I’ve been thinking about the connections between competition in sports and the business world. Guess some of it has to do with my father’s past ordeal in trying to stay competitive against giants with what was once a thriving business. Might also have something to do with the fact that most automated response messages I get when I submit resumes talks about the "competitiveness of today’s job market." When I think of competition, my mind usually gravitates toward the model that focuses on beating your opponent. This is a model that I most clearly understood growing up when I played sports. Winning was all about dominating the other person or team (and sometimes competition gets rough – I played with blue-collar country boys and you better bring some muscle along with skills…I have a twice-broken nose to prove it).
Problem was that I didn’t really have much muscle and when you’re a skinny kid you need to find less brutal games. So my father introduced me to golf and I fell in love with it. When I was ready, I competed in local tournaments and played in leagues with men twice and triple my age. Funny thing is that the concept of competition in golf is very different from competition in most other sports like basketball, football, or greco-roman wrestling. In these latter activities, the focus is squarely on the opponent with the objective of stopping them from scoring and winning. In golf, the focus of competition is very different.
When it comes to competing in the business world today, the golf model offers a far more productive and powerful way to grow ourselves and our organizations.
I remember one of the first tournaments I played. In high school, the format you played in was a foursome with three three other schools. I got smoked not because I was a poor player and didn’t have ability, but because I spent more time worrying about the opponent and their game. I kept trying to outdrive the others and make spectacularly impressive shots. This went on for a few matches and all I could do was shake my head and wonder why I wasn’t beating my opponents. What only occurred to me after my coach took me out for a practice round was that my understanding of what it was to compete was working heavily against me. Instead, I needed to readjust my competitive drive and turn it inward.
In golf, you’re not squaring off directly against the other competitors in the field – you compete against yourself and the course. Its a sport where winning means mastering your own craft, not worrying about what the other player is doing. Their game is out of your control. It’s also a sport where the every changing environment challenges you to contend with it. This, too, is out of your control.
Where do the connections play out in the work world?
One instance that comes to mind is in the career search. The fact is the job market is competitive where hundreds of candidates vie for the same position. You can’t go and bludgeon every one of your opponents in order to win. You can’t worry about what talents they possess, what skills they offer, what experience they bring with them. The only thing that is in your control is YOU. Like in golf, you have to spend time practicing on your resume and for your interviews; when it’s time to play, you can only worry about your own game.
Another instance is a common one that takes place within the organization. Consider the scenario where there is an opportunity for internal promotion to a top company position. The larger the company, the more numerous the field of competitors. I’ve seen and heard stories about the rugby scrums that developed among colleagues. Yet, the more time that the individuals spent focused on whether ‘Tom down the hall’ or ‘Tina in marketing’ were gaining an upper hand, the less time they had developing themselves and their own game. In this scenario, what happens when you win? Who do you try to beat now? And how have you grown yourself in the process – any new accomplishments to report?
There are many more examples, but probably the granddaddy of all of them is how businesses go after market share. The old, tired model has companies on a seek and destroy mission to bludgeon their opponents by any means necessary. This is competition viewed through the lens of primal fear.The fear is that if you don’t get your enemies out of the way first, they’ll eventually destroy you. Again, focusing on the opposition means taking valuable time away from improving from within. We can’t maintain our attention in more than one place for very long.
The best companies understand that competition is there to help us improve, not kill us. Consider the golf world’s response to Tiger Woods. In the aftermath of his earliest wins when he dominated his opponents, other players understood that they had to raise the level of their own games. Golfers like Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson are now better players because of the effect that a newcomer had on their sport.
So, rather than condemning the competition, wishing it away, or trying to destroy it, welcome it. How else can we hope to improve who we are?