Steven Parham is the Managing Director of The Starjammer Group. Here, he takes a look at the nature of competitiveness, why people feel compelled to succeed, and tips drawn from observing successful people.
He doesn’t have a copy of ‘If’ nailed to the wall, does play occasionally with Lego with his sons, and doesn’t play Golf.
Why be competitive at all?
OK, imagine that you have set up shop on a respectable high street with a restaurant, with a good reputation and a growing local clientele, when one morning you are walking down the same high street, and another restaurant, almost like yours arrives practically on your doorstep. All of a sudden, you have competition. What’s the best thing to do, how should you react and keep ahead of the game?
First of all, you need to ask yourself, how much of a competitive streak is healthy? You may have been in the restaurant game for years, and all of a sudden there’s this Heston Bloominmental clone rattling off Game and Apple Omelettes with Sauteed Potatoes and a Blueberry Jus like there’s no tomorrow, on your patch showing you up. Some of your loyal clients have been there, loved it and told you so. There are two ways you can look at this. You can smile through gritted teeth, walk quietly out and kick a waiter or two on the way, or you can take onboard what they are saying and adapt.
Adaptability is the key to any successful business. Other factors can affect the success of a local enterprise or venture – even if you have a successful product, market factors can cut you down. A good example of this is the Betamax video tape system. In many ways it was far superior to the VHS system, in fact a form of it was already in use with the television companies as the industry standard. And yet, for reasons still hotly argued by the finest business minds and chaos theory scientists, it ultimately failed to gain a foothold in the home market.
Sometimes it is good to get to know the local competition. Normally, they are just like you, with similar sensibilities and in some ways, you can help each other out in times of stress – indeed, it’s at times like that, you may even find an unexpected ally. A little competition is healthy. Over competitiveness can become very unhealthy and in some cases detrimental to both your health and your reputation.
There is a huge difference between being competitive and combative. You may decide to go down the ‘my new neighbour is my sworn nemesis, he must be wiped out’ route, in which case, you might well resort to all sorts of unsavoury practices to become the top dog again – undercutting his prices, dismissing his food as fancy but expensive, mild slanders and rumours. All of which are wrong, and may ultimately backfire. All your rival has to do then, is behave impeccably, roll with the punches and before you know it, you’re sick with worry because he is winning this so-called battle that you alone have created, and you’re ending up stressed and tired, and your rapidly dwindling customer base are noticing the deterioration in your service. Rivalry is cancerous in business. Friendly competition is not. Perhaps you could conspire with your peer to have joke rivalries, so that your billboard messages both prompt a laugh from potential customers, both of which you have an equal chance of winning over.
Sometimes, your rivals are also a good source of income. You may provide a service that they cannot, and if you so chose, you could outsource that service to them. And by helping them, they could give you clients in another area where you need them. Sometimes, it is good to form synergies with other likeminded companies. Internet companies do this all the time. The World Wide Web is so big, there’s plenty for everybody to go round. Rivalry amongst web designers is almost unheard of, even though many companies work in close proximity to each other. The other advantage of this is that if one web designer gets a really bad customer, and that customer goes to another web designer, quite often they are able to give each other the heads up on what the problem was and handle things in a quiet and appropriate manner.
The Mineshaft Gap
Keeping up with the Joneses is a phrase that everybody knows. The need and desire to have have what your neighbour has, only one better. One of the most clichéd statements, and perhaps one of the most factually oriented.
How many of you as students, had stereo equipment and hi-fi gear, which you souped up to the nines, so that your next door neighbour in halls had to keep up and go one better by ‘buying the most expensive needles for his turntable, the finest gold plated wires for their 100kW sub woofer which was ballasted by sand, finely sifted from Lake Constance by naked Quakers fed on a diet of organic Brussel Sprouts’. Ludicrous as you can see, but people do suffer from tunnel vision and can get out of their depth really quickly if they allow the competitive streak to take hold. And only for both parties to end up out of pocket when another friend trumps the pair of you with their new piece of kit.
Interviews are another area where sometimes it is better to hide the competitive you. In interviews, it’s almost a trick question. How do you answer it? You risk being marked out as arrogant and ambitious if you say yes, on the other hand, weak and ineffectual if you say no. You need to strike a balance and put some positive spin on the question.
Competitiveness is an important part of success, but it shouldn’t be the main factor driving your success. There have to be limiting factors and they have to sit comfortably within the environment that you are to be competitive in. It’s fine to be ambitious, but not at the expense of others, especially if the person interviewing you suspects that you might be after their job.
It is interesting to note that sometimes the most competitive creatures in nature are the most altruistic. It’s as if they form business relationships with beasts that would otherwise cause them problems.
Pilot Fish for example follow sharks. This is a mutualistic relationship, where the shark affords the fish both protection from other predators, and allows the Pilot Fish to feed on any leftovers the shark has, whilst at the same time the Pilot Fish cleans the sharks by removing troublesome parasites from the sharks’ skins. A good example of supply and demand if there ever was one. Another example is the Red Billed Oxpecker, a small bird that removes parasites from Giraffes.
