Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Importance of The Rival

Thor and Loki - rivals through and through
Being an entrepreneur the last few years have put me in a season where I am not constantly aware of who my rivals are.

Sure, I have insight into companies who are in the same space as me. And the longer I am in business, the more I hear about who is also doing similar work to mine.

But the dynamic of rivalry is one that I have sorely missed lately and it only took running into one of my fiercest rivals from high school to remind me.

Take a step back with me to the late 1980s in the now defunct SICA East conference in the south suburbs of Chicago - girls tennis. My first two years at Bloom High School found me mostly undefeated in conference and going down at the Sectional tournament narrowly as a freshman and sophomore as a first and second singles player. My coaches and I were sure and certain that my junior and senior years would be my glory years. When I say coaches, I mean both my school and my park district off season coaches. There was a focused team of three adults and myself working toward my tennis glory.   There was really only one girl from Homewood-Flossmoor High School standing in the way in my conference and since I was a year older than her, we felt confident that I could grow my game and even if I never beat her, I could still achieve my goals. She was my rival. All that was well and good until my senior year when her younger more powerful sister entered the conference.

Needless to say, I never won a conference title as a sister from that family (and there were 3 of them) kept me from it.  I cannot even begin to describe all that has been running through my head since I was reconnected with her in a business meeting some 26 years later. She is an amazing woman today. We both are. We ran into each other as we are both at the top of our career game - me, as an up and coming entrepreneur impacting policy to grow small business in Illinois, her as a superstar state legal counsel for Illinois.  Our laughter, hugs and reminiscing reminded me of the importance of a rival.

Rivals humble us. 

Regardless the field of expertise or the sport in question, having a rival  - especially a good one - is a humbling experience. Nothing causes you to check yourself more than a brilliant rival.  Seeing your skills and talents, in all their glory, come up short against those of a rival is great experience in perspective.  Perhaps that is why many people surround themselves with their equals or folks who are less talented to keep them "at the top" in the eyes of those not observing closely. This gross lack of humility inhibits growth. Formidable rivals force you to acknowledge your flaws. Flaws that, once acknowledged, must be dealt with in order to compete with that rival or anyone else. The ability to see, recognize and improve on flaws are critical to great leadership. Often times, it is tough to do without a rival to humble us to start the process.

Rivals drive innovation.

When there are people around you excelling in the same areas as you, you have two choices. You can chase them in that area of focus and do your best to catch up and surpass them. Or, you can get creative and find a new way to compete. Thinking back to my tennis days, I never beat one of those players, ever. And I went to college in the fall of 1989 completely soured on tennis. Instead of forcing myself to play a game that I clearly didn't love anymore, I discovered rugby and loved it. Later, I played soccer and really enjoyed that. Fast forward to my life as an entrepreneur, early in my business I did lots of different projects and could hardly distinguish my work from others in my space. In the fall of 2013, my company underwent a brand reboot and launched my brand promise, Engage, Collaborate, Lead. The very next time I bid on a project or was up against a similar small business for municipal work, the ability to articulate my methodology of work made all the difference. My company drove 300% year over year growth through the first 3 quarters of 2014. Understanding what set me apart from my rivals became the very engine of my business. Today, when I am selling against the leading provider of strategic planning services in the state of Illinois, I know precisely what levers to pull and how to further distinguish Relationships Matter Now and we are quickly catching the leader who has years more experience ahead of us in the game.

Sometimes as an entrepreneur you forget to look for rivals in the hustle of growing your business. You forget the role they play in your growth and trajectory. Take some time to look around you and be more aware of the rivals in what you do. If you allow them, they can drive you to be a better you.

Oh, and I did play tennis again for a small Christian college my final year of college when I was part of the inaugural women's team at our school after playing one 0-8 season on the men's team. It was great to be the captain leading a new program and I owe my tenacity to play with men for one season to my high school tennis rivals.

Thanks Okorafors.

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