“Hey, Wally, it’s Barry from your deep, dark past. I’d love to catch up. Call me.”
I stared that the phone, as if it could explain things to me. The last time I talked to Barry, he was heading off to college and I was heading to the Marines. Before that we’d competed in all kinds of pick-up sports, card games, and contests to win the same girl.
When I called Barry back, I learned that he was retired for the third time. After college he went to a big company where he quickly learned two things: that he was a start-up kind of guy and that he loved sales. He’d been a key part of three successful start-ups and just retired from the third one.
I told him I wasn’t surprised. He was one of the most competitive people I’ve ever known, one of those “whatever it takes to win” kind of guys. I said as much. There was a long silence on Barry’s end before he spoke again.
“I had to learn how to use that,” Barry said. Here’s what else he told me in my version of his own words.
“Being super-competitive worked for me for the first few years in business. It helped me win sales and close big deals.
I was in my first startup and we’d just brought on our first hire to work with me and do marketing and sales support. He was really good, but one day he didn’t show up. He quit because, he said, I had to win every argument. I thought the kid was nuts.
Then my wife sat me down one night and read me the riot act. She’d watched me play cards with our six-year-old earlier in the day. She saw that I was cheating and called me on it.”
Barry was silent for a moment. I heard him take a deep breath before he went on.
“I’m so embarrassed about it, that my stomach knots up when I tell someone, but it was the start of learning about me and my competitiveness. My wife, basically, told me that either I got it under control or we wouldn’t have a marriage and I realized that I might not have much business success either.
So I did all the usual things. I read books and had coaches and counselors of all kinds. I kept a journal.”
I broke in. “So it all worked out. You learned how not to be so competitive.” We’d already traded family info, so I knew he was still married to the same woman and they had three grown children.
“No,” Barry said, “I didn’t. I’m still as competitive as I was when we played basketball. I realized that being competitive is my nature and I couldn’t change that. What I had to learn to do was redefine what I was competing for.
I learned to think that if I made a sale, it wasn’t a win unless the customer was happy. And I learned that winning at work meant helping the team win.”
“So,” I said, “what about those people who brought you good ideas, but that you used to beat down so you could win?”
“That one took me a while. I finally figured that a win in that situation was when the idea was better at the end of the conversation than it was at the beginning. My job was to ask questions and bring in other perspectives, not win the argument.”
Boss’s Bottom Line
Your core character traits are hard, if not impossible to change. What you can change is how you use them to be more successful.
What do you think?
Have you ever had a “strength” that kept you from doing your best? How did you deal with it?