Practice management: time to make some enemies

Competition is a good thing in business. We all know that it spurs
innovation, motivates staff and curbs complacency.

But what if your firm were to replace the concept of a competitor with that
of an enemy?
Could adopting a sworn enemy be a more effective business motivator compared to
taking on your regular competitors?

How do you characterise an enemy? It’s certainly not about intense but
professional rivalries. These are common. I’m thinking tanks on lawns and
muskets at dawn here.

Having enemies in business seemed to be more prevalent in the past. Cast your
mind back to bitter exchanges we saw over a decade or so ago between Burger King
and McDonald’s, where they regularly kicked lumps out of each other in public.

Think perhaps of Virgin Atlantic’s famous battle with British Airways over
Heathrow landing slots, in which frankly both sides came off worse.

Or when Microsoft and Apple fought themselves to a standstill over which was
first to come up with the idea of computer icons. Inevitably, this one ended
expensively in court, a goalless draw, with only the lawyers coming out winners.

But rather than explore more downsides, let’s think instead of the benefits.

Take, for example, when preparing a new business pitch. If your firm were up
against the enemy, the thought of losing it would undoubtedly produce a much
greater effort than taking on respected competitors.

One thing’s for sure, you’d certainly resist the temptation of wheeling out
the generic company presentation with only the potential client’s name changed
on the front. No, if it meant losing out to the enemy, you’d want to do your
best work, go the proverbial extra mile.

But what do partners at some of the UK’s larger practices think? Do these
firms foster enemies in order to motivate their partners and staff?

Jeremy Beard, partner at central London firm haysmacintyre, is not convinced
of the merits of picking enemies. “We would never seek to create an enemy for
competition’s sake. We avoid making enemies full stop. I don’t think that’s how
our profession works. We are often working with other advisers on transactions,
and we take the view that we need to be professional at all times.

“Personally, I also think that what goes around comes around. The way we
operate is that we would never create or indeed view any rival as an enemy. It’s
just not the way we think.

“Bear in mind that accountancy is a small market. Staff move around, and
partners too, to a lesser extent. Often people in private practice move into
client roles and vice versa. We have a lot to lose if we had enemies.”

Beard’s view was echoed by Nick Bennett, a partner with Edinburgh and Glasgow
firm Scott-Moncrieff.
Bennett regards a “healthy rivalry” as a very useful motivational force, but it
stops there.

“I would certainly never regard any of the accountancy firms we compete with
as enemies. Rivalry breeds good, healthy competition and helps keep everyone on
their toes, with a positive benefit for the firm. Regarding anyone as an enemy
induces too negative a state of mind, and would divert attention from focusing
on providing the best client service level possible,” Bennett says.

He is also eager to point out the benefits to clients that come from agreed
professional standards rather than rivalry: “It is essential that clients know
firms meet recognised levels of technical capability and operating parameters,
and that this ensures they receive an appropriate level of service. This is
derived from the profession, as a whole, cooperating to set such standards,”
argues Bennett.

Julie Adams, the managing partner at Menzies Heathrow office, was equally
clear about the risks of picking enemies.

“Any relationship that becomes too emotionally charged would be
counter-productive as you risk losing objectivity and wasting resources.”

Adams stressed that staff motivation should be based on positive attributes,
and says this is why Menzies invests in identifying and developing its core
values of “delivery, respect, integrity, vision and empathy”.

“These [core values] underpin our culture and behaviour and create better
opportunities to develop our business,” she concludes.

Professor Cary Cooper of Robertson Cooper, a consultancy that specialises in
staff development, assessment and diversity, was keen to explore instances where
an enemy might be commercially useful. “I can see in certain specific situations
it is useful to declare an enemy. Specifically, if you are one of many ‘me-too
companies’ in a market without occupying a specific niche, picking an enemy may
be a useful tool for motivating the troops.

“It may be that your enemy occupies the top slot and you want to be number
one. A case like this could pull your team together and focus its effort.”

However, Cooper is wary when some firms declare an enemy. He believes that
this could be an attempt to distract staff from more pressing internal issues.

It also comes with risk. If the enemy fails to engage and prefers to occupy
the moral high ground, then this ploy comes unstuck.

“What I am saying only really works if the declared enemy responds and
becomes defensive and starts to return the aggression. But if they don’t respond
and they rise above the attack, it can lead to internal damage, with senior
management’s reputation dented.”

Professor Cooper wasn’t alone in willing to entertain the benefits of a
well-chosen enemy.

Jeremy Bowler, chief operating officer of the Midland’s business adviser
Cooper Parry, reflects on the public battle between film companies Fuji and

“Fuji’s crystal clear vision ‘Kill Kodak’ certainly gave an incredibly
focused objective against which Fuji could drive and manage their business. It
provided a powerful motivator to employees and supporters alike.”

Bowler, however, ultimately questions its benefits. “Did it drive the right
behaviours? Maybe it did… but I’m not at all convinced that a single-minded
focus to beat one enemy is always a great thing.”
For Cooper Parry, like Menzies, it’s better to thrive through professional
excellence and always trying to be the best.

Bowler continues: “We should all be driving our businesses to be ‘best in
class’ in our markets.

Simply outperforming what could be a mediocre enemy is no great yardstick to
measure business success. Understanding all our competitors, learning from what
they do well and always seeking to have a competitive edge should be a driver
for every business.”

Keith Seeley, managing director of Target Chartered Accountants, a
fast-growing firm that caters for high net worth people and entrepreneurial
businesses, says: “We don’t have enemies – that’s not how we work. But neither
do we get terribly excited about our competitors. For me, only Andersen’s stood
out. They had a distinct culture, an arrogance if you like, but they stood out…
so I had respect for them.

“But since the bulk of practices seem to be run for the benefits of the
partners and staff and not the clients, there’s not many out there I’d like to

“We are a limited liability company, and are growing quickly with a very
exciting, can-do culture. This is what motivates our staff, so there’s nobody
out there we want to go head to head with.”

Neil Boom works for

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