business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Life is full of moments of humility. Frequently, when I’m exercising on my bicycle other riders zip by me, completely shattering my delusions of speed. (None of them on training wheels, thank goodness. At least, not yet.)

But here’s the thing: when that happens I always have two thoughts. First, I size up their sleeker bikes and professional-level clothing and remind myself that I’m not out there to race (but maybe I should trade up…) Second, I pedal harder, speed up and get a better workout.

That’s what competition and context does. Those forces remind us that we may not always be the best and push us to find ways to get better, stronger and faster.

I got thinking about that a week ago when I read an incredible article in the Washington Post about Steve Ballmer, the oft-criticized CEO of Microsoft, who recently announced his intention to retire. The article, detailing the company’s sluggish sales, began with an excerpt of an interview Ballmer did with Fortune in 2006. The interviewer asked Ballmer if he had an iPod.

“No, I do not. Nor do my children. My children - in many dimensions they’re as poorly behaved as many other children, but at least on this dimension I’ve got my kids brainwashed. You don’t use Google, and you don’t use an iPod.”

No doubt since 2006 Ballmer’s kids have been forbidden from using an iPhone, iPad, Facebook, Twitter and lord knows what else. And since they probably go to wonderful schools filled with the Zune-carrying/Bing searching children of other Microsoft executives, they probably have no idea what the rest of us are doing.

Kind of explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Sure, loyalty is fabulous, but think of what Ballmer might have learned if he simply let his children use Google. They might have found advantages or insights that all the professional competitive checkers at Microsoft have clearly been missing.

This article isn’t for Ballmer, but rather the rest of us because whether we admit it or not, we all do the same.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit far too many stores with excellent retailers who can rapidly find all the flaws at the competition that they manage to gloss over on their home turf. I’ve talked to too many manufacturers who can point out the shortcomings of a competitor’s product, marketing or supply chain, without seeing exactly the same problems in their own.

At those moments we are just like Ballmer and just like him we need to let the “kids” use an iPod. Just like him we need to let non-biased eyes (friends, neighbors and children) show us what we simply cannot see.

Kevin wrote last week of the danger of “breathing your own exhaust”—essentially getting too wrapped up in your own version of your own success. It's true -
context and competition really kill all the fun sometimes. Let’s be glad they do. Because that’s when we get better.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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