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You’re not here to do a job: You’re here to Help Us Win

I was asked by the CEO of a healthcare company why I thought his people (managers and employees) didn’t exhibit the “killer instinct” that he saw in highly competitive companies. He was about to once again go outside the company for a new management hire, but only because he didn’t feel he could promote from within. According to him, his people simply weren’t competitive.

I don’t know if I was exactly on the mark, but based on my witness, he had there a culture of acceptance. A culture of care, of curing, and of encouragement to overcome disease and “come back” from illness. It was a culture of hope for a normal life. Not a culture of performance, such as you might find in a fitness camp. Not a culture of winning, like you find at the Olympic training facilities in Colorado. No, his people earned a living helping people come back from a low point in their lives to a baseline that was almost normal. And in such a culture, people celebrate mediocrity. When you have been knocked down by illness and are struggling to recover, achieving the average is a cause for celebration. I suspect that the hope felt by his employees — healthcare workers — was often dashed by setbacks, complications, and deaths. Hope, hope, and hope for the best, and watch as a secondary complication destroys a family or an accident destroys a recovery. Watch as normal people are brought in after freak accidents that could have happened to any of us, with limbs and lives mangled forever as a consequence. Breathe a sigh of relief as a healthy patient returns home safely after weeks of touch-and-go critical care, secretly praying they don’t get hit by a bus on the way home. In such a culture, can anyone stomach taking a risk? It would seem foolish.

Killer instinct? Funny choice of words, but prophetically accurate. No. People who work for him and help build his successful healthcare company do NOT have any killer in them at all. And they shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to be competitive.

Competition is about winning and placing. It is not about doing a job. Although for some sports very hard work is required to achieve the skill levels needed to compete (hockey and swimming come to mind), in all sports at the competitive levels fitness is a given and it is all about winning and placing. When a person is hired at Company X, is that person hired to “get a job done” or is that person “brought onto the team with unique skills and abilities that help us advance/improve/achieve”? While I will accept that a long term plan might include milestones, and achieving milestones may require a plan of work and doing-a-job, the overall vision that must be present is that this person is contributing an essential task that supports an enterprise endeavor whose goal is to win. You have to win. They have to help us win. We all have to help us win. What are we winning? Maybe we are winning the war against cancer, or maybe we are winning the war against impersonal healthcare, or post-traumatic loneliness, or even chance, but we are fighting to win something.

Now before you right this off as a “Go team go!” approach to management, what I am saying applies to individuals as well as teams. The team approach is a management style, but I am addressing performance, no matter how you want to manage it. Everyone has to feel the heat of competition if you are to succeed against your competitors.

In SEO I usually step into the mix of an existing team, where I am asked to help optimize. Is that really possible? I doubt it. It seems to me I am often brought in to lead from the front. To change the perspective, to highlight opportunities, to underline the challenge, to demonstrate commitment, hard work, and that killer instinct my CEO friend mentioned. I am there to legitimize hope in the face of a contrary culture of acceptance of mediocrity. And that is what I enjoy the most about my job.

SEO starts with keywords and competitive intelligence. It doesn’t matter how collegial an industry is, or how friendly the players are, or how benevolent, non-profit, or non-competitive they claim to be, if they want to rank at the top of the search results they have to be the best. They have to do it right, be the best, and earn the top spots. Don’t aim to be as good as your competitor, don’t seek to get by, don’t try and achieve normalcy. Be. The. Best. Second place is the first loser. To the winner goes the spoils, to everyone else, thanks for trying and see you next time. Winner gets donuts, everybody else – no donuts.

Often the questions I ask at the start of an SEO engagement turn heads:

List your competitors and rank them on a scale of 1 to 10 according to their relative competitiveness to you. List ten names of people who define, shape, or represent your industry. Name their companies. Name their former companies. List 1 reason why a customer of your #1 competitor would be wise to change to your company. Now name 4 more. Name 4 accessories or consumables or spare parts or ancillary products or services which go along with your product or service for many of your customers. Name 5 companies that provide those parts/services. List the 2 most essential annual industry events for your market. Name the cities where those events are to be held next year. Name 5 companies that have sponsored those events in the past. Name one that has only recently started to sponsor those events. Name the keynote speaker at this years event. Name her company.

Of course all I am doing is helping them to generate the keyword lists that we will need to compete successfully on the Internet. Or is there more to it?

My team would have done all of this and more as part of the SEO engagement. Competitive intelligence and keyword research are foundations of SEO, and nobody can rank in even the mildest of competitive markets without winning combinations of keywords and phrases. My in-house team has excellent tools for discovery and competitive intelligence. God knows we are all experts at online search and research. Rest assured we will identify companies, individuals, and keywords that are not on those lists generated by my prompting. But a big problem with SEO lies in the collaborative nature of it. An SEO has to work with existing web designers, marketing staff, advertising and PR people. An SEO can deliver a high quality SEO product without such collaboration, but the company can’t win that way. To win, the company needs to align it’s activities with winning, and align it’s SEO engagement with those activities. You can’t expect to sit back and watch as SEO wins the online marketing wars. YOU need to convert traffic to sales. YOUR salespeople need to know how SEO is sending them leads. YOU need to inject your market knowledge into the campaign. Just as a mountain climber needs a base camp staffed with experts and an elite athlete needs a seasoned competitive trainer, your SEO needs YOU to provide an infrastructure that supports the attempt to ascend the SERPs and take the top spot.

It’s not a killer instinct you’re after, it’s a winning instinct. I’ve got it, and unless you’re really lucky, some of your competitors have got it, too. I know some of your employees have it, but do they know they are in a competitive event?

Here in my shop, we will ask questions, conduct our SEO campaign, and align our activities with winning. Can you do the same?


  1. Jeezus Krist!

    That is the best post about seo I’ve read in I don’t know how long (all it was missing was some hail of glory theme music, sorta like the Star Spangled Banner!”) I could write a whole post about SEOs having to have a natural killer instinct (I guess that a high precentage of SEOs list Glen Gary / Glen Ross among their favorite movie) and how I recently thought to myself “sheesh what happened to all the testerone that fueled the win, win win” attitude of yesteryear?” But I won’t. I love the co-op spirit amongst SEOs… But someone has to be the winner… And I rather that someone be me.

    Maybe that is why I love Threadwatch, because I feel others in that community share my outlook.

    I’d rather lose a good fight than give up without one. Maybe that’s why I say “cheers” when I see someone competing in a keyword space I am looking at and I see that they’ve done a good job – of course I then try to one-up them… Lol.

    Thanks for the post… And maybe one day in an email I’ll write what I really think about what you wrote and what is wrong with the process of seo as it stands at companies and why there’ll always be a job for SEOs because of the culture that exists in the web space…. I’ve now left my rambling soapbox.

    Wednesday, November 8, 2006 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  2. john andrews wrote:

    Hey thanks Natasha. It means alot to hear you enjoy reading. I definitely look forward to that email, but I’d be happy to bribe you with a drink at pubcon if you’re going.

    Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  3. Aww man… a free drink. Unfortunately I won’t be going to Pubcon… But that email will be forthcoming… someday – LOL.

    Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 11:30 am | Permalink