The Underdog Advantage


Winning the Stanley Cup is no easy task. Now imagine what it’s like for a team in a land without snow or even ice! (well, unless you drive up to the mountains) But when they finally won after 44 years of franchise history and as the last team to make the playoffs this year, the LA Kings proved that victory was that much sweeter.

"Underdogs overcome great odds through passion and determination."

I don’t know about you, but I love underdog stories! In movies, in sports, and in business – there is nothing more exciting than to see the small guy taking on the big guy – and winning. That’s what gives an underdog its power, from the stories of David vs. Goliath to Leonidas’ 300, to the Kings’ recent win, and perhaps Microsoft vs. Apple, there is an unbeatable sense of drive that fuels underdogs.

It’s an energy that no one else can see but you can certainly feel, and it’s electric. Underdogs overcome great odds through passion and determination. I wondered for a long time where that passion stems from – could it be about having something to prove?

Growing up, I had a difficult relationship with my father, which led to having a strong desire to prove myself, to be successful. I became a lawyer in a big downtown firm, worked 6-7 days a week, 14-15 hours a day and was not treated particularly well. When I was told that I would not be hired back to continue with the firm, I felt a gigantic sense of disappointment. Perhaps those experiences have become big advantages. Perhaps they led me to push that much harder and to create my own path.

Arkadi Kuhlmann, the founder of ING DIRECT had a philosophy for hiring the right people. He talks about it in his book, The Orange Code . The candidates with the perfect resumes, credentials or schools, while impressive, at times lacked the intangibles he deemed essential. He wanted those with significant disappointments in their lives, those with scars, dents and blemishes, because he believed that those tough life experiences made them hungry. Perhaps that’s what he saw when he decided to take a chance on me 16 years ago.

It doesn’t matter why or how someone becomes an underdog. What matters is that underdogs always, always have a chance to win! In fact, adapting an underdog mentality works to our advantage at ING DIRECT. We automatically feel it on a psychological level. It makes us move faster, try harder and think smarter. It’s powerful and it’s the stuff that makes things happen and allows us to replicate success.

There is a great deal of value in the connection we make with underdogs. Every villain has a hero and clearly we all want the hero to win. Think Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

ING DIRECT was founded to challenge the banking industry, to re-construct the process, the product and to educate consumers about making smarter choices regarding their hard earned money. Arkadi said it best “You can’t be an outlier unless you want to actually turn the tables upside down.” For 15 years, we have done exactly that. By remaining entrepreneurial and hungry, we’ve been able to find success among the giants of our industry – established businesses with significant resources and budgets, 150 years of history and oodles of market share. We love the challenge of the underdog.

"My job as the leader of ING Direct in Canada is to maintain the underdog mentality."

But growth and success have their dangers. There’s a grain of truth in one of Andrew Grove’s famous quotations, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” Paranoia might be a little excessive, but we do need to be alert. Complacency is a big risk.

My job as the leader of ING DIRECT in Canada is to maintain the underdog mentality we started with 16 years ago, after significant milestones, more than 1000 employees and a consistent growth in market share. We simply can’t take our feet off the gas once something great has been created. But how do we maintain that electric energy that underdogs have?

Yes, we celebrate the wins – we pat ourselves on the back. But then we move on, quickly – as there is so much work still to be done. We stay nimble. We commit to persistent and positive change. We make more ideas happen. We remind ourselves of our humble beginnings. We expect team members to challenge our thinking. And we support a corporate culture of urgency.

Underdogs simply try harder. Underdogs challenge the conventional wisdom, break the rules, disrupt the status quo, and make a dent in society. Underdogs do in fact, prevail.

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