 

By concentrating on proactive projects within your control, you can force the enemy to follow you. Now, isn’t that a lot more fun than being on the defensive?

Years ago, I worked on Pillsbury’s Refrigerated Fresh Dough advertising as a Leo Burnett Account Executive. Pillsbury pioneered this category with proprietary technology and had no direct competition. With 100% share of market, our strategy was market growth and we managed to double sales in four years. Sounds impressive, but quite honestly we did not push ourselves. I think we could have done better with a competitor nipping at our heels.

The risk of market dominance is complacency – companies get used to environments devoid of intense competition. Look at Research in Motion. Years ago, RIM’s BlackBerry was synonymous with smartphones. Then along came Apple and Google with mobile phones that delivered superior benefits. Today, RIM struggles to maintain 5% of the market. This is a stunning fall from grace considering RIM pioneered push email with devices that were considered so indispensable, they were nicknamed the Crack-Berry. It’s not as if RIM were operating in a non-competitive environment. They either didn’t know it or had no idea how to deal with it.

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