Your Organization’s One True Competitive Advantage

No matter what industry you work in, when your people quit work for the night, your competitive advantage quits too. You might say, “What about our mission? Organizational structure? Internal rewards program? Work processes? Computer systems? Aren’t they advantages that will overcome our competition?”

Obviously, competitive advantages can come from many sources, but the bottom line is that none of those advantages exist apart from what people actually do. Your mission, your structure, your rewards programs—whatever your resources and capabilities—are all the product of people working together.

If they don’t work well, your advantage is gone.

An organization can have a number of unique aspects, but if people don’t do the things needed to leverage them, sustain them, and live up to them, they will evaporate. Your organization may have well-refined processes, but if your people couldn’t care less about maintaining them, the whole thing is a house of cards.

The behavior of your people is the ultimate source of your competitive advantage.  Great leaders know this and put their energy into deliberatly building a winning culture.

No matter what you think your competitive advantage is, people create it, sustain it, leverage it, and make it work. If they are as engaged they will pull the organization forward if they have to. But if they are disengaged—unexcited about the organization, uncaring, indifferent, even alienated from it—your competitive advantage will disappear. If they are not giving their best efforts to your strategy, you can forget the dazzling wording of your mission or the compelling reason the organization exists. If there are enough disengaged people on your team—and the evidence shows there are many despite what you may think and no matter how they smile at you as you pass—no matter how many times they nod their head in seeming agreement with your goal, your competitive advantage is over.

The sum of what everyone does every day is called “culture.” It is what the majority of the people do the majority of the time. It’s a reflection of an organization’s collective behaviors, the language and behaviors of its people, and the spoken and unspoken values, norms, and systems that exist. Another way to frame the top-of-mind issue is, “How do I build a winning culture?”

Author and teacher, Clayton Christensen, said, “A culture can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently.” Which do you prefer for your team or organization? You can consciously build a culture where people are fully engaged or allow it devolve into a disengaged team of individuals all working for their own best interests.

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about your organization’s culture:

  • If culture is defined as what the majority of people do the majority of time, how would you describe your culture?
  • How would you describe the nature of the relationships in your organization? Are people supportive, confrontational, helpful, competitive, etc.?
  • How do people interact with one another? Is the language they use aligned with the type of organization you are looking to create?
  • When was the last time you stepped back and thought about the culture you want for your team? Have you shared it?


If you enjoyed this post, you should know that is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Building Winning Cultures in Government,” that I co-authored with my friend and colleague, Shawn Moon. Due out April 15, 2018 but available for preorder now.

The book provides a blueprint for government organizations to drive engagement, customer-service, goal accomplishment, trust, and individual productivity. It includes examples of government organizations around the world that are getting it right and is based on more than 30-years of evidence-based research.