The other guys down the street Featured

9:01pm EDT September 30, 2011
The other guys down the street

The other guys down the street, across town or in another state are ubiquitously referred to in boardrooms and management meetings in public companies, private businesses, nonprofit institutions and locker rooms from coast to coast.

So who are these other guys? They are the competition. I’m involved with a number of companies and sit on boards of directors for both corporate and nonprofit institutions. Virtually without exception, at every meeting the other guys surface not once or twice but three or more times without fail. What is even more unusual is that no one ever dares to actually mention the other organization by name. It’s as if one is watching a Harry Potter movie in which everyone fearfully refers to the story’s antagonist and evil-doer Voldemort as “He who shall not be named.”

Something about not uttering the name of the other guys makes them less credible and renders them not quite as powerful or threatening. It’s probably much like whistling in the dark — if we hear ourselves whistling, we won’t hear the scary sounds, and therefore, there is nothing to fear.

As a business leader, how can you use these other guys or the people down the street to marshal your team, taking it to new heights? In my office for 15 years, I had two baseball caps mounted on the wall emblazoned with each of my two biggest competitors’ logos. Each hat also had an arrow running through one side to the other. This display sent a strong message to every visitor that I was focused on “my” other guys.

Let’s face it, competition, as unpleasant as it may be at times, is not only here to stay but also forces your company to strive to be better, provide greater value to your customers or constituents and basically continuously rise to the occasion.

The other guys can be very useful as a benchmark to measure your organization against on just about every metric. I’ve always felt that a hidden advantage of competition is that everyone needs someone to blame for something, and you’re much better off having your team blame the other guys for their intermittent woes than blaming you, which proves that in every bad situation there is always some good for someone.

Smart operators know more about the other guys in many respects than they know about themselves. There must be a biological factor in business that makes management secretly think that the competition is smarter, more efficient and does a lot more things right than they do. What most companies don’t realize is that the other guys across town are probably sitting in their conference room talking about you and how smart your company is, of course without saying your name, and how you always do it better and that they need to get their act together before you eat their lunch. It is almost ironic because the competition, in many cases, makes a company much better than it would have been otherwise and serves as a catalyst to take that extra step. Leaders deep down inside should be thankful for the impetus that these other guys provide their company or institution.

Those rare organizations that don’t worry about the guys down the street are probably the companies that just don’t get it and that think they’re invincible. Inevitably they trip over their own hubris and take a bad, sometimes fatal, fall.

Give me a good fight any time, a tough competitor and someone I can use to rally the troops against, driving them further and faster, based on their competitive need to beat the other guys and prove their self-worth. An added benefit of competition is it also tends to keep a company’s ego in check, because just when one company thinks it found the greatest widget of all time, another company comes down the pike that one-ups it.

As much as we hate to admit it, those guys down the street, across town or in the next state keep our blood boiling and energize our creativity. At the end of the day, we are probably better off fighting the competition, lest we start fighting even more with ourselves internally. Because of a worthy opponent, the customer wins, employees stay on their game, and it certainly makes life interesting. That’s what the other guys can do for you — all you have to do is learn how to use them to your best advantage.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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