The Decisive Advantage

In any kind of high stakes competition, whether for your clients or for your own career, it's VITAL to have a decisive advantage over the competition. Warren Buffet calls in the Durable Competitive Advantage. Michael Porter calls it Competitive Advantage. Regardless of the phrasing, the concept is the same:

NEVER compete in a competition where you don't have a major advantage over the competition.

(I suggest re-reading that last sentence 3 times.... most people, including most CEOs I know, do not grasp that point)

Having taught this point to thousands of CEOs across the United States and to tens of thousands of aspiring management consultants, the most common question I get asked is, "How do I figure out what's my decisive advantage?"

This is THE critical question.

Before I answer this, let me review WHY determining your decisive advantage is so important. It determines two factors in any effort: 1) the amount of effort required, 2) the likelihood of a positive outcome.

When you have a decisive advantage, the amount of work required drops substantially and the likelihood of success goes up considerably.

Yet despite this common sense rule of thumb, few people actually consider whether or not they possess a decisive advantage in deciding whether or not to compete or deciding how to compete.

One reason for this is many people are simply unaware of their own decisive advantage.

So let me address HOW you can figure out what your advantage is over everyone else.

To start, it's actually very hard for you to notice your own unique talent, gift or ability that's the underlying basis for your distinctive advantage. A part of the problem is most people take for granted their gifts... because often you've never known life without it!

For example, if someone told you that you're a gifted listener. If you're like most people, you won't think of this is as a gift or an advantage over other people because you've never known what it was like to NOT be such a good listener. You're just too accustomed to your own gifts.

The key to discovering your own gift is to realize you need to see yourself through the eyes of the people around you.

For managing your own career, this means asking friends, families and colleagues what makes you special or different from others? It means asking your boss, why did you hire me vs everyone else?

It means asking your parents, what were the 1 or 2 things you did as a child that was unique or better than other kids of the same age?

I often encourage my corporate clients to under a similar self assessment -- to determine what they're company's decisive advantage in the marketplace. I have them call up their top 10 clients and ask them a simple, but revealing question.

WHY do you continue to do business with us?

If all 10 clients give the same reason, THAT is the company's decisive advantage in that market.

You would think that most companies would naturally know the answer to this question. But in many cases they don't. That's because a decisive advantage is a RELATIVE comparison.

Even if you know your own abilities at an absolute level, you don't always have a clear sense of the abilities of your competition. Without the benchmark, it's hard to figure out your relative advantage or disadvantage.

What I find interesting about one's decisive advantage is that it's fairly persistent through time. For example, about 4 years ago I worked with a friend and colleague of mine Rob Berkley, an executive coach, to figure out my own gifts and talents. www.visionday.com

He had me ask my friends, families and co-workers many of the questions I've outlined above. In total, I asked 10 people to describe what they thought my #1 talents or gifts were.

The two themes that came up over and over again were:

  1. Clarity of Thought
  2. Good at explaining / teaching things

I had a few reactions:

  1. It was surprising to me that other people thought my thinking was particularly clear. I mean my thinking is just my thinking. My thinking has been clear to me, but I just assumed everyone else's thinking was just as clear. But, it turns out all of my family, friends and former co-workers disagree. While I don't think my own thinking is that clear, apparently on a relative basis it is.
  2. I never saw myself as a teacher. Yet, everyone else did. In high school, I was always the guy helping everyone else pass their college entrance. (They all did well!). In college, I was teaching financial planning and retirement planning to my friends studying sciences. I even help them setup their retirement accounts at the age of 19 years old. It didn't seem like that big a deal to me at the time, but apparently to others this was not the norm.
  3. Finally, 100% of the replies were more or less IDENTICAL. In short, everybody I asked thought "clarity" and "teaching" were my gifts... EXCEPT ME!

So here I was truly shocked by the answer, and all of my friends are shocked that I'm shocked.

I get a lot of emails from my readers about Case Interviews that are very consistent with the feedback from my friends. So even though at some level I don't quite believe, the qualitative data strongly suggests that I'm a clear thinker that can teach.

It's a hypothesis I try to, but can't seem to, disprove, and thus I reluctantly accept it as true even though it contradicts my historical self image.

So the way to identify YOUR gifts and talents... which in turn is the source of your decisive advantage... is to ask OTHER PEOPLE what they think is your gift or talent.

The next step in the process is to have the COURAGE to avoid competitions where you have no advantage, and to pursue competitions where you DO have a DECISIVE ADVANTAGE.

For example, as a small business owner and a consultant that works with other small businesses, I come across a LOT of opportunities for investment, markets to get into, etc. It seems with every speech or article I write, someone suggests a business opportunity tied to that.

