“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

Stay Competitive—and Keep Winning

Stay Competitive—and Keep Winning

Written by Hillary Kirtland


“I don't want to be just a face. I want to go out there and prove something on the field.”
—Jennie Finch, two-time Olympic medalist, Women’s Softball

I once asked a group of peers, colleagues, friends, and family to describe me. One word came up consistently and repeatedly: determined. I think this was everyone trying to call me competitive in a nice way. But saying someone is competitive—or determined—isn’t a bad thing. Society has just placed such a negative connotation on competition, forgetting that competition breeds real progress—and that power can be harnessed for good.

If you do it right, winning can benefit everyone, and no one should be ashamed of wanting a win. But when it comes to our professional lives, how do we “keep our eye on the ball” in the office—the right way?

It's simple. Stay competitive.

"To be the best, you have to constantly be challenging yourself, raising the bar, pushing the limits of what you can do. Don't stand still, leap forward.”
—Rhonda Rousey, Olympic bronze medalist in Judo & former UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion

Stay competitive with your learning.

On the field, learning means absorbing everything you can, trying out new things, and doing your best to keep improving. I tried out tons of new sports before finding a few I was actually good at. Set goals for yourself and reinforce good habits by showing up every day and putting them to work. You might find that what you learn in one sport you can take back to another and be all the greater for it. (Cross-training, anyone?)

In the office, learning means absorbing everything you can, trying out new things, and doing your best to keep improving. Sound familiar? Set goals for yourself and reinforce good habits by showing up every day and putting them to work. Sound really familiar? At work, just like in sports, "offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships." A great resume and personality will get you in the door, but your work ethic and quality of deliverables will add value to your work and contribute to your overall success.

“When I write a goal down—and I truly write them down—it becomes a part of me. That's a contract that I sign with myself to say, 'I don't care what happens—I'm going to stay on this path.'”
—Gail Devers, National Track and Field Hall of Fame and three-time Olympic Gold Medalist

Stay competitive with your work ethic.

On the field, work ethic means going to practice. It means blood, sweat and tears—and possibly other bodily fluids. Take the sore muscles—the scrapes and bruises, the ups and downs, and barely made its and almosts—just to get a fraction better than you were the day before. Apply what you learn the next time you’re “up to bat,” put in the time before the big game to earn your spot on the field, and when you get to play, it will look effortless. That’s where the magic truly lies.

In the office, work ethic isn’t quite as in-your-face. In fact, it is most likely much more subtle. A competitive work ethic in the office looks more like plugging in your headphones and focusing in on your computer screen, sacrificing the fun gossip by the water cooler in favor of the next-day victory. If you look at the client deliverable, final presentation, or new contract like the “big game,” you’ll put in the time you need beforehand and earn your spot on the field.

“I've worked too hard and too long to let anything stand in the way of my goals. I will not let my teammates down and I will not let myself down.”
—Mia Hamm, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA Women's World Cup champion

Stay competitive with your feedback.

On the field, listening to your coach and being open to feedback is critical to success. The coach has the most holistic view of the game and can provide more objective criticism than anyone else on the field. When I tried softball for the first time, I had no idea that “keep your eye on the ball” was actual advice. Go figure. Those were great notes to have before I put on my jersey and played for real. I had to learn how to listen, pivot and progress my abilities in all things. If you don’t, winning is damn near impossible.

In the office, feedback isn’t always a given like it is in sports. If you’re lucky enough to have a manager who has the time to invest in you, mentor you, and be engaged in your career, great. If not, you can be the master of your feedback. When I take on new assignments, I make sure to say things like: “This was my first time trying this, did I deliver what you expected?" or "Do you have any feedback?” Every time I’ve done so, I get honest, safe feedback.

Maybe your “office coach” isn’t obvious at first, but you can take the time to cultivate many coach-like relationships (you’ll figure out who they are in due time). Make sure you listen to them. The group you cultivate will have the most holistic view of your work and can provide more objective criticism than any other group in the company.

“I am lucky that whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.”
—Serena Williams, regarded as one of the greatest tennis player of all time

Stay competitive with your coaching.

On the field, coaching is hands-on. Many coaches started their careers in the trenches, and know what it’s like to be on the field, in the ring, or even on the bench. They can truly empathize with their teams and work with each player to develop them to their highest potential. Even if you’re the one standing on the sidelines and calling the plays, you matter just as much as those on the frontlines. You’re the glue that keeps the morale up when a game isn’t going as expected; you’re the strategist that outsmarts the competition. When I coached martial arts, my students always looked to me for instruction. By default, I intrinsically wanted to be deeply involved with each and every player to ensure everyone got their win. If they didn’t win, I didn’t win, either.

If you’re a manager in the office, you’re a coach. Like it or not, these people depend on you to perform to the best of their ability. You’re their leader; you’re the glue that keeps the morale up when a project isn’t going as expected; you’re the strategist that outsmarts the obstacles that arise. Everyone looks to you for direction and vision. Empathize with your employees, listen to their needs, develop each individual to their highest potential and get engaged in what matters—because when your team wins, so do you.

“I’ve thought of all the reasons why I might be the wrong person to do this. ‘You’re too small, you’re too this, you’re too that.' The truth is if I can change the game, literally, for any of those girls, it’s worth it. Because it’s really not about me. It’s about them and the future of the sport."
—Jen Welter, first female coach in the NFL

Sports come with a natural camaraderie and defined success metric: you either win or you lose, end of story. Realizing that I could apply this competitive approach to work changed everything about how I viewed life at the office. Work could be a game; it could be fun. I could define my own success metrics, think of my manager as my coach, and build my peers up with me so that we learned to depend on each other, just like sports teams do. The more fun, interactive and shared our experiences became, the more I simply enjoyed work and found that competing with myself was fun.

There really is something to taking even the smallest lessons off the field and into the office.

So, stay competitive—and keep winning.



Hillary works as a Senior Strategy Consultant at IBM. She found her passion for her new job in the two years she took off work to pursue a full-time, Global MBA degree at George Washington University in Washington DC. She is driven by her constant curiosity and her truest love is for travel and adventure. Outside work you can find her playing in two of the local DC kickball leagues, taking Jiu Jitsu, boxing, and yoga classes at her gym, reading a book, or binge watching a new show (Currently obsessing over Outlander, because Jamie). 

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