Losing Graciously...Even While Being Intensely Competitive

Success requires that you try a lot of things.

Trying a lot of things means you're going to lose. A lot.

If you don't lose gracefully, you'll be burning many future bridges. And you'll harbor resentment. And that turns you into a human that nobody wants to be around.

I could probably just leave those three paragraphs as is and call it a day, but there's more I want to say. I'll start by highlighting my own failings on this subject. I'm an intensely competitive person, and this quote by Andrew Wilkinson really resonates with me:

"Most successful people are just an anxiety disorder harnessed for productivity.”

I just hate losing. I mean really hate it. I take it too personally, even though I'm a really confident competitor. Half of the sales calls I take inevitably drift toward me saying something like this: "Hey, I'd love to work with you, but we need to make sure it's a fit. Have you seen X's work in this field?" He has a slightly different approach, but consistently does good work. You probably owe it to yourself to check him out and at least connect for an initial conversation."

So the prospect does, and sure enough, picks him. And even though I'm the one who steered the decision, it pisses me off.

That happened recently. I spent 45 minutes talking with a prospect. It seemed like a great fit, to me. But two weeks later, unprompted by me, I received an email from her: "Thanks for the recent call, but I'm going to keep doing more research to find a great fit for me."

That statement is entirely reasonable, and it's exactly what the prospect should have done, but it still angered me because I knew in my bones that I was the right fit. It took quite an effort to not respond with some snarky reply, and it so unsettled me that I couldn't trust my instincts enough to write something kind at all, so I just didn't respond and let it sit.

Then three weeks later she hired me and we had a very fruitful engagement. I then introduced her to another client of mine, who—after six months of negotiation that I led—purchased her firm for an eight-figure sum.

That experience is a proxy for how losing is supposed to happen. It's supposed to be done gracefully (something I couldn't muster at the time), and you know this is true, too.

I can almost guarantee that you've experienced something similar to the above. You grit your teeth and respond to an RFP, against your better judgment. You knew there were other firms responding to the same one, including the incumbent, but you didn't know the specifics. You hate RFPs but you needed the work and so you did the little stupid dance, played along, and kept your fingers crossed.

After an interminable time period, you heard through the grapevine that you didn't get the job. Fair enough—maybe it wasn't a great fit. But then you heard who was awarded the $900k project and your mouth hung open in shock. Really? Marketing-R-Us got it? The folks where everyone hates to work? The folks whose messes we have to keep cleaning up?

But instead of firing off a snarky email, you send a gracious response, wishing them the best and expressing a continued interest in working with them some day in the future.

And then you wait. Probably two or three months. And sure enough, the prospect who spurned you wants to chat, out of the blue. They are wondering if you'll consider picking up the pieces in the explosion your competitor left behind. (Here's where you need to confess to being "that firm" that has also left some explosions in your wake.)

A few closing thoughts:

  • Pretend you have plenty of opportunity even when you don't. I don't mean lie about it, but rather respond out of an abundance (vs. scarcity) mentality.
  • Rewrite your responses many times, and even sleep on them. Then read it one last time as if you're ten years removed and proud of what you said.
  • Always assume that there's something going on that you don't know about. Something that would make the prospect's choice logical and appropriate.
  • Ask yourself what you can learn from this. Do you need to listen more? Is your personality getting in the way? Are you laying unfounded assumptions on top of each other until you wouldn't even recognize the truth if you knew it?
  • Think about how much you appreciated the way someone else "lost" when you didn't choose them, for whatever reason, and take that to heart.

And maybe flip the roles and do better at explaining why someone who was pitching you didn't get the job. But when you are fighting, you can be intensely competitive...and still lose graciously.

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