I have created a rule for myself. It is the same rule I apply to my corporate clients when advising them on company strategy.

Here's the general rule of thumb, followed by how I apply it to my own career.

NEVER ENTER A MARKET WHERE
YOU DON'T HAVE A DECISIVE ADVANTAGE.

The Corollary is:

Get OUT of any market that you're ALREADY in,
where you have no decisive advantage

(Note: This is very hard to do emotionally)

As it applies to myself, I turn down ALL business, investment, product-extension, and customer segment opportunities where my ability to have clear thinking and be a good teacher is not relevant and doesn't provide an edge in serving customers.

For example, I would never operate a McDonalds franchise because my talents in clear thinking and teaching provide very little competitive advantage. It's unlikely that a McDonalds restaurant in my control would be dramatically more successful than one run by someone else.

Another example, I realize one of my competitive disadvantages is that I'm not particularly creative or inventive. I'm a much better improver than I am an inventor. So I stay away from opportunities where inventiveness is the key to success.

Again, my strengths in clarity and teaching don't provide any edge. It took my several years and huge financial losses to learn this lesson the hard way. That being said, I often work with clients that are great inventors and innovators -- forcing them to have clarity in which market segment to focus on or teaching them how to build a business around a core invention or innovation.

I do consider accepting invitations to join the boards of directors -- because my strong suit in clarity is useful here. But there are many roles in charities that I decline because I'm not very well suited for -- namely anything involving lots of details, extensive coordination, complex scheduling, etc.

It is for the same reason that most of the people I do hire are very good at details--precisely because I'm not, and I know I'm not.

As you can see, seeing your own career and the world around you through the lens of distinctive advantage leads you to make different strategic decisions -- about your life, your career (and the businesses of your clients).

It's a useful perspective to keep in mind and one that I encourage you to adopt.

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23 comments… add one
  • Ravi Apr 30, 2012, 8:39 pm

    Very nice article. I guess in a corporate ladder, it gets difficult to perform self-evaluation, especially at senior positions. But I absolutely agree with getting out of non-Decisive Advantage situation.

  • jorge May 1, 2012, 12:22 am

    Thank you for sharing wisdom! Many young people like me reading your emails are trying to find out how to best contribute to the world while making a living. It is the most difficult question to answer and it takes years to answer and re-answer.

  • Nthabiseng May 1, 2012, 1:05 am

    Wow! What an eye opener. Thank you for sharing this with me. It comes at the right time where I am thinking of changing careers.
    Nthabiseng – South Africa

  • aditi May 1, 2012, 1:07 am

    V well put. Though its a very theoretil thing but you have actually shown how to use it in reality.thanks

  • Vinod May 1, 2012, 3:12 am

    As usual, another great article Victor!
    I have a question though. How will you differentiate between decisive advantage and comfort zone? It is always suggested to break out of comfort zone. How both these apparently contradictory statements can be true at the same time?

  • Marina May 1, 2012, 3:24 am

    three words: become good listener

  • Sylvia May 1, 2012, 8:24 pm

    Hey, Victor! Upon receiving this article, I immediately forwarded it to some of my close friends asking them about my competitive edge. Actually I got the same answer as you: clear logic, nice teaching skill, plus the appearance (I don’t want to bring this up but it ended up ranking first on the list…). I am now a junior majoring in accounting, and the reason that I chose accounting is not I am good at doing it. Instead, my character has nothing to do with a patience and good self-control. But my definition of competitive edge is somewhat different: I think competitive edge should be those skills not required by the job. So other than facing the harsh competition on hard skill directly, you have something that is really special standing out from the crowd. What do you think of it?

  • Victor Cheng May 1, 2012, 11:07 pm

    Vinod – working outside your comfort zone is how you grow your skills or the magnitude of your advantage. However, it makes sense to focus on a line of work where you already have an advantage.

    Sylvia – I tend to disagree. It’s best if your advantage is the MOST critically needed skill or talent for the job, not the least required skill. If you have super human patience, then you want to work with people who are entirely unreasonable – because you can handle it (toddlers, felons, the mentally challenge). Its impossible to do those jobs without exceptional patience. I’m not suggesting you actually do that, just trying to illustrate te point.

    Even if you don’t have a decisive advantage, it can still make sense to work in a field temporarily. A lot of people work in consulting fully realizing they don’t have a good long term fit. The key is to avoid wasting time when the fit is poor. If the fit is reasonable but not exceptional, then you might adjust your time in that field accordingly.

    However, there are switching costs involved. Once you go down a path, it is much harder to exit the path than to avoid it in the first place. For example, once you attend medical school, it’s very hard to avoid becoming a doctor.

