Know Your Competitors

Here’s something you need to do to continue your development as a leader. It’s important to your ability to influence others, and it’s something that will get you noticed by senior leaders. What is it? Gaining knowledge and insight about the competition. As a leader, you need to become intimately familiar with what’s going on with the other players in your industry. If you don’t take an interest in where your organization stands in relation to your closest competitors, no one is going to take you seriously as an executive.

It’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything you could about the competition – that’s the first step in making a behavior change. Heck, I’ll admit it; I didn’t always have a great working knowledge of the companies we were battling when I was in corporate America. For example, in the four years I spent at America Online, I never did develop a great sense of what Microsoft, NetZero, Earthlink, Yahoo and others were doing in the marketplace. Now, you could say that since I was in HR, it wasn’t my job to know intricate detail about these company’s business models or marketing strategies. I knew some of the basics, but not nearly enough. I’m not proud of this story, but I share it to illustrate how common it can be to put your head in the sand and just focus on your own company. Would I have been a better thought leader, a better conduit of information for my team, a better executive, if I had developed a keen sense of the competition? You bet. And judging by conversations that I’ve had with hundreds of leaders over the years, I’m not alone here. So let’s explore your approach to getting smart about the competition.

Turns out you can know quite a bit about your competitors if you focus on just the four pieces of information.
First of all, you need to know how the competition stacks up – how they compare relative to market positioning. How big a share of the market do they have? This information is generally available in analyst reports or on the internet, and your own Finance department probably keeps an updated lead table to track market share. Get your hands on this information, because this is one of the best ways to “keep score” when comparing companies – who’s winning the battle for customers? Second, become familiar with the revenue and profit margin figures for the top companies in your industry. Who’s making (and keeping) the most money? The annual Fortune 500 list includes a good deal of information that you can easily absorb and share with your team. Third, try to keep up to date on who’s developing new products and services. Who’s winning the innovation game? Set up an alert on your favorite search engine to get articles that are touting your competition’s latest inventions or processes. Finally, try to get a sense of what your competitors are doing from an employment and culture perspective. This will tell you who’s winning the war for talent. Fortune magazine’s Most Admired Companies and Best Companies to Work For lists will help you get a sense for this part of the equation. If you can talk intelligently about these four factors – where your company stands relative to your competitors in terms of customers, financials, innovation and employment practices – you probably will be one of the most knowledgeable leaders in your organization when if comes to the “other guys” in your industry.

In my view, this isn’t something that’s “nice to do” – in today’s competitive climate, this is a “must do.” Make a commitment to add a strong working knowledge of your company’s competitors to your leadership portfolio. Set a goal of wowing your peers and boss with a clear understanding of the challenges facing the company this year, relative to the competition. You’ll be surprised at how good it feels to be the most knowledgable person at the table. Don’t be the corporate ostrich who only knows their own company; get out there and learn about who’s coming after you!