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Why Is Competitiveness Seen as a Negative Force?

27/05/2013 00:11 BST | Updated 26/07/2013 10:12 BST
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"I'm not competitive", "It's not about winning", "I'm not going to play that game". I hear this sort of thing far too often, especially from women, and it gets me wondering... why does competitiveness get such a bad rap?

For me, competitiveness is about doing your absolute personal best to succeed through hard work, rather than trying to out-do anybody else. A brilliant example is Karen Kaplan, newly-appointed CEO at US ad agency Hill Holiday, who has described her 30-year journey from receptionist with no formal qualifications to the top position.

The beauty of this story, for me, lies in the fact that Karen climbed her way to the corner office through sheer determination and hard work.

Something I value more than anything else in my team is that willingness to step up, to say yes, and - as Karen did - to raise your hand for every opportunity given. This spirit and work ethic is an importance facet of our Maxus company values: it means we work hard; we work quickly; in fact, to quote the old Avis line, "we try harder".

Being hard working often gets mistaken for competitiveness and, of course, the two are very much intertwined. As one of four children and a super-keen swimmer (I competed in Olympic trials in a former life), I get Kaplan's desire to stand out and do her very best to succeed. Unfortunately, in many parts of society, having a competitive edge is still considered "not very nice" - particularly, perhaps, for women.

Competitiveness is very much alive and kicking in UK workplaces, but I was really surprised by an Investors In People study which found that almost half (45%) of people believe competitiveness can destroy team spirit. Only one-fifth of respondents saw it as a positive force; an overwhelmingly negative view of that vital sense of ambition that drives both personal development and overall business performance.

Striving to progress in your career has a lot in common with swimming training. What makes one person perform that bit better than everybody else, whether in the boardroom or the pool? Sure, some of us are blessed with longer, more powerful limbs, or naturally higher IQs... but it is what we do with our god-given assets that sets us apart. And that only comes through hard work.

Success means being prepared to put in long hours, plus that one extra hour after everybody else has left, allied to a relentless desire to win.

I should add that part and parcel of working hard and competing is the occasional failure. There will be times when the person who really goes for it does not win. One of my greatest learnings - in both my sporting and professional careers - has been around coming to terms with not winning. Failure is never anything but an opportunity to try that bit harder next time around, and as such, one of the greatest drivers of success. It's hard to see when you've just come second, but so, so important with hindsight.

There are no legitimate short cuts to the corner office (sorry, fans of The Apprentice, but it just doesn't work like that). Success boils down to an innate competitiveness backed up by good old-fashioned hard work. What I'd love to see is people feeling comfortable saying, "I love doing this and, you know what? I want to be the best at it". I'd also love to see the rest of society being ok with, and in fact actively admiring that.