I love watching the New York City marathon every year. You don't see many records set -- the race organizers don't employ pace-setters to set blistering tempos -- but because the elite runners set their own pace, the marathon turns into a 2-hour chess match. If the pack starts out fast, everyone will pay by the end. If the pack starts out slow, you risk someone breaking off and setting a lead no one can match. But, of course, that lead pony could tire out too.
Sometimes faster runners form alliances to winnow out the pack, and then turn on each other in the final miles. That means if you're a runner with a good final kick, you'd ideally form an alliance with someone prone to flaming out. Except that someone else who knows your weaknesses may be trying to form different alliances that will make those weaknesses painfully clear over 26.2 miles.
And here you thought they were just running!
As I watch these competitive strategies, I find myself thinking that there are lessons for our careers, too. Some people just get up and run (metaphorically) at a certain pace, no matter what anyone else is doing. But humans are social creatures, and many of us pay quite a bit of attention to other people -- particularly those with whom we have both collegial and competitive relationships. You and a co-worker spur each other on to better work when you're staffed on a project together. But then, eventually, you're both in line for the same promotion. You win that round. But then your colleague goes to work for a client, and is in a position to hire you. You do great work together again. Then the client is bought by another firm, and your former colleague goes to work for one of your competitors. Maybe she's hired at a higher level than you are, and that spurs a bit of a competitive drive in you. And on the marathon goes.
How can you use this pack nature to drive yourself to better work, rather than self-destructive behavior (like the entire pack tripping each other and going down in a heap of skinned elbows and knees?)
First, take an honest assessment of your own abilities. Few of us like to acknowledge our weaknesses, but if you're constantly losing out because of your particular Achilles heel, address it. If you can't give a decent speech, you probably won't be promoted to leadership roles. So learn to give a decent speech.
Second, go ahead and admire what others do well. Rather than hunting for what a competitor does poorly -- in an effort to make yourself feel better -- look at what she does well, and what you can learn from that.
And finally, look for alliances where you can, even if they're only temporary. You can organize professional networking events with people in all kinds of different roles, or get to know each other outside of any directly competitive situations. After all, many elite runners train together, even if, in the final meters, they have to go head to head.
How do you manage situations that are both competitive and collegial?