How to Outgun Your Rival

All’s fair in love and war, goes the old saying.

We know what that means: nothing’s fair. However much we like to think we advance by merit alone, winning in business means negotiating territory in which there is one prize and several contestants. Rivals are a part of the landscape, and there’s no substitute for understanding how to better yours. This month we take expert advice from Henry Goldbeck, CEO of the headhunting firm Goldbeck Recruiting Inc., and Paddi Rice, CEO of Executive Search Dating Inc.

Ignore them

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be fixated on your rival. In this you hear echoes of your driving instructor: look to the open space, not to the yellow line. The more you engage with a rival, the more you’re defined by him. Says Rice, “I’ve always felt like if you’re focused on your competition, then ultimately they’ve won.” The solution? Ignore him. Your inattention doesn’t take him out of the picture, but it allows you to focus on your own message, your own results.

Court attention at all costs

Getting ahead of your rival depends on being seen; don’t worry about appearing to be a brown-noser. The risks of going too far in courting attention are far outweighed by the risks of not putting yourself out there enough. It may make you groan, but don’t forget Wayne Gretzky’s chestnut about missing 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. “It’s my personal view,” says Rice, “that you should always err on the side of being aggressive.”

Be selectively truthful

Society spins on honesty, good faith and sincerity, right? Wrong. “There’s nowhere in life you should be totally . . .” Goldbeck catches himself, then selects a more politic locution. “Honesty always comes with discretion,” he says. Goldbeck counsels a more balanced approach than spilling the whole can of beans to your rival. “Total honesty – that’s like having Tourette’s,” he says with a laugh.

Understand impressions

You want your superiors to see you as competent. That doesn’t mean you have to be competent, of course, only that you can clearly communicate your successes to your higher-ups. It’s important to recognize the Machiavellian split between the thing and the impression of the thing. When it comes to the workplace, says Goldbeck, “you must protect yourself, but not be seen to be protecting yourself.” Similarly, “If you’re not doing anything, then maybe you should keep your head down.”

Outhustle them

A workplace rivalry is rarely settled in a single skirmish. Gird yourself for the broader war: do your research, show up, contribute at meetings and speak intelligently. The best way for you to better a rival, says Goldbeck, is to actually enjoy and be good at what you do. “You can’t work hard if you don’t give a shit, and if you excel at what you do, the politics are easy,” he says. “It’s hard to create that enthusiasm if you don’t have it,” he adds. “I don’t have it, but I certainly know it when I see it.”