I recently came across a new book with a title that really caught my attention. Love Your Life, Not Theirs, written by a woman named Rachel Cruze. It addresses the idea that one of the primary reasons people take on so much debt in their lives is their tendency to compare themselves to others and strive to be something they’re not.
That made a lot of sense to me, not only in the world of personal finance, but in life in general. It seems to me that the root of so much misery in the world stems from the desire to have what others have, and to be what others are, instead of appreciating the unique blessings we have been given.
And then it occurred to me that the same principle applies to corporate strategy and leadership as well. Here’s an example.
I once worked for two rival software companies over the course of five years. The first had a reputation for cramming products down its customers’ throats, pushing employees to do things that were marginally unethical, and promoting itself beyond its true merits. The second company respected its clients, created an environment of employee integrity, and marketed itself in more truthful, even modest ways. I eventually left the first company to join the second because I respected the second company and found that it was a better fit for my values.
Plenty of customers felt the same way I did, preferring to do business with an honest and humble vendor, and as a result, that company grew rapidly to more than a billion dollars in annual revenue. And then something crazy happened. For some reason, the leaders of that second company started emulating their larger rival.
The hiring standards of the company changed to attract more aggressive employees. The internal practices of the company became more rigid and financially driven. The marketing of the company and its products became more exaggerated and outlandish.
You can probably guess the end of the story. As customers came to see little difference between the two companies, the second one lost its differentiation and hit a wall. It became just another vendor and couldn’t compete with its larger rival on price, scale or marketing expenditures. That company never really recovered. Some might say that the problem was product quality or strategic ineptitude, but I’m convinced those were merely a function of the company losing its soul.
It’s worth asking the question, ‘what were the leaders of that smaller company thinking?’ Why weren’t they happy being who they were? Did they really think they would be happier and more successful by emulating their larger competitor?
Some might say they needed to abandon their culture in order to survive. I don’t think so. As an insider, I can say that it seemed a lot more like those leaders simply got caught up in the drive for more. More notoriety. More attention. More approval from investors. Ironically, they ended up with less.
The moral here is extremely simple, and yet so easy to forget. Whether you’re a consumer tempted to keep up with the Joneses, a teenager hoping to fit in and be cool, or a CEO wanting to outdo a competitor, it’s always critical to understand the positive qualities that make you unique, and embrace them.
Most healthy companies, and people, are grateful to be who they are.
Their customers and friends are, too.