Winning the Head Race (Issue 494)

In which we are reminded that smaller competitors can beat bigger ones through better execution. Angelo Fausto Coppi, the dominant international cyclist in the late 1940s and early 1950s, once described his strategy as, “Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”

However, not (or not so much) in rowing where muscle mass and height typically overcome almost everything. High performance rowers tend to be tall and muscular, the increased drag of their weight more than offset by their explosive power and long stroke length.

The annual Head of the Charles race is a time trial, a race against the clock, lowest time wins through a grueling 3.2 mile course against gentle current and sometimes challenging winds. Weight and reach are expected to overcome youth and skill.

Except this year. One of the singles classes included a pair of  highly competitive arch rivals, Bob and Al (names changed) from “no love lost between them” neighboring boat clubs. Bob is 5’ 10” tall and weighs 150 pounds. His rival, Al, is well over 6’ tall and weighs over 200 pounds. Both men are serious mid-life rowers. They train year round and compete in many races.

In the words of one race fan, “Bob has to compete based on technique, efficiency, and better aerobic conditioning so that, on the last 1/3 of the course, when Al is dying, Bob can keep going and win. He is a very technical rower.”

A lesson here for those of us who sell against large, more deeply resourced rivals. We smaller fry don’t always win – there are times when sheer size and scale take the day. However, we don’t need to concede when larger rivals appear.

Sure, we can’t crush them with our size and breadth of services and we often can’t beat them on brand recognition. Like Bob, we can beat larger rivals by winning the “head” race – by being technically better in executing our sales strategies:

  • Better technique – better preparation, deeper knowledge of our clients’ challenges, higher mastery of solution, better ideas, better face-to-face conversational selling skills, better sales process.
  • Better efficiency – being more nimble, better able to customize, and more flexible.
  • Better conditioning – in selling, this is both “mental” conditioning and “physical” conditioning – the ability to out-last, out-work, and out-hustle sales people from competing larger companies.
  • Better focus – compete in the “races” (clients, prospects, situations) for which we’re best suited. (Bob competes more evenly in a longer race where his technical strengths match or exceed Bob’s physical strength.

This year, technically superior150-pound Bob came in almost two minutes faster than his heavy weight rival Al who, by the Eliot Bridge near the end of the course, was clearly gasping. A serious stern-kicking! Technique, efficiency, and conditioning overcame mass and reach. Yo, Bob!

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