  • Adam May 2, 2012, 7:18 am

    “However, there are switching costs involved. Once you go down a path, it is much harder to exit the path than to avoid it in the first place. For example, once you attend medical school, it’s very hard to avoid becoming a doctor.”

    I completely agree with this. Having bachelors and masters degrees completed in business information technology and various industry certifications it is very difficult to avoid the path of going on to become an IT Director or senior IT Director. The financial switching costs would not be the most significant but rather it would be the time. I have a decisive advantage in my field in so far as my experience and qualifications and education allows me, in comparison to my competition at any one point in time. Providing I advance my core knowledge, experience, and skill set at a faster rate that my competitors in any one business period (cycle) my decisive advantage should be improving continually over time. In a field such as this shifts in technology can however erode one advantages quickly from a professional skill set perspective. Personal aptitudes for technology and business excellence however is a decisive advantage which should remain constant as in Victor’s example above over time. Great article!

  • Francisco May 2, 2012, 8:01 pm

    I think the decisive advantage goes along with the learning process each individual faces in the pursuit of a professional carreer and a better life. Perhaps, the decisive advantage concept can be correlated with Steve Jobs´famous quote and speech at Leland Stanford Jr. University :” you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”
    Steve Jobs 2005

  • Teresa May 7, 2012, 12:53 pm

    Hi Victor,

    I’ve been a big fan of your work and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your emails for some time now.

    As per your advice, I had gone ahead and resent your email to about 5 of my closest friend/colleagues and family, expecting to be surprised by their unanimous answers. To my surprise, each of them came back with two answers, and each answer has been different! So now I have 10 different answers from 5 people and absolutely zero statistical significance!

    As you can imagine, I’m a bit confused. It would be great if you could kindly provide some insights on this.

    cheers,

    Teresa

  • Victor Cheng May 7, 2012, 2:54 pm

    Teresa – That’s an interesting situation. I’m wondering even though you got 10 different answers, if there are a fewer number of underlying themes that run through the answers.

    Sometimes people give overly specific thoughts whereas for our purposes we want a higher level, generalized idea instead.

    If you’re up to it, feel free to post the 10 answers here and when I get a chance I’ll try to work through it. I think it would be helpful for other to see the process unfold.

    Victor

  • Victor Cheng May 7, 2012, 2:55 pm

    Also a useful book to get is Strengths Finders 2.0. It includes a code in the book for an online personal strengths evaluation which is a useful data point in addition to asking friends, family and colleagues their thoughts on your unique gifts and talents.

  • Irene Jun 8, 2012, 12:06 pm

    Hi Victor,

    I just used Strengths Finders 2.0 and it turns out my five strenghths are intellection, harmony, consistency,context and learner. I read the action plans behind the each strength, but I still got confused that what career I should pursue. I have a bachelor degree in logistics and master degree in hospitality information management. I am good at with dealing with people, loving thinking and got motivated by constantly new challenges. Would you kindly provide some insights? Thank you!

    Best,

    Irene

  • Victor Cheng Jun 9, 2012, 9:49 am

    Irene,

    It’s hard to tell just by your strengths finder profile. What do your friends and family say about what your long-time gifts and talents are?

    Victor

  • Irene Jun 9, 2012, 11:30 am

    Hi Victor,

    My family and friends thought I am “obedient, kindhearted, honest, persistent, courageous and considerate”. Well, there is something in common between the answers I get and my strengths finder profile. But I sill got stuck with career choices……I guess what really made me worried about is whether I would make a “right” choice instead of the specific choice.

    I took a lot of personality tests such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment to try to know myself better and the I can make the “right” choice in terms of career choice. It seems I will not know whether it is gonna be right unless I actually take the first step. What do you think of it? Thank you so much for replying my post!

    Best,

    Irene

  • Victor Cheng Jun 9, 2012, 11:51 am

    Irene,

    Your famil described personality traits. Did they have anything to say about skills, gifts or talents?

    For example, do you draw, sing, run, do physics unusually well – that kind of thing?

    Also if you had unlimited money, what would you do with your time?

    For others reading this thread, this process also applies to you.

    Victor

  • Tony Lew Jun 11, 2012, 11:51 pm

    I think that depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to be an all-round person you may want to try to improve on stuff you suck at. I think completely ignoring it makes you suck at it even more than you already do.

  • Yify Jun 18, 2012, 8:23 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Just some questions here regarding the importance of attention to detail in strategy consulting.

    If you begun your career at Mckinsey as a business analyst, I imagine that you had to have done work where attention to detail either made or broke your reputation. Although a “decisive advantage” in this is probably unnecessary, I would still think that attention to detail becomes critical in any entry-level position where analyzing large amounts of data becomes a daily task.

    This brings me to my 2 questions:
    1. How important is attention to detail in MBB consulting?
    2. If the magnitude of importance is above 50% comparative to other business careers, how and what did you do to improve your attention to details while at Mckinsey?

