Jeff Rodek

Every Business Needs a Common Enemy

February 28, 2006

Case categories include: Leadership   Operations   Sales   

By Robert Sher
It’s really out of fashion to think about business as war.  We’re civilized now, and we want a win-win everywhere.  Yes, yes, tea anyone?  NOT!

Maybe someday we’ll be that civilized.  But human evolution is quite slow, and even if you are convinced that we are evolving toward a more peaceful state of consciousness, it will take a few billion years to really get there.  Right now, just like 5,000 years ago, nothing moves us toward teamwork like a common enemy.

Pick an Enemy
At the Alliance of Chief Executives' February 2006 East Bay meeting, keynote speaker Jeff Rodek, Chairman and CEO of Hyperion Solutions said, “Every business needs one company to beat.  Pick an enemy!”  He recounted his FedEx days where everyone in the company was told, “Every time you see a brown truck (UPS), they’re taking food from your children.”  It was a quick comment, but worthy of deeper thought.

Many CEOs are extraordinarily developed people who can drive themselves forward for the sake of being the best they can be.  They don’t need a benchmark, or an enemy to beat – they just want to be all they can be (stealing a phrase from the Marines).  But the teams that work for those CEOs may see them as overly demanding, with standards that are not justified by the marketplace.  But even one competitor that is outperforming you in even one area instantly legitimizes your demands.

If they can do it, why can’t we?
I agree with Mr. Rodek.  Picking a competitor to beat is an excellent leadership technique.  But one may not be enough.  When FedEx was just small air packages, UPS was the clear enemy.  But now that there is FedEx Freight, UPS can’t be the only competitor since FedEx has broadened.  If needed, pick two or three companies, so that the energy that goes into “beating” them will balance properly with your company’s overall goals.

Having your team’s blood pressure soar at an enemy sighting isn’t enough.  Each department in your firm should be studying the same team in the enemy’s business to identify strengths and weaknesses.  For example, how do they market and advertise?  Is that better or worse than our company? Should our strategy and tactics adopt some of their practices?  If we think we are better, how can we collect evidence to be sure?  Think of it as one-to-one benchmarking.

Every “soldier” has his battle
Take it all the way down to the individual employee level.  I wonder if the FedEx drivers asked customers about the UPS drivers and their performance and relationship with each customer.  I’ll bet Mr. Rodek would have wanted his drivers to be more friendly and efficient than their “enemy” on the same route.  Make sure that your employees know what to do each day to triumph over the “enemy.”

Having an enemy is a fast track to having your whole company study a competitor in depth, and a fast track to everyone wanting to beat them.  I’ll guarantee you that even the pacifists on your team don’t want to be the “loser.”  Tap into those primal competitive urges.

• Identify a competitor or three that you want to “beat.”
• Have each department in your company study the respective department in the other team, and develop methods to measure performance – both theirs and yours.
• Craft organization-wide action plans that insure that you will not lose, and that you will win.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at