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Posted: August 21, 2013
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is senior editor for books at strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management



Can Your Career Survive Transient Competitive Advantage?

Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, has devoted her 20-year-long academic career to sussing out how companies can successfully respond to a global economy characterized by uncertainty, fast-paced change, and increasing competitive pressure. She wrote three books, with Wharton’s Ian MacMillan, which explored how to wring out growth in such an environment. In June, her latest book, The End of Competitive Advantage: How To Keep Your Strategy Moving As Fast As Your Business (Harvard Business Review Press), was released.

In it, McGrath steps squarely into the ring of strategy. “Strategy is stuck” is her first jab, and then she steps in with the body blows—arguing that sustainable competitive advantage, the holy grail of strategic concepts and frameworks put forth by such luminaries as Michael Porter and by Gary Hamel and the late C.K. Prahalad is no longer a realistic goal. Her knockout punch: Increasingly, across many markets, competitive advantage is transient and conventional business strategy isn’t prepared to handle it. 

The End of Competitive Advantage explores the ramifications of this transience on corporate strategy, and how companies can manage it. At the risk of oversimplification, her core recommendation is to discover new businesses, milk them, and when the time is right, get out of them faster than everyone else. But toward the end, McGrath slipped in something that you rarely see in business strategy books—a chapter on the effect of transient competitive advantage on us, the toilers in the corporate fields, and our careers.

If our employers begin rejiggering their businesses’ portfolios at a faster pace, our jobs are going to get rejiggered more often too. And if that starts to happen, are you ready? McGrath offers the following 10 yes-or-no scenarios to help you figure that out.

1. If my current employer let me go, it would be relatively easy to find a similar role in another organization for equivalent compensation.

2. If I lost my job today, I am well prepared and know immediately what I will do next.

3. I’ve worked in some meaningful capacity (employment, consulting, volunteering, partnering) with at least five different organizations within the last two years.

4. I’ve learned a meaningful new skill that I didn’t have before in the last two years, whether it is work-related or not.

5. I’ve attended a course or training program within the last two years, either in person or virtually.

6. I could name, off the top of my head, at least 10 people who would be good leads for new opportunities.

7. I actively engage with at least two professional or personal networks.

8. I have enough resources (savings or other) that I could take the time to retrain, work for a small salary, or volunteer in order to get access to a new opportunity.

9. I can make income from a variety of activities, not just my salary.

10. I am able to relocate or travel to find new opportunities.

Any no answer indicates a potential vulnerability. If you answer no to five or more questions, McGrath warns, “It’s time for immediate action!” Welcome to the era of transient competitive advantage.

Also, just as a heads-up: You’re going to see McGrath’s name popping up a couple more times in s+b in the coming months.


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