Above all, if you have the need to be competitive, at least do so with a smile and your tongue firmly in your cheek. Some of the most successful businessmen have had at least twenty failures in their working lives next to one rip roaring success story. As the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If’ says, ‘…if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those imposters just the same’, then you may be striking the right balance. Many a successful businessman has that poem framed on their wall for perhaps that very reason.
So, what makes one person competitive and another passive in life? Well, some researchers believe that there is such a thing as a ‘Passive Competitive’ personality. This person is competitive and yet in denial. They would be the person at school that always had to win, get one up or one better on somebody, had to be top dog in their family. Someone who is heavily critical of their peers. Annoying, and yet self pitying when things don’t go their way.
This is almost as difficult to deal with as a Passive Aggressive, somebody who is non-verbally aggressive, puts the people around them down all the time, actively sabotages others work, whilst wearing a smile, even being polite. Often, these people are difficult to read and deal with, as they never let on who they are angry with or why, instead choosing other ways to allow the anger to manifest itself, for example, through snide asides. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin.
Master your drives
So, how can you master your competitive streak to your full advantage ?
• Look at your motivation, needs and goals. Are you trying to please yourself or prove something to others? Will you and others ultimately benefit from your actions?
• Look at what drives you to succeed and whether it makes you happy. If you had a disapproving teacher at school that told you that you would never achieve anything, use that anger to help drive you along, don’t be angry at others. If it was a past failure, ask yourself honestly why you failed and if your need to succeed is to counter the failings of the past.
• Take into consideration the needs and feelings of others. As a wise man once said, nice guys finish first.
• Avoid dirty tricks in order to achieve your goals. Always play nicely and fair. It makes sense; a businessman who treats his staff and customers well, will always be more approachable than one that uses artifice and fear to achieve his aims.
• Praise others for their accomplishments, don’t feel threatened by them. An undervalued workforce is ineffective and liable to go elsewhere. Look after your best assets and team players.
• Work hard and be confident of your abilities. Likewise, this will inspire the same qualities and values in those you employ and those that employ your services.
• Never undermine your efforts by undermining others. It goes without saying – people talk. It sometimes takes years to establish a good reputation; and three seconds to wreck all of your hard work. Be mindful of how you are perceived.
• Make sure that you have enough time and manoeuvring room to achieve your goals. Again, afford those working for you the same room. And if things go wrong, solve problems together, don’t throw the blame around.
• Above all, be realistic and kind to yourself. Often the hardest part. Knowing when you have earned yourself a pat on the back, or a well earned pint down your local to quietly mull over why some things went wrong. Have a quiet sulk, then get back into the thick of things. Be your own judge, but be mindful of what others might be saying, objectively and non personally.
The last part is perhaps the trickiest part to deal with. Many people have coping strategies in place for when things go wrong. Sometimes we do fail to achieve some goals, and for some, they treat the matter as if it’s water off a duck’s back, while others crash and burn psychologically. Failure can be a devastating thing to personally address. It depends upon your mindset and your ego.
For the competitive person, they often find that the best releases in terms of hobbies and pursuits are…competitive. The worst offenders are those that play golf and those that sail. The energy that drives them during working hours is sublimated into a different by more socially dynamic form. In some cases, it’s almost as if the need to succeed is a drug, like smoking or drinking. Rarely do you find people who are so driven without the odd vice here and there to keep them sane.
When you feel the need to be competitive, it is often a good idea to draw up a road map of where you are going, what resources you will need and determine timescales for events and project milestones.
‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’ is an old motto, but sometimes you need to look at the minute details of your plan to see where it can go wrong and how to survive that particular scenario if it does indeed happen. The most successful people always have contingencies in place, because failure is an old friend; they roll with the punches, dust themselves off and get straight back on their horse again.
The truly competitive are experts at risk management, they know when to take a calculated risk, and when to back off from a potential minefield. Some people resort to philosophy to help with their edge. There are a few books that can be considered as bibles for the successful, but in all honesty there are no hard and fast rules on becoming a successful and competitive individual.
Cheese and War
Some people swear that if you read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, you will learn more management techniques than in any Idiot’s Guide. Another book, ‘Who Moved My Cheese’, by Spencer Johnson, uses cheese of all things as a metaphor for being adaptable to changes and circumstances. All of these books are no doubt influential. They all fill in the gaps we look for when we lack confidence in our abilities, so that we can go away, and try to implement these concepts, ideas and memes in such a way that they help our working lives.
Others look to competitive people for inspiration. Olympic swimmers, round the world yachtsmen, paralympic runners…take your pick. What makes one person competitive sometimes it seems is the will to succeed alone. Success is a drug, and the more successful some people appear to be, their success seems to perpetuate itself. So when you ask yourself just exactly how competitive are you, look to your friends and family, and those that know you well, perhaps better than you know yourself. You may be surprised by the answers and where they lead you next.