    My reason for asking these question is to prepare for hopefully a career in strategy consulting. Since I too have been told that my “decisive advantage” is in clarity of thought and effectiveness in explaining these thoughts (although still much less than your abilities in these areas), I have recently switched from a banking/finance track to strategy consulting. As my goal lies in working at MBB, I was just interested to know if and how much I should work on my lack of attention to details.

    Thank you so much for your time,
    Yify

    P.S. Your LOMS stuff is extremely helpful and I have already improved tremendously thanks to it. Do you know how and where I can access your “case practice group” to practice cases with others on your site? Do you provide feedback to these case practices?

  • Victor Cheng Jun 19, 2012, 1:03 pm

    Yify,

    When it comes to details, there are two aspects of this skill that are useful in consulting:

    1) Recognizing what is important (and what can safely be ignored without major consequence)

    2) Thorough thinking + never making a math mistake

    The first is a learned judgment where frequent use of the 80/20 rule and making quick estimates helps you figure out if the details you are considering will “change the answer” regarding the case’s conclusion or recommendation.

    The second is a function of caring + time. If you want to be thorough, put in the time and energy and be thorough. If you don’t really care if you’re thorough, no additional time will matter much.

    -Victor

  • Yify Jun 19, 2012, 6:03 pm

    Thanks Victor!

  • Shim Jul 5, 2012, 12:28 pm

    Seems to me that “Decisive Advantage” could result from innate abilities (hence asking parents for feedback ), or maybe learned competencies ( the ten thousand hour advantage of early starters ). But at what level should one be looking to identify these ? – Personality aspects, thinking styles, decision making approaches, physical capabilities (sports), other talents or specific skills/abilities picked up through education+practice ( ex: accounting knowledge, programming skill in Java, six sigma statistics, powerpoint presentation making ) ? Is there a good place to pick up a comprehensive but mutually exclusive list of abilities/competencies to correctly ascertain one’s decisive advantage ?

    • Victor Cheng Jul 5, 2012, 1:00 pm

      Shim,

      I don’t know of a comprehensive list. A good place to get some, but by no means complete, set of data points is the books Strengths Finder 2.0. It includes an online assessment. Generally most people, myself included, find the results of strengths finders 2.0 correlates with their ultimate “ah ha” discovery of their own talents, but often that alone isn’t enough to spark the insight.

      Also, I find innate ability and 10,000 hours learned abilities are often correlated. If one has perfect pitch hearing, chances are higher that as a child one might learn to play an instrument because its comparatively easy relative to other kids.

      In terms of timing, it’s never too early to start looking for signs. I’m observing my 8 year old daughter and I find that she’s very creative both from a design/creation standpoint and from a solving life problems standpoint. She grasps complex concepts (business ones) very easily and her logical reasoning is very sharp (which does not make my wife happy in an argument with her). But her math computation is much, much weaker by comparison. As parents, that observation is very much influencing what we expose her to. For example, I plan to take her to an invention fair to see mechanical inventions. But, I probably wont be taking her to math olympics.

      Also, if you’re fairly early in your career, you might not discover THE big insight initially. But, you should still make every effort to try and see what you come up with. Perhaps you won’t have enough firm data to come to a solid conclusion, but you might have enough to have strong hypotheses… that might get proven out over the next few years.

      If you have the thought that X MIGHT be your strong suit, that observation helps you look for confirming signs of this over the next few years.

      If you don’t do this, what more commonly happens is people obsess over their weaknesses. For example, if a student in school gets 4 F grades (50%) and 1 A grade (90%+), most parents and most kids think I’m a loser.

      I think, well thank goodness there’s at least ONE thing the kid is good at. So what did he or she get the A in.

      Same idea for those in the working world.

      If you get a review that says you’re lousy at X… the more important question is what is (1 – X)? Or the part you were exceptional at? Pay Attention to THAT… especially if THAT matches your strong working hypothesis of what you suspect your strong suit is.

      Finally, I would say the to look for a decisive advantage, look one layer beneath the job skills level. So if you’re strong in Java programming, you want to go one layer deeper and ask yourself WHY are you good in Java programming.

      For example, most exceptional Java developers I know if you give them 3 – 6 months, they can be exceptional C++ developers too. There is an UNDERLYING skill that makes mastering programming EASY… THAT underlying skill is the one you want to grasp, not only how that talent is currently MANIFESTED.

      The reason why this is important is because those underlying skills can often by manifested in other, less common, less obvious, ways. If you think Java is your talent, it won’t prompt you to consider what other fields or career options exist that use the UNDERLYING skills set that makes Java easy for you.

      -Victor

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