by Darrin Schenck


by Darrin Schenck


I love this quote by the famous Asian warrior and Philosopher Sun Tzu, author of one of my favorite books:  The Art of War.  The full quote reads as this:


When you know both yourself as well as your competitors, you are never in danger.

Know yourself but not know others and you have half a chance of winning. 

Knowing neither puts you in a position to lose.


Some many layers to this statement, which is typical of the Asian philosophy approach.  Much of it seems to be written with the thought in mind of this will mean something to you as a beginner, something new when you progress to an intermediate level of understanding and once again something new when you near mastery.  In this example, let’s break down the three phases of this, in reverse order of how the quote was written.

Phase one – not understanding yourself or your competition.  When you are brand new at a skill, whether it be a sport, activity or job, you are (or should be) in learning mode for much of every day.  You need to figure out what you are responsible for, what skills you need to polish, and eventually what your competition will be doing as well.  Yes, you need to learn what everyone else is doing at some point, but first and foremost you need to focus on what you do and how you can get better.  You goal is to be better than the version of you that showed up yesterday.  This is secret to real success…getting a little better than the “you” of yesterday as often as possible.

When I was newly anointed as the VP of Sales for my company, it sounded like a cool title and I was excited.  But this was a brand new role for me, in a brand new company that did not have things figured out.  I was there day one, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know at that point.  We went through some really tough times in the first few years until we really started to get a handle on who we were as a company, what solutions we really offered in our niche world, and what the competition was doing as well.  Five years… it literally took five years to get there.  During this time, there were daily moments of doubt, hesitation, and confusion.  I questioned whether or not I was the right person for this role, if we as a company would make it and much more.  I didn’t know myself in this role and I had no idea what others out there were doing.  But eventually, by attending trade shows and speaking with enough people, I slowly started to figure things out.  I crafted the right message, and even the proper persona for this role.

My target audience for my day job is not a Millennial who’s been in the work force for a short time.  My typical prospect is a late 50’s man or woman who has been in the Insurance business or in the corporate roles of Risk Management or something similar.  They are risk adverse and they are not going to identify and feel comfortable with some fast-talking, slick sales guy who seems bent on a quick sale and moving on to the next opportunity.  I reinvented myself to be the right fit for this role, toning down my flirtatious nature and my penchant for racy jokes.  Do I think I am being fake?  Not in the least, I speak to prospects and clients the same way I would speak to my grandmother.  I am respectful, curious and thoughtful.  These are parts of my personality too, just like the other stuff is.  I am simply rearranging the pieces of my personality into a different order for my VP role.  I did my best to lead by example, even when I didn’t know what I was doing.

As an easy analogy to make, when I was an up and coming racquetball player, I did a lot of things wrong.  I didn’t know how to prepare for competition in advance and I didn’t know how to handle myself once in a competitive situation.  It took time, effort and studying those who did before I could mimic what they could do.  As I got better, I did less things wrong and more things correctly.  I learned to not freak out when losing or coast when winning.  I learned to be completely prepared in advance, leaving nothing to chance during the competition itself.  I parlayed this approach right over to my business career as well.

Phase 2 Once I had learned a lot about myself then I could turn some of my attention to what the competition was doing.  Eventually I learned how to listen to prospective clients as to what the competition had told them or was offering, and then could mirror or offer an alternative that maybe was a better fit.  When I can confidently say that I am aware of what you were told by the competitor and how I can prove that our solution would be better, life in sales gets a lot easier.  When I know what the weak spots are within someone else’s system, I can easily exploit them and win.  The same was true on the racquetball court, once I learned someone’s patterns and weaknesses were, I was relentless in chipping away at them.  I saw this as lack of preparation on their, and I punished them for it.  That was my job as a high level competitive racquetball player and it was my job in sales as well.

Once I hit this level, things got easier and the message I shared with prospective clients became more and more refined.  For the past four years I have done exactly the same presentation to every prospective client, large or small.  I can do it without my PowerPoint in front of me, I know it that well.  And it shows, I get compliments on my presentations frequently, and I have it dialed in to the point that I convey the expertise and confidence that others want to do business with.  I never kick dirt at my competition, I take the high road.  I assume they do not always do the same, but I do not care.  I am in this for the long haul and I am making a living off of my reputation just as much as I do off of the company’s services.  The longer I do this the more this is true.  I have clients that will happily provide a testimonial for me, or share their company’s experience with a prospective client.  Now THAT is when you are getting somewhere; when the Risk Manager for a Fortune 100 company will take my call on their cell phone and happily do a favor for me, I am clearly winning.  I am not convinced that most of my competition operates in the same manner, and that alone can be a reason for a company to choose us instead of another to do business with.

Phase 3 – When you reach the point of being as aware as possible of yourself and your tendencies, and also for the competition, you are truly reaching a level of invulnerability.  While no one is completely bullet proof, there is such as thing as walking into any deal feeling like it is yours to have unless you screw up.  I have reached that point after ten years in my role as VP of Sales.  It took me about the same amount of time when I was a competitive racquetball player.  Mastery takes time, and it is not an easy road.  But if and when you can reach this level, you are really getting somewhere.  There is nothing like the feeling of seeing people walk into the court to start a match and seeing the look in their eyes that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  I love to walk into a corporate board room and do a presentation for a team of decision makers, and leave knowing that no one else they are going to hear from will likely hit the same level of competence.  Yes, this is my ego talking, but it ain’t bragging when you can back it up.  The best part is that I don’t have to brag at all; I know what value I bring to the table and I do not need external validation, or worse yet internal, to solidify who I am.  The wins come easier, but I still appreciate what it took to get where I am.  I know how quickly one can fall from this kind of position as well…. it takes years to build a stellar reputation and five minutes to destroy it.

So, bringing this full circle, you need to learn yourself first, and this means in all situations.  You need to know how you are going to react and respond in good times and in bad.  You need to know your role and what you offer forward and backward.  Next you can move on to paying some attention to the competition and how they do the same.  The final phase will be pulling it all together and being able to perform at a high level as your default setting.  But this has to be a progression, you cannot do this in reverse order or skip any steps.  You have to be patient and you have to do the work…just like with attaining success in anything else in life.

I wish you luck in your endeavors.


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