Could Your Business be a Bit More Predatory?

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Not many would like to be labeled a “predator” in business or in society today. Usually, the term is used to connote repeated and unconscionable exploitation of others. But I’ve recently learned a bit from the hunting rituals of lions that I think might be heeded as useful advice for anyone trying to succeed at innovating their business model.

Last month, this column had a guest author – thanks, Peter – in part because I was off celebrating a ‘big birthday’ (to be left unnumbered for the sake of all involved) for my mother-in-law. My wife’s family traveled en masse to South Africa and Botswana for the primary purpose of seeing and learning about wildlife there, accompanied by a massively knowledgeable guide. While we saw and learned about seemingly every available species, the lions and their behaviors stuck with me the most. Here are four lessons from the king of beasts that we could all use as we try to grow our businesses, disrupt our competition, and respond to accelerating change in the world around us.

We can learn a few things from the king of beasts as we try to grow our businesses, disrupt our competition, and respond to accelerating change in the world around us.
We can learn a few things from the king of beasts as we try to grow our businesses, disrupt our competition, and respond to accelerating change in the world around us.

Work with others, even competitors.

A lion will generally hunt with its pride, stalking prey and working collaboratively to bring down even the biggest game. We saw one group of three lions bring down a cape buffalo weighing well over a ton – separating the animal from its pack and then working together to incapacitate it (I’ll skip the gnarly details on exactly how they do that.) All three of the lions knew in advance that they would need to share the resultant meal. But they spent surprisingly little time sitting down and agreeing to the exact terms of their collaboration ahead of time, squabbling over who was going to get what bit. They had a clear strategy and operated on faith that there would be enough to share, they could worry later about how to handle the leftovers once the main meal was done.

So especially for the big jobs, be willing to collaborate and don’t worry too much early on about specifically what’s in it for you--agility and nimbleness are key to making a quick impact. Uber, in particular, has been willing to strike partnerships with all sorts of players as it seeks to dominate the world of ride-sharing and, eventually, autonomous driving. Erstwhile direct competitors such as Toyota and Volvo are willing to sign agreements with the company even as the future direction of those relationships stays somewhat fuzzy. And Uber’s recent alliance with Didi Chuxing in China – in theory one of its own direct competitors – is perhaps the clearest signal that even the world’s most valuable unicorn knows that it can’t hunt on its own.

Don’t plan for everything; be opportunistic.

For the most part, lions and other predators stalk their prey. But sometimes they just snack when they can. On one early morning safari drive, we were following two female lions who were lazily going about getting their day going. It was clear they weren’t compelled to expend the calories to go off hunting. But when our truck startled a small family of warthogs that bolted and scampered directly in front of one of the lionesses, she was perfectly happy to reach out a paw and pick one off as an early morning treat.

Too often, businesses operate bi-modally. In one mode, they think about their jobs as being about operating their core businesses, always on the lookout for new ways of driving efficiency into the system. In the other mode, they plan big strategic moves for months on end, accumulating mountains of data to convince themselves they have driven risk out of making the move. There’s rarely much attention paid to the scampering warthog: the opportunity to act fast, on reflex, and to execute quickly against something that will perhaps not change the game but that may contribute to the overall mission. The more businesses are able to build this type of capability, the more likely they will be to continuously build--and manage--a balanced portfolio for growth.

Take advantage of others’ mistakes.

Despite their reputation as fierce hunters, lions are not above scavenging. We were witness to the scene of a male lion majestically walking down to a riverbank with an impala dangling from its jaws. This was a bit puzzling as there appeared to be no female with him--females are notoriously the harder working and more successful hunters--and the antelope appeared not to be freshly killed. It turns out a careless leopard had dropped its meal out of a tree, likely directly into the path of the lion sauntering by. As we saw it, the male was no less proud of his accomplishment and since he had done it ‘all on this own,’ he made it very clear to the other lions in his pride that this meal was his and his alone.

While many good strategic growth moves are proactive, there has to be room to be reactive to others’ mistakes as well. John Bloom’s recent book Eccentric Orbits captures this well, telling the story of the failure and resurgence of Motorola’s Iridium venture[1].

For years, the failed system of communications satellites served as the ultimate cautionary tale against business hubris and bad assumptions gone awry that can result from inflexible business models. The biggest bankruptcy of its time, there was even some talk of deorbiting the satellites, which had cost billions of dollars to build and launch. But several years later, a group of private investors picked up the assets for $35MM.

Their key insight was that while the originally-conceived venture clearly was not a mass market offer, there is a niche segment of highly remote users (scientists, marine operators, defense departments, etc.) who may be willing to pay a premium to stay connected where there are no other options. The company today is profitable, has a diversified business model and market capitalization of over $700MM, and is in planning the launch of its next generation system of satellites in the next year. A good lesson: what may be one business’ failure may be your opportunity to flourish.

Never stop communicating your position.

On one of our final nights in the bush, roaring lions constantly woke us. This is what our kids had dreamt about since we first told them about the trip. We expected to hear fascinating stories at breakfast about what the lions had killed this time, or what fights had broken out while we were sleeping. It turned out to be far more mundane than that. Simply: they had spent so much time away feeding on the ill-fated buffalo that they thought it time to remind other prides that they were still around and in charge.

Even if you haven’t accomplished anything monumental in a while, just reminding others of your dominance – whatever your space – is always a good idea. Whether you operate at the scale of leading companies such as Oracle or Virgin or something much smaller, branding is everything and it could serve to draw others to want to work with you. Create and tell a compelling story of your future ambition and vision that is supported by confidence and trust in the ability to achieve it.

Of course, there are limits to the parallels between the animal world and the business world. Operating on instinct alone is the antithesis of effective strategy. And, the imbalance in work effort between female and male lions is more than a little humbling for those of my gender. But as my brain gets off safari and back into boardrooms, I see more than a little there to suggest we should all be just a bit more leonine.

[1] Bloom, John. (2016). Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story. New York, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.