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Leaning Into Unfair Advantage

Understanding one's personal and professional 'unfair advantage' accelerates growth and satisfaction, yet few do it.

An industry friend of mine noted that the challenges we face in scaling our organizations is often directly tied to how we think about personal and organizational development, and the strategies that one develops as part of that.

One concept I feel many fail to recognize is that of 'unfair advantage.' The very idea of unfair advantage sounds pretty horrible, right?  Sure, in some contexts it may be, but more often than not an unfair advantage, recognized and utilized can create differentiation and accelerate professional growth.

As an individual, an unfair advantage might be a personal skill that is unique to you and might be the reason why one would be selected on a project vs. another individual.

As a business, having an ‘unfair advantage’ becomes even more important as an organization scales.  If an organization doesn’t have an area in which it excels, it’s largely a commodity business waiting to be disrupted.  It is really important that one know what their unfair advantages are, so that they can take advantage of and leverage them.  On an individual basis this can tie to one’s personal brand.  At a company, it needs to be a core part of long-term strategy.

Many organizations and individuals will have 'unfair advantages' that shift over time. When I think about my past role at Credit Karma, I saw an organization that evolved its unfair advantage:

Early Stage:  In the early stage, Credit Karma's 'unfair advantage' was that it was relatively small and unknown, allowing it to license data from credit bureaus and develop a business model that competed directly with many in the space.

Mid Stage:  Soon, the company found a value prop <-> messaging <-> mass channel formula that allowed it to become synonymous with the idea of 'credit score' and created a moat in that competitor response rates couldn't break through the saturation Credit Karma had in market

Later Stage:  Data asset.  At 100M+ members, Credit Karma now has the ability to develop models enabling them to develop personalized strategies that help members make financial progress. Very very few organizations have such rich data and permission to use it to make recommendations that help members. That scale now reinforces the moat.

Organizations today have unfair advantages. I work with an organization with flawless, fast-paced execution as its unfair advantage. Their strategy isn't particularly novel - in fact, they play in a relatively commodity space with competitor 'investor day' decks articulating their multi-year strategy.  This organization is largely playing a variant of competitor strategies but executing at a far greater pace, stealing share. That said, the company hammers its values with all employees.  They have lock-step alignment around what needs to get done, and by when. Everyone moves quickly.

Netflix's early unfair advantage was its culture. The infamous culture deck managed expectations clearly and allowed teams to take ownership, experiment and move far more quickly than others. While this culture likely persists today, they've certainly evolved their unfair advantage.

When it comes to personal unfair advantage, too often individuals try to be perfect at everything, or feel they must be capable of 'doing it all.'  In reality, the most successful lean into their unique hard-to-replicate strengths, delegating parts of their job they're not as effective or passionate about.

Once, in working with a career coach, a colleague noted they lacked the 'steely executive presence' most in the C suite at the company had. They feared that their informal, joking, 'family like' team style would prevent them from success. In reality, they failed to recognize that their ability to develop a family-like team culture where all were on the same page and anyone would go out of their way to help others was their unfair advantage!  

Their team was one of the most successful in the organization as a result of this. Instead of guiding the colleague on their 'executive presence' their coach rightfully advised they lean into this strength and use it to further scale.

I encourage you to think about your personal ‘unfair advantage.’  It’s not always obvious.  What makes you different and special?  What gives you a leg up?  Once you know that, think about how you can amplify it. Then, delegate the parts of the job where you are less successful or passionate.  You'll be happier and more successful as a result.

About the Author

Mark Fiske

Operating Partner focused on digital & marketing strategies at H.I.G. Growth Partners. Helping growth-stage organizations scale for 15+ years. Focused on developing pragmatic, scalable solutions.

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