Embrace Your Enemies

Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

President Abe Lincoln said this in response to an elderly lady who had chastised him for not calling Southerners, who he had referred to as fellow human beings who were in error, irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed.

I have always been highly competitive. Growing up playing a variety of sports, I loved to win. Starting with little league baseball all the way to playing league tennis today, I thoroughly enjoy competing at the highest level and winning. Likewise, I have never taken losing well. I have lost many a night’s sleep tormented by an unexpected defeat.

No surprise that this competitive spirit has spilled into my business life as well. Early in my career, I despised my fellow competitors. They were the bad guys, and I was the good guy. I was always looking for an advantage. Where were they most vulnerable?

As a result, I had very little communication or contact with my competitors. Why would I? They were a threat to my entrepreneurial existence. I was sure they were stealing my clients, poaching my best employees, and pilfering what little intellectual capital I had. My job was to eliminate my competitors using whatever competitive advantage I might have.

How did that work out, you ask? Mixed results. I felt very isolated at times. It was me against them. Sometimes I wondered if I wasn’t maybe better off with a less adversarial relationship with my peers. Maybe I should talk to them? Collect competitive intelligence firsthand? Possibly even befriend my competitors.

So I did. I sought out these other business owners when possible at public events, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and so forth. I even invited several to breakfast, lunch, or just coffee. I began asking them questions like “How do you find such good people?” and “How do you stay so busy?”.

And here was the amazing part. They answered my questions. They shared some of their best practices with me, a competitor. I was shocked by what I could learn from a competitor in a relatively short time over a cup of coffee (or sweet tea, in my case). My simple curiosity resulted in an ample collection of valuable competitive data.

And then an even stranger thing happened next. These same now friendly competitors began referring job candidates to me they couldn’t immediately employ themselves. They also began referring new customers to me that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t serve. And I returned the favor when possible. We were becoming friendly competitors. How did this happen?

One day, one of my newfound friendly competitors offered to buy my company for a very fair price and I accepted. This happened a second time several years later with a different business.

As you can imagine, my thinking about competitors changed dramatically. I thought more like Abe Lincoln and less like Attila the Hun. It made much more sense to embrace my competitors than treat them like arch-enemies. The closer I got to them, the better off I was.

The term coined recently for this competitive strategy is “co-opetition”. The idea is that we can become even more competitive by cooperating with our competitors. Our success does not have to be at the expense of our competitors. We are now encouraged to look for ways to collaborate with our industry peers. Examples might include:

  • a job fair hosted by a number of companies in the same industry
  • an employee training program
  • a marketing event
  • sharing industry/market information

One of my favorite books about Abe Lincoln was Team of Rivals. The book reveals that after a fierce presidential election, Lincoln invited several of his biggest political foes to be a part of his presidential cabinet. He felt the closer he could be to his enemies, the better off he was. Lincoln also was not afraid of hearing dissenting points of view from his rivals when making policy decisions.

How might you get closer to your competition? Is it time to destroy your enemies by making them your friends?