Competition is good

I spent the first part of my business career for 12 years at BBDO/New YorkiStock_000007684114XSmall running some of their largest accounts as a senior account guy. BBDO was, and I am sure still is, a highly competitive agency, both within its own house and with other agencies. I grew up there believing that internal competition was healthy. It made talented people work even harder to succeed. And yes some was “cut throat”, but most of the competition ultimately created the best marketing ideas for clients and prospective ones. Get the best talent to reach higher was a great strategy, then and now.

In that vein, today’s Struming comes from a blog called “Fistful of Talent” written by a smart HR guy, Andy Porter, VP of HR/OD with Merrimack Pharmaceuticals. I don’t know him, but I really like the way he thinks. He has smart thoughts about the benefits of competition that are worthy of sharing. Thanks, Andy.

Whatever Happened to Good Ol’ Competition? As the “HR/OD Guy” for my organization, I’m frequently asked by team leaders how to improve collaboration.  Collaboration within teams, collaboration across teams, collaboration externally, and musical collaborations (okay… I made that last one up).  And as a trained OD guy, I used to love this question.  Time for a team collaboration offsite!  But I realized something after another MBTI driven, “let’s understand our differences and work better together” offsite that this approach is all wrong.   I don’t want employees to collaborate all the time.  I want employees to compete with each other – a duel, mano y mano style.  And you know what else?  I actually don’t care at all if they like each other or get along.  I only care that the performance of the team improves. To answer this question I went back to my youth growing up in Boston in the 1980s during the era of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry.

And yes. I get some interesting reactions when I make this suggestion. Truth be told, I’m all for collaboration and my own organization is built on the idea of cross team collaboration.  But here’s my question to you HR pros out there – Does the absence of competition really make us better performers?

Competition and even a healthy dislike for each other motivated both Bird and Johnson to practice and get better. And not only did they get better individually (three straight MVPs for Bird and three MVPs for Johnson), but their teams were successful as well.  So, now, when my team leaders come to me and ask me how to improve collaboration, I imagine myself in my 1980s style, very short basketball shorts and tell them 4 things:


1. Make the comparison.  Find out who your employees compare themselves to (we all have someone) and highlight that person’s accomplishments.  Challenge them to do better.


2. Toughen your team up.  Encourage heated discussion and debate around new and unconventional ideas – don’t rush to a consensus resolution.  This might feel uncomfortable at times but will improve individual and team performance over time.


3. Make an investment. Send your employees out to seminars, conferences and courses where they can measure themselves against the best and the brightest.  Ask them to report back on who they met and who was better than them. Ask what they plan to do to up their game.

4. Walk the talk.  Hire people who could have your job and will challenge and compete with you.  This will show your team you mean business and aren’t afraid of a healthy dose of competition yourself.

Now let the results flow!  And who knows, maybe one of your teams will have an HBO documentary done about them someday too!

Do you agree that competition brings out the best in us? Would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

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  1. I completely agree. Competition is the name of the game, inside the corporation and, of course, with the competition. As a solopreneur, formerly in the corporate world, I have yet to see someone hire someone who would challenge and compete with them. Interesting notion. I understand, however, because I partner with the best professionals in complementary fields and we all compete to come up with “the best idea” for our clients. Competition certainly brings out the best in our team.

  2. Lisa says:

    Like all things – in moderation. Internal competition can erode effectiveness in the work environment — sabotage, vindictiveness, passive aggressive behavior, bullying and gossip. External competition is the way to focus heirarchal energy. Too many companies are eaten up by internal politics and lose sight of what is going on around them. I know in my industry, media, we’ve been a bit myopic in recognizing our real competition. While our own sandbox was becoming tinier and tinier and tinier.

    Just remember, Bird and Johnson weren’t on the same team and I am not sure the rivalry would have been as energizing for their collegues if they had been.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Good perspective Lisa, as always. Glad Bird and Johnson weren’t on same team. Nobody else would have every won a championship if they had been.

  3. Ken says:

    I worked at BBDO and it was an absolute shark tank. One assignment with 6 teams (sometimes more) all competing to get the spot. Even competing with your creative group heads. I loved it and I’m sure it’s what made me and my partner work harder than if we were just handed the gig. When you’re young you need a hand and some breaks as you learn. But when you’re older — every man for himself.

  4. Lonny Strum says:

    Too bad we couldn’t put 6 teams on an assignment when we were at EPB. Wish we had more accounts worthy of 6 teams. I know you had to work at BBDO to truly understand its mania. But the work excelled and that’s what mattered.

  5. Dan Ditzler says:

    I’m enjoying a great current example of your blog post in sports. The Philadelphia Flyers are usually a “competitive” team, making the playoffs, but getting back to the Stanley Cup finals has been a challenge. Bringing proven performer Chris Pronger to the team created some initial friction in the locker room (the team already had a captain in Mike Richards), but it raised everyone’s game. Now, they’re facing an equally driven team from the West in the Chicago Blackhawks. Chris Pronger has been making Dustin Byfuglien’s life difficult. I suspect (but hope not) that Byfuglien will respond with a breakout game for Chicago. Three nerve-wracking games so far and one goal has been the difference in all three. Here’s hoping for four more highly competitive, drama-filled installments.

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