From slugging it out in Little League to winning on Wall Street, the competitive spirit is central to our identity as human beings. And I think of business as the ultimate competition – the sport many people grow up to play.
As General Manager of the IT Division at Lucas Group, my primary goal is to create a culture of winning mindsets among my teammates. We work to win, rebound when we lose, and thrive on a healthy balance of competition and cooperation. Along the way, I’ve learned from some great leaders about the importance of winning fairly and treating others with respect. Communication, trust and collaboration are key, and playing fair is the only way to find long-term success.
Look at healthy competition, and you’ll see that it’s all upside:
Healthy competition raises your game. In college basketball, for example, teams tend to do better in a tournament when they toughen up playing more difficult competitors beforehand. You see the phenomenon in business, too. Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab liked to encourage a friendly rivalry between workers on the day and night shifts by writing their production numbers on the mill floor. His motto was straightforward: “The way things get done is to stimulate competition.”
I see this on my team, too: we’re always focused on achieving more. Internally, we look to other divisions for motivation, even if they’re bigger. And of course, we also look outside Lucas Group for motivation. Having worked for a larger executive recruiting company, I know what’s available in this business, and I believe we’re better.
Healthy competition leads to innovation. If you’re competing in a crowded field, you won’t succeed by doing what everyone else does. Healthy competition encourages you to distinguish yourself. In the book Inside Apple, for example, author Adam Lashinsky describes a culture where product development teams are purposely kept apart to compete against one another.
Healthy competition forces you to focus on your core customer: If you’re targeting a specific demographic or location, market challengers encourage you to better understand the setting. Watching your competitors can also tell you which practices are effective and which aren’t. In the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” for example, the show’s star goes head to head with chefs known as the best in their food category. During the friendly duels, Flay and his competitors prepare the same dish for a blind taste test. No matter the outcome, it’s a win-win – with both sides learning more about their craft and gaining visibility.
A team culture with healthy competition
Creating a healthy team starts with hiring people who expect excellence from themselves. I look for people who have a competitive track record. I ask candidates about the last goal they wanted to achieve, what obstacles they faced, and whether they achieved the goal. I ask them to tell me about a time they recently competed for something.
You have an advantage in business when the people on your team are competitive, collaborative and understand the importance of hard work. Once I have these team players on board, my mission is to help them achieve their personal best every day. For my team, the result has been a group of high achievers always stretching themselves to do more. Several rock stars in particular consistently commit to investing in themselves. Their focus is on building the future, not looking at the past. That competitive spirit is 100 percent needed in this business. It’s what drives the IT division to achieve superior results and provide impeccable service to our clients and candidates.
Creating strong competition within an organization can lead to success, but only if it’s done correctly. I once read about a Fortune 500 CEO whose favorite saying is a phrase from the legendary – and ruthless – warrior Genghis Khan: “It’s not enough that I succeed. Everyone else must fail.” Approached in the wrong manner, internal competition can destroy morale and ruin results. The key is to ensure that the rules of competition foster teamwork, not aggressive rivalry.
An internal drive to excel
Some people believe success happens to other people; then there are those who expect it from themselves. An internal need to excel is the most powerful of all motivation. This competition is self-contained: you’re driven to work, to accomplish and to exceed what you’ve done before, simply because you want to. When you’re internally motivated to improve, you end up winning a lot more than you lose. An internal engine is paramount to continue setting the bar higher and reaching for more.
Competitive Sports and Business Success
The business world is filled with people whose athletic experience has translated into career success.
One example is Rachel Gary, the head of Marketing and Communications at ONE World Sports, who advocates sports participation at any skill level. The New York Observer quotes her as saying, “Many of the traits needed to succeed in sports are similar to those in business, including goal-setting, confidence, discipline and leadership skills.”
Playing sports in college and high school gave me many transferable skills, too. They include
- Dedication: When I played college basketball, if one person was late, the whole team had to run. You have to show dedication to your peers. If one person isn’t performing at a high level, there’s a ripple effect on the whole team.
- What it means to be part of a healthy – and dysfunctional – team: On a healthy sports team, athletes want to win and know how to help one another achieve a common goal. The same is true for healthy business teams: people want to close as many deals as possible, and they help each other along the way.
- Perseverance: How do you act in the face of adversity? You have to have core beliefs and a system in place, so that even during difficult times, you keep trying.