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Eyes in the Back of Your Head
FATHER: I assume that my competitors are out to woo my best clients, as well as my best people. I know I have to work harder, smarter, and more vigilantly than anybody else, because they are after exactly what I have achieved. And everything I've achieved with my clients and employees can be swept away if I let down my guard, coast, and rest on the laurels of yesterday's success.
Sander A. Flaum
Business has nothing to do with yesterday and everything to do with the present. You're only as good as your last project. Was it A+ or simply what was expected of you? To meet a client's expectations but not exceed them every time is the kiss of death. If you're just status quo, you're falling behind.
Jeff Rich, the CEO of ACS, the $4 billion–plus public company famous for its business process outsourcing through service products like EZ Pass, puts it this way: "Be it a human resource function, an accounting function, or a New York EZ Pass function—how to collect money, how to improve the collection rates, how to get the bills out faster, how to get the money moving faster—we lie awake at night thinking about that kind of thing."
Jeff knows that a client's exceeded expectation today becomes the standard tomorrow and that the bar is continually raised, without end. It means constantly topping your last best performance and not being satisfied with anything less than a new innovation every time—a result that gets your customer or client to say, "Wow, I never would have thought of that on my own! Good thing we have them around."
Does this mean I'm paranoid when it comes to business? Absolutely! You can't stay on top if you're not. You think Bill Gates would ever take his eye off the ball of the newest video-game technology? Think he would let an opportunity to hire the best programmer in the business pass him by? Not on your life. Leadership entails having eyes in the back of your head and on all sides and requires you to sleep less and work harder and smarter than the competition.
SON: I agree with the necessity of paying vigilant attention to client and customer expectations and being sure to exceed them every time. That's not just for the customers' sake and for the pragmatics of maintaining the business, but because you yourself have an inner drive to reach further with every project. By its nature, competition rules in business. If we become complacent with our efforts or dependent on a past success to carry us forward, we will soon enough be on the losing end of it.
I don't disagree with my father on this state of affairs; I'm just not satisfied with how this climate affects us in ways not measured by the bottom line. The necessity of remaining on high-alert paranoid status means a degree of aggressiveness that may help us in business but hurt us in the other contexts that we inhabit as human beings, such as friendship, intimate partnership, parenthood, and just simple everyday life outside work.
My thought is to approach competition itself differently; seeing it as an interconnected dance rather than as a dog-eat-dog brawl. The latter view makes us tense and ready to fight while the former challenges us to simply be aware of our surroundings. I take my cue from the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi chuan. Besides learning the choreographed forms, training in tai chi involves a technique called pushing hands. The technique pairs individuals in close contact so each partner can assess where the other is off-balance, where her strengths and weaknesses are, and how the energy is moving. The key is to use the other person's energy against them. For example, if someone is trying to strike you, move out of the way and allow the force of the attack to carry the attacker off-balance, giving you the upper hand.
Doing this practice with a partner requires complete relaxation of the body and respect for your partner's abilities. It also necessitates a subtle awareness of your own position in relation to theirs. Transferring this art form to business, there is the potential to achieve mastery over the competition by being intimate with them, respecting them, understanding them, and even feeling grateful to them for making you better.
Will practicing this way hurt your bottom line in business? No, because it requires your undivided attention to your competitors and to the entire field of play. But this practice is about more than the bottom line, which while never to be ignored, can no longer be worshiped at the expense of the life outside the lines that never shows up on a company graph.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathon Flaum is president of WriteMind Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com