There are lots of reasons Catherine Ulrich ought to feel confident in her achievements at work. In fact, she has every reason to feel downright certain things are going well.

Maybe it makes me sound weird, but paranoia is one word that makes me stay on top.

Ulrich is chief product officer at Shutterstock and her firm has become one of the largest stock image companies in the world. But Ulrich says she’s always looking over her shoulder.

“I’ll always be a little paranoid,” Ulrich admits. “I’m often thinking about whether the customer is going to find a better product out there. Maybe it makes me sound weird, but paranoia is one word that makes me stay on top.”

 

Weird? Perhaps not. Honing your fear is exactly what you need to do when you’ve mastered an industry. If you’re overseeing a company or division that’s currently beating the competition, worrying about what’s coming up behind you may be the only way to remain on top.

Paranoia makes you think about your competitors, and that’s going to make you better

Paranoia is good

Concern about what’s next is exactly what Bruce Aust thinks about every time he walks into a meeting with senior management. Aust has a big job: he’s vice chairman of the NASDAQ, the world’s second-largest stock market, after the New York Stock Exchange. He prefers to start those meetings celebrating his team's successes. Then it’s time to discuss what competitors are doing.

“Paranoia is good,” Aust says. “Paranoia makes you think about your competitors, and that’s going to make you better.”

The key is harnessing that paranoia to create new ideas, according to Aust. At NASDAQ, one way that happens is through the GIFT program, which encourages all 4,000 of the company’s employees to present new ideas. Proposals must include a P&L and detailed business plan, and then a senior team review these suggestions. Approved ideas receive preliminary funding and a trial period.

I like to ask, ‘What would competitors be saying in their meetings right now?’

Not all of them work, and that’s OK, Aust says. Showing that it’s alright to sometimes fail means more ideas come to the surface. Among the bigger concepts that worked is the NASDAQ’s private market fund. It allows private companies to trade shares and this turned out to be a money maker, Aust says.

That idea wasn’t novel, other competitors were already doing it, Aust adds. But that’s part of being successful, making sure you’re staying competitive, or better yet, ahead, of the others.

 

“When I’m in a meeting with upper management, I like to ask, ‘What would competitors be saying in their meetings right now?’” Aust says. “Worrying about them is what will make you stay competitive.”

Staying at the top of your game

Once you’ve harnessed your paranoia, it’s time to make sure your office culture is up to the challenge of staying at the top, says Chris Edmonds, management consultant and author of seven books, including The Culture Engine.

Often, small companies stand a better chance of nurturing innovation to bring a product to market, so big companies must figure out a way to stay nimble.

If you’re in a senior role, that means empowering your team, Edmonds says. If you’re lower down in a red-tape-strangled company, it’s time to take risks.

Give the people who are talented and creative the power to make decisions. This also requires courageous managers to break bad policies in order to do what’s needed.

Agility

Shutterstock launched an idea earlier this year spun out from ‘pods’, little teams of five to 10 people it created purely to focus on customer needs, Ulrich says. They came up with a new feature for the company’s search function. It allows users to upload a photo and ask Shutterstock to show you similar pictures. It took a year from discussion in a pod to its launch, a turn-around Ulrich says is lightning fast for new technology.

Encouraging that kind of quick turnaround comes at a cost, Ulrich says. For her, it means always being worried, always thinking about what’s coming from someone else – always being a bit paranoid.

“My whole life is more stressful because I’m wired that way,” Ulrich says.

But there’s also a big upside to that mind set.

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