Networking how-to: collaborate with your competitors

Last week, I shared ideas and insights on how to build a referral partner team to help grow your business and career success. In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I held a meeting with business owner and executive coach, Adrienne Milics, who I want to include in my referral partner team. We formed and stormed ideas for two hours while having coffee at Panera Bread. (networking tip: get out of the office at least once per week to network with external people)

Meeting your competition

I recall the first time that I met Adrienne Milics. It was at LIMRA International  headquarters in Windsor, CT . We were both auditioning to be accepted as instructors in their executive development program. Adrienne was showcasing her Developing Leadership Presence program and I was introducing my Powerful Presentations two-day workshop. I arrived early and was able to observe the last 10 minutes of her audition. She stayed late and observed the first segment of my audition. We had exchanged pleasantries and business cards during the break, so we had the contact information we needed to get in touch with each other afterward. (networking tip: always exchange business cards with people you meet, even competitors)

You can both win

Truth be told, we were both competing for the same opportunity. LIMRA was only going to select a few new programs and instructors to add to their offering. As it turned out we both were selected. We agreed to be each others’ understudy and to cross train in each others’ programs in case of scheduling conflicts or illness. Boy was that a fortuitous action, as Adrienne ended up filling in for me on key program commitments while I was undergoing cancer treatment last spring.

We do similar things for similar people, only differently

On the surface, Adrienne and I do very similar things. We both offer presentation training workshops and 1:1 presentation coaching to mid-size and large corporations. We both offer executive coaching services to corporate leaders and their “high potential talent.”  On the surface, you could say that we are competing for the same clients with the same kind of work.

But as we got to know each other better, we discovered wonderful nuances and differences in our work. Our background and training is very different. We have different strengths. Our personalities and styles are different. It is for these reasons that we team together so well.

In fact, Adrienne and I have co-facilitated several workshops, referred clients to each other, and even coached each other, giving constructive feedback for our own professional development and business growth.

A wonderful change in the relationship

Somewhere along the line we shifted from competitors to collaborators to referral partners. I asked Adrienne if she would give her perspective on our relationship and the subject of collaboration vs. competition. Here’s what she had to say (I bolded the bits that I found most illuminating):

 “Getting to know Kathy and having the opportunity to work with her as a colleague over the past five years has been a rich source of learning for me. The learning has come not simply from exposure to Kathy’s excellent content and techniques for presentations and networking, but more importantly from a key realization about my own attitude toward “competition”.

When I first met Kathy, I do remember thinking of us as “competitors” in that we had some overlapping areas of expertise, particularly in the domains of executive presentation skills and communication. I found thinking of her as a competitor put me slightly on the defensive, most likely a product of years of social and business conditioning to think that in order for someone to win, someone else must lose. That of course is certainly true in many areas ranging from sports to winning contract awards.

However, as a solo-preneur without the advantage of company colleagues, I have grown to appreciate that because of our overlapping areas of expertise, Kathy and I have been able to provide back up for each other when life events have come up. We also have been able to collaborate on client programs, tapping into broader areas of our individual talents and expertise beyond our overlap areas.

What I have learned is that moving from a mindset of competition to collaboration has been a win not only for Kathy and me, both more importantly, a win for our clients, as well.”

-Adrienne Milics, MBA, PCC, Executive Coach (http://www.linkedin.com/in/adriennemilics)

Sports versus Business

Sports has trained us that someone has to win while the other loses. That’s the way we have defined the game. There can be only one team that wins the Superbowl and only one athlete that takes home the Olympic Gold per event.

But in contrast to sport, the goal in business is to create as much value for as many people as possible. Businesses also want that value to last for a long as possible, not just for the immediate moment. I believe that collaboration is a fundamental part of winning in business and in life. Do you agree?

Benefits

By adopting a collaborative mindset, you too can enjoy these benefits in business and career:

  • Your sphere of influence grows when you collaborate with your industry peers versus compete with them;
  • There’s enough business for everybody. If you shift your thinking from a mindset from ‘scarcity‘ to a mindset of ‘abundance‘ you will discover how to make the pie bigger for everyone;
  • You grow and development more personally and professionally when you collaborate with others and learn from their experience and expertise;
  • You become more valuable to your clients and your company as a skilled collaborator than as a fierce competitor;
  • You can make and receive more opportunities for yourself and others when you collaborate;
  • In my opinion, it’s more fun to collaborate than to compete with others.

Keep in mind that when you collaborate with others you may be developing a relationship that will become significant to you in the future, as is the case with Adrienne Milics and me. This “competitor” who you are collaborating with could be your future boss, your future hire, your future client, your future business partner, your future mentor or mentee, and your future and forever friend. Now, that’s winning!

Your Networking Goal for the Week

Make a short list of your friendly competitors. Identify individuals that you know that work for these competing firms. Reach out to say hello and schedule some time with them on the telephone or in person. Your goal is to get to know them better and explore potential synergies. Find out more about their background, their expertise, what they enjoy most in their work; what kind of clients they prefer working with (and what a dud client for them looks like). Now, share the same information about you (being careful NOT to exchange confidential information or anything that would be perceived by others as improper or illegal). Explore areas where you might be able to collaborate together and help each other. Ask yourself the question: could this person be a future referral partner for me and my business? If so, how might you go about developing that relationship?

If you are struggling with the idea of getting close to your competitors, try this exercise. Think about wearing one of two hats on your head. Hat #1 is your competitive hat. When you wear this you have a win-lose approach to doing business and you want to win. Hat #2 is your collaboration hat. When you wear this hat, you are less threatened and more open to other people’s ideas and new possibilities. You listen better. You focus on building win-win-win solutions. You are more relaxed and ready to do business in cool new ways. Which hat are you wearing right now?

 

About the writer: Kathy McAfee is known as America’s Marketing Motivator and is author of the book Networking Ahead for Business (Kiwi Publishing 2010). In her role as Executive Presentation Coach and Professional Speaker, Kathy helps her clients to become the recognized leaders in their fields by mastering the art of high engagement presentations, more effective networking and personal marketing. To learn more about Kathy, visit her web site MarketingMotivator.net.  If you like this tip and want to receive free networking tips on a weekly basis, please sign up at NetworkingAhead.com

 

 

 

 

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