How does competitiveness influence our lives? Stéphane Garelli responds in a book full of humour and brimming with questions such as “Do we need to get up early?”, “How many friends do we need?” and “Do we need to be tigers to succeed?”
More than 30 million! That’s the number of hits you get, depending on the day, if you enter “competitiveness” in Google; the search engine returns more than 6 million results for the term in French. This particular branch of economics has well and truly invaded our daily lives. Everyone is talking about it: governments, businesses, media, etc. But what is it really all about? And how does it concern us?
Professor at the Faculty of Business and Economics at UNIL and the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), Stéphane Garelli has worked on questions concerning the competitiveness of nations and businesses for more than thirty years; he is also founder of IMD’s World Competitiveness Center.
To explain competitiveness to the general public and illustrate its importance in our everyday lives, this expert, who is considered a global authority on the subject, has just written a highly accessible book that is also full of humour entitled Etes-vous un tigre, un chat ou un dinosaure ? 100 questions sur comment la compétitivité influence votre vie (Are you a tiger, cat or dinosaur? 100 questions on how competitiveness influences your life), which shows that competitiveness is not just a matter for managers and company bosses but concerns us all.
You note that we talk a lot about competitiveness without always knowing what it means. So how would you define it?
Stéphane Garelli: Competitiveness is about successfully managing a set of resources and skills. Take Usain Bolt, an absolutely extraordinary sprinter: why is he so competitive? He’s a fast runner, it’s true. But he also has access to a good trainer, good stadium, good shoes, good dietician and perhaps someone too who helps him manage his mental state. In short, he has successfully managed a set of elements which have enabled him to make the difference. For a business or a country, it’s exactly the same: if you handle your resources and skills well and you do so better than others, you create more wealth than others. Many countries which had nothing have become wealthy: Singapore, Dubai or even Botswana, which is managing pretty well. Indeed, it is noticeable that even countries without natural resources, such as Japan, Hong Kong and Switzerland, have managed to work because they have had to create their own added value. In the meantime, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Nigeria, which should be the wealthiest countries in the world due to their natural resources, have dozed off a bit. There is therefore hope for all and no inevitability in this field. In my opinion anyone can succeed!
Is what is true of countries also true of people?
Yes! People must determine not only what their skills are but also their unique selling proposition. I often give my students this example: imagine that you are good at driving a car: do you necessarily want to become a taxi driver when there are thousands of other people who can drive well? The big mistake people make is opting for the field which they are good at. Being really good at something does not necessarily make you competitive. You also have to find out what makes you different. Everyone should examine their own life in this way. And we all possess something unique; we just have to find it.
It sounds like the discourse of personal development…
But it might well be! You know, people who succeed at being competitive have also succeeded mentally: they have a passion which they won’t give up, a desire to innovate, to share their dreams. All the great innovations, all the major successes come from people who have thought differently. If you have a logical, rational idea, someone will have had it before you. Take McDonalds: who would have thought that a restaurant where the customers have to fetch their food on a small plastic tray and eat it with their fingers would have been successful? Same goes with Ikea. Flat-pack furniture which you have to carry to your car and assemble yourself, only to discover that one screw is missing?! And it worked! The unthinkable has often been a hit!
In your book, you say that Switzerland is competitive because it’s boring. Does that mean that competitive people are boring?
No, not at all! It’s true that Switzerland is pretty good at being serious, predictable and prudent, even if successes such as Swatch or Nespresso show that it can also do things differently. Personally, I don’t trust serious people, it’s not normal (laughter)! Paul Valéry said: Serious-minded people have few ideas. People with ideas are never serious.” I think that is pretty much true. You have to take what you do seriously but you don’t necessarily have to take yourself seriously.
To be competitive, must you necessarily be a tiger?
ow we come to the title of the book… Tiger, cat, dinosaur, each has its own skills. When I’m asked the question, I reply that I am a dinosaur: that makes everyone relax! It’s true that at the start of your professional life, you often behave like a tiger: you are extremely mobile, ready to kill anything that moves, you work 60 hours a week and after work you go on trips and spend weekends with the company; your life is really the business. Then you get married, you buy a house, you have children and the tiger becomes a cat; you are as loyal as ever, still very mobile, but you live differently and want to go home at the weekend. So the cat becomes a dinosaur, totally immobile and above all interested in the work-life balance. What’s the dinosaur’s advantage? Often he holds the company memory. A business needs all three profiles but needs to consider them differently and needs to know when an employee moves from one to the other. Because if you say to a cat: “Good news! You’re being transferred to Uzbekistan!”, he will be very reticent, while the tiger will set off at once. If a company is not capable of managing that then it risks losing a lot of highly competent people.
Networking is all the rage. How many ‘friends’ do you need to be successful?
At least one, if it’s the right person. And moreover, if that’s the case, then usually you marry that person (laughter)! What I’m saying is that there is no point in having networks if you don’t know how to look after them properly. British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, asked himself if there were an optimum number of contacts we could manage. He started with a simple idea: how many greetings cards did a typical family send at Christmas twenty years ago. Dunbar arrived at a figure of approximately 150, which corresponds to the number of inhabitants in a village in the past, but also to the smallest unit in many armies or the number of employees beyond which businesses intuitively prefer to split off into a separate unit. It seems therefore that our minds cannot manage more than 150 individuals.
Too big a network on Facebook or LinkedIn is therefore useless?
Students in the United States have an average of 450 friends on Facebook. But how can you manage 450 contacts? You can’t manage them! What matters is the quality of the relationships rather than the number. Many people ask me to connect with them on LinkedIn, but I don’t even know who they are! At some point, you have to choose to manage what you can control and not make this type of network an instrument of prestige.
Do we have to get up early to be competitive?
Some people like to get up at 5:30 am to go jogging before heading for work. Others do not, like Churchill, who enjoyed splashing around in his bath until 11 o’clock. Napoleon or Margaret Thatcher, who slept for just five and a half hours a night, are readily cited, but there are people who need eight hours’ sleep. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! And it doesn’t stop you being good. We must stop thinking that the more you work, the better you are: it’s not true! It’s not the number of hours that counts but the quality of what you do. Besides, I think we should never tot up the number of hours’ work per week, but per month at the least and even perhaps per year to be able to make adjustments. There is no point staying at work if there is nothing to do; on the other hand, you have to be there when the company needs you. In the age of laptops and smartphones which allow you to work wherever you are, does it make sense to ask someone to be in the office eight hours a day? What is wanted is that you are accessible when you are needed. Of course not all jobs lend themselves to this type of management, but the so-called intellectual work could very well be done partly at the company and partly elsewhere. And this type of flexibility solves another problem: that of women in the company who, if they have children, cannot always work full-time, but need to manage their time so as to fetch children from school or look after them. It’s up to companies to adapt their structure.
It’s up to companies to adapt?
In my view yes, if they want to have the best talent. Why are many businesses today so sensitive to environmental and ecological issues? Because their employees are! Businesses must adapt to our development and our value systems, not the reverse. Competitiveness concerns all of us because we all have an impact on it. Even if we are quite small, we can make the difference. An African proverb which I’m very fond of goes: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, it’s because you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito!”
You say that we are all indispensable. In the end, that’s really quite good news…
Yes, isn’t it? We’re unique and indispensable. Above all, it’s others who must believe this. But that also means that we must know how to reinvent ourselves regularly; that’s a condition of success.
Some further reading
Êtes-vous un tigre, un chat ou un dinosaure? 100 questions sur commment la compétitivité influence votre vie (Are you a tiger, a cat or a dinosaur? 100 questions on how competitiveness influences your life). Stéphane Garelli, Editions Slatkine (2015).