An incumbent is a person that is already in office whereas a challenger is the person who wants to be in office next. In terms of whether an incumbent has the advantage over the challenger, it is generally accepted as a definite yes: he/she has name recognition (and voters are more likely to vote for somebody that they recognise), they have secured contacts within their party, they know people in office — and therefore get special privileges. They could still have savings left over from a previous campaign and are entitled to The Franking Privilege (the right of members of Congress to mail newsletters to their constituents at the government's expense).
And so, herein lies the parallels that permeate our business vernacular. If we break down the elements of an “incumbent” in business: they’re an established and powerful player who is generally accepted and recognised. Their status and recognition has typically been secured through either title or tenure. They have secured contacts (aka advocates in their “party”) and often receive a disproportionate amount of privilege and influence, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways.
The thing with incumbents is that you either join their party and get behind their campaign, or you become a challenger. In business, both channels have their respective merits in terms of job satisfaction and career progression, and it helps to be aware of which camp you’re in to make sure you’re maximising your position to succeed.
For a lot of people, being an incumbent environment (or an incumbent) is a great option. The incumbent environment is the traditional model: you pay your dues, buddy up to the key influencers, who in turn advocate your promotion up the “corporate ladder” and as a consequence, draw you closer to the inner organisational sanctum of influence. It’s a structure that’s worked for generations and prophesies that to be successful, you don’t challenge status quo.
This pack mentality was a solid bet when regulation was looser, moral and societal norms were more liberal and loyalty was a currency. It’s also reminiscent of a time where people had possibly one or two jobs in their career and marked 20+ years of service to a company. It’s definitely not to say that the model is no longer present. It is. And it’s alive and well—– particularly in private operations. Incumbent-based organisations are comfortable with like-minded people who validate or reinforce the position of key decision makers, don’t rock the boat and will progress the organisation within the unspoken parameters of acceptability. Many people are comfortable in a secure environment where predictability equates to stability — particularly when they share the vision of the incumbent.
If your skin is crawling about now, you might find that you naturally lend more to the opposing faction as either an overt or closet challenger. If not: you might find the below an interesting perspective on the invariable challengers you’re likely to encounter at some point or another.
Challengers present themselves in countless numbers of ways. Here are a few of the dominant species:
- The stealth climber: You know the type: the one who is a little minx in the background who has an uncanny knack of creating situations that work to their advantage, where no-one is aware of what happened until it’s done. The stealth climber is an astute observer. They’re very clever at watching and understanding what’s really being said, versus relying solely on just the words that are being used. Stealth climbers understand intent. They read people, situations and dynamics well. They’re attentive listeners and typically good at engaging with everyone — so much so that people in their surrounds feel that they know the stealth climber well, but in actual fact, know extremely little about her. This makes the stealth climber trusted. And people love to impart information — often without even being asked for it. Information combined with observation enables stealth climbers to anticipate outcomes and identify opportunities ahead of the game. If you’ve ever wondered “how did they just do that?”, you’ve probably witnessed the work of a stealth climber. A very close friend of mine is the epitome of a stealth climber. She’s the quiet achieving dark horse that is uber successful. She’s intelligent, accurately reads a situation, and has an innate understanding of how to collaborate with even the most difficult of stakeholders to achieve exceptional outcomes. She’s driven, optimistic, highly respectful and respected. She’s progressed her career artfully, ethically and authentically by fusing observing, listening with acumen and insight. A stealth climber is often found in a corporate position that has lofty heights. Though stealth climbers need to be careful they don’t burn out along the way, as patience and strategy is exhausting and not for the faint-hearted (and once you reach the top, it can be hard to find the next challenge).
- The bulldozer: I, on the other hand, come from a very long line of overt challengers. Being a bulldozer is in my DNA and has been actively supported environmentally. As such, despite my best efforts, I’ve never been happy in nor truly succeeded in an incumbent environment. I don’t play the game well, and have been labelled at best as having “too high expectations” or that I’m “unrealistic,” to at worst, being labelled as “too aggressive” and “not a team player” (which I believe were meant to be “constructive criticisms” not compliments…). What this has taught me is that being an overt challenger is a good way to escalate your career quickly in the right company, or conversely get fired. Throughout this process, it’s also become glaringly apparent which environments I’m considered an asset, and succeed in, and which ones have the potential to break your spirit. On this note, fellow bulldozers: embrace your energy, optimism and character, but make sure you’re in an organisation that supports and inspires your unbridled enthusiasm and passion. Recognise that as a bulldozer, you’re probably going to be a natural leader who doesn’t just want to lead, but can’t help but lead (and consequently, often have difficulty pretending to like the incumbent Kool-Aid*). Progressive bulldozers embrace others that complement their skillsets, challenge their thinking and overall, contribute to a more progressive outcome. A bulldozer is often an owner of a business or at ‘C’ level. However, the challenge as a bulldozer is to see the bigger picture versus your vision (which can sometimes become blinkered). In the process, make sure you don’t get so focussed that you become a “my way or the highway” dictatorial leader, and transition over to becoming a formidable incumbent.
- The overt manipulator: We all know one of these (note deliberately wary undertone). They’re the co-worker that disempowers others by means of acquiring or retaining power or influence. The sly fox that “befriends” with less than pure intention. An overt manipulator acts swiftly, decisively and with clarity that will do anything to meet their end objective. The sabotage can be done intentionally and maliciously, or just by consequence of being tunnel-visioned. The primary difference between an overt manipulator and a stealth climber is character and agenda. The overt manipulator is purely focussed on manipulating environments to achieve their goals at all cost with little or no empathy. The stealth climber is opportunistic, but not ruthless, and of solid character. Be aware of the overt manipulator and watch their play — and be cautious if they try to get you onside as somewhere along the way, you’re likely to become collateral damage.
So, no matter where you are on the challenger spectrum, if you’re vying to be next in office, you have to be smart and strategic. You need to be in it for the long game, not the short victory. And most of all, not be hot-headed and remain gracious. These are learned skills, and for some, it’s harder than others — but they can be taught: and once you’ve acquired these tools, your superpowers go to a different level.
*A bit of history and context to the statement: “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is an expression that refers to any person or group who goes along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure. The phrase often carries a negative connotation when applied to an individual or group. It can also be used ironically or humorously to refer to accepting an idea or changing a preference due to popularity, peer pressure, or persuasion. The phrase derives from the November 1978 Jonestown deaths, in which over 900 members of the Peoples Temple, who were followers of Jim Jones, died, by drinking from a metal vat containing a mixture of “Kool-Aid,” cyanide, and prescription drugs Valium, Phenergan and chloral hydrate. Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kool-Aid
Sascha Moore, director, Create Design and Marketing