Corporate Warfare: What Is It Good For?

Competition has its benefits, but can corporate warfare create a toxic environment that pushes employees away and creates losses?

I met for coffee the other day with a former colleague who told me that in light of a recent spate of employee departures to a non-competitor (who, although not competing for business, was a competitor for talent), the CEO had declared war on that company. This did not sit well with the former colleague, who felt it to be petty, immature, and ineffective, and it got me thinking about times in my career when the theme of going to war was used by CEOs to inspire and focus the troops (so-to-speak).

At one company where I worked, we had a war-room, complete with camouflage netting on the walls and toy tanks, toy guns, and army helmets on the conference table. At another company, we were forbidden to have any interaction with companies viewed by the CEO as competitors for our talented staff.

While I understand the thinking on the part of the CEO – to engage and focus employees around a common cause, to give it shape, and to conjure up an image of an adversary – I wonder at the effectiveness of waging war as a tactic.

In the case of the company with the war-room, we never took ourselves seriously and spent more time playing with the toys than trying to wage war with our competitors. We focused solely on what we needed to do to be successful with our products, services, and organization, and this served us well. We grew, became highly profitable, and redefined and grew the market and our market share. In reality, we really didn’t need a war room nor a war theme. We did have some fun though.

Declaring and waging war by badmouthing competitors and by restructuring employee access, just doesn’t seem to make much sense any more, if it ever did. We live in an interconnected world. We all have friends working at other companies who are competitors both in business and for talent. We utilize our judgment daily in terms of what the boundaries are for sharing and exchanging information with one another.

Sometimes we may err, such as when a proud contributor to a new product under development innocently shares some product data on Facebook. I’ve seen this happen. In one company, the individual who did this was publicly humiliated, made to write a letter of apology to the entire company, and of course, take down the post.

In another company, the individual who did this was coached on when and what to share, and congratulated on their new product accomplishment.

One of the above two individuals quit their company shortly thereafter; the other stayed on and was promoted multiple times.

The reality is that employees don’t want to hear that the companies their friends, mentors, and family work for are enemies. They don’t want to hear that conversations with people at those employers are verboten. They don’t want to hear that if found mingling with competitor employees, their employment may be terminated. They don’t want to be forced to leave a position, a department, or a company if their spouse or significant other is working for a competitor.

What they do want is to contribute, to learn, to grow, be successful, and be a good corporate and societal citizen.

Some of the learning will come from talking with others in the industry.

Case in point. When I headed up HR for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, I reached out to all of the heads of HR for the other major public pension plan asset managers across Canada to explore the possibility of our meeting semi-annually to share best practices, increase our knowledge and understanding of the asset management space, and to help one another in addressing issues common to us all.

Although fierce competitors for scarce investment management talent, we all realized the tremendous benefits to be gained by coming together and making peace, not war. We still competed fiercely for talent; however, we found many other areas in which we could share information and help our organizations to be better.

Eight years later, that gathering of Pension Plan HR leaders still takes place, rotating semi-annually from Ontario to B.C., with the different pension plans taking turns in hosting the event. And the CEOs of these companies think so highly of the event that they speak regularly as part of the learning process for the Heads of HR.

Organizations have an increasingly tenuous hold on their talent. They can attract talent fairly easily based on role, opportunity, and compensation. What keeps employees, though, is trust in leadership, leaders who live the organization’s core values, and leaders who in turn trust and empower the employees. How to show that trust?

Well, waging war on other Companies and restricting employees from staying connected is likely not the way to go about doing this.

If your organization is constantly referring to the enemy, restricts promotions and positions on the basis of whether a spouse or significant other works for a competitor, and distances itself from, rather than embracing, the opportunities afforded by collaborating, then your organization is losing out.

Corporate warfare – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

This post originally appeared on David Wexler’s LinkedIn blog on June 18, 2015. We’ve reprinted it here with his permission.

David Wexler

David Wexler is a human capital strategist and executive coach who partners with executives, boards, and colleagues to build market leading organizations. He has worked for FreshBooks, Syncapse, EA Sports, Alias Systems, and may other companies. Currently he runs his own consulting business in Toronto.