Happily Unstuck in the Middle


Are you winning yet?  Or are you losing?

Is your business first in your industry? How is your content program doing? Best in class? Worst in class? Is your marketing the best?  Is it the worst? Where are you in your career? 

Chances are, the answer to at least one of those questions is that you’re somewhere in the middle of the pack. Your business is not the market leader, but it’s not the worst laggard. Your content program is doing okay, it’s certainly not completely failing. Compared to others in your industry, your marketing is good but it’s not the best. You feel fine about your career, but compared with some of your colleagues, you’re stuck in the middle.

I had a conversation recently with the heads of the marketing team at a company that’s killing it from a stock price, profitability, and industry leader perspective. They also have one of the most average and under-performing marketing teams you can imagine.

I’ve also talked with the lead manager of one of the content marketing case studies you hear about at every conference, and I know her program is in danger of being shut down because the company considers it only an average performer.

In life – and especially business life – we face enormous pressure to not be average at anything. We strive for exceptionalism. We must be number one in our market, have the absolute best team, rise to the top of our company hierarchy, build the next unicorn startup, win the awards, create the top publication, and manage the most perfect work/life balance.

So, how do we stop being stuck in the middle and achieve all this greatness?

We don’t. 

But we can choose to be happily in the middle for some things. 

For example, REI has actively chosen to be an exceptional retailer, but perhaps not the most profitable in its space. DuckDuckGo is barely in the top ten of internet search engines, but it’s exceptional when it comes to both profitability and protecting customer privacy. 

I know it’s hard to choose to be okay in the middle. I struggle with it every single day.

But here’s a secret: As you wistfully look up the line from where you are, know that every person, team, or company in front of you has lines that they’re in the middle of, too. And they’re all hoping they can move up. 

To paraphrase Harvard Business Professor Michael Porter, the essence of strategy is choosing what we will do exceptionally – and what we will not do at all.

We can actively decide what our goal is – and also what it isn’t. It’s fine to be in the middle for some things and to not even get in line for others. 

To Michael’s Porter’s thought that we must decide the things we will do exceptionally, I’d simply add that we must also choose where we will be decidedly, and happily, in the middle. 

It’s your story. Tell it well. 

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