In my first job out of college, I worked for a startup company whose biggest partner was one of our nation's largest aerospace companies. Frequently, I would have to visit the offices of the larger company to work side-by-side with their employees. On one of these visits, I noticed a curious thing on someone's desk:  a #2 pencil with the name of that large aerospace company, and the phrase: "World Class Competitiveness Starts with Me."

I was immediately intrigued by this wonder pencil. Corporate America was still new to me, and I was curious about these massive companies and how they worked. So I looked at the next person's desk--behold! Another pencil with that corporate slogan. And sure enough, in a sea of gray cubicles, every desk had a pencil on it saying the same thing. Some of the pencils were used, though, and the phrase was eaten away, word by word, until you were left with something pretty cryptic.

What was the genesis of these pencils? In my mind, I pictured the CEO of this giant corporation devoting a certain budget to "becoming competitive"--and then dividing that budget by the 100,000+ employees of the company, and realizing that all they could afford to give everyone was a pencil. Not only did the pencils fail to motivate anyone to be more competitive, but the gesture was so impersonal and out of context that it actually demotivated people.

You Don't Have To Be C-Level to Drive Competitiveness

 Any leader wants to have a team that is competitive. But, how do you go about creating an environment where that can happen?

What I've learned since those earlier days is that making people want to "win" can happen in two distinct ways. The one most people are familiar with is from the C-Level to employees--meaning, management communicates how to stay ahead of the competition by articulating a vision, strategy and setting aggressive goals. The team then rallies around this vision and executes. It's usually necessary to do a top-down strategy to build a competitive culture--but not always sufficient.

A second, complementary way involves allowing employees to build competitiveness into the company culture in their own right. This direction requires management to let go of the reins a bit, but ultimately allows incredible opportunities for teambuilding. Sound scary? Just bear with me.

Team-Driven Traditions

 At OnDeck, we use regular, all-employee "town halls" to communicate our strategy and goals for the company, including how we hope to differentiate and win in the markets we serve. However, some of our most effective means to fostering a culture that values winning and achieving our goals have come from employee-led contests.

For example, our sales team has created regular contests on everything from quotas to pushups, our software team hosted a hackathon to showcase and award prizes to different ideas on new products and tools for the company, and our entire Arlington, Virginia office, for no clear reason, leads the charge on an annual Halloween costume contest that is fiercely competitive and the whole company votes on the winners.

While these examples range from good old-fashioned competition to the sillier side of things, they promote both a healthy spirit of winning and a sense of connectedness. And, most importantly, none of them were centrally planned, like I imagine the wonder pencil was.

Connection Creates Competitiveness

As a leader, your job is to articulate the strategy, establish goals, and help secure the resources your company needs to be successful. But, creating a culture where employees can create their own rituals and build their own connections to the company enables a two-way bond. And, this bond is much stronger than trying to awkwardly force a bunch of slogans and maxims on team members to get them to buy into what you are trying to accomplish.

So, instead of giving everyone a pencil (or something similarly innocuous) that tells them to be competitive, allow employees to have some fun creating their own competitive activities. The more excited employees become about their own traditions, the more you'll start to see your company become more competitive in the marketplace.

 

 

 

Published on: Jul 14, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.