What Project Runway Winner Anya Ayoung-Chee Can Teach You About Competition
A graduate of Parsons School of Design and Central St. Martins School of Art and Design, Anya Ayoung-Chee is no stranger to the world of design. And yet, during auditions for Season 9 of Project Runway, Anya admitted that she had only been sewing for four months. Throughout the competition, she was a mess–she pulled her looks together at the last minute and became the first project runway contestant to lose her money while shopping for fabric. During the finale judging, Michael Kors said this about her competitor’s collection: “Was there more design to them? More tailoring, more work, more thought? Absolutely. There was. No question.” So how did Anya score the win (and pocket $100,000)?
Anya won because she didn’t waste time trying to manipulate, sabotage, analyze or denigrate her competitors. Instead, she tailored her brand to meet the needs of the real stakeholders of the competition: the viewers, the network, the show franchise, and (of course) the judges. Her primary competitor, Josh, spent a lot of time on the show worrying about his competitors. He gained a reputation for snide comments, temper tantrums, and emotional sabotage. He was so focused on what his competitors were doing that he failed to correctly identify the real point of the competition. He thought Project Runway was about who could make the best clothes. He was wrong. If the competition had been about making the best clothes, he would have won.
So what did Anya understand about Project Runway that her competitors didn’t, and what can this teach us about competition in the workplace?
1. Don’t let others tell your story.
Anya Ayoung-Chee could have had a dramatically different persona on the show. A former beauty pageant winner, the victim of a sex tape scandal, and a graduate of two fancy design schools, she probably didn’t scream “fan favorite” during the casting call. But then she revealed in the very first episode that she had only been sewing for four months. The judges (and viewers) were astounded, and perversely curious to see how she would fare in Project Runway’s grueling challenges. As Anya turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, no one discussed her extensive design education (“no wonder she’s so talented”) or her sordid past (“do I really want my teenage daughter idolizing her?”) or her beauty pageant experience (“who likes beauty queens?”). We were all too busy marveling at how she was able to create extraordinary clothes with so little sewing training. Anya didn’t wait for the network (or viewers, or her competitors) to tell her story. She came up with her own narrative early and told it as often and as loudly as she could until it became what everyone else was talking about too.
Have you thought about your own narrative? Why should people root for you? Why should people care whether or not you succeed? For great advice about how to do this, check out Penelope Trunk’s posts about resume writing.
2. Don’t assume your boss is your only stakeholder.
Many designers go into the Project Runway competition assuming that the judges are the only stakeholders, and that making the best clothes is the point of the competition. But in reality, the network often has more say in who stays and who goes than Nina, Michael, and Heidi. For the majority of the challenges, the network’s primary interest is keeping contestants who attract viewers. Contestants can do this in one of three ways. They can make interesting clothes, or they can become the contestant that viewers love to love, or love to hate. Anya and the other finalists understood that they needed to become the protagonists of the show for the network–let alone the judges–to stay interested. Their success in gaining viewer affection kept them in the running, even when their clothes fell flat.
Who else is a stakeholder in your success? Who, besides your boss, can help you get to where you want to go (or learn what you want to learn?) For a great post about the concept of stakeholders and how to approach them in business and in career management, check out this post by management consultant Phil Miller.
3. Don’t assume that what stakeholders say they want and what they really need match up.
Most of the finalists did a good job of understanding the network’s needs throughout the competition. Kimberly, Victor, Josh, and Anya all consistently made interesting clothes…which kept them in the competition even when “interesting” wasn’t exactly fabulous. But when it came to selecting an actual winner, only Anya realized that the network’s needs had changed. Now, the network needed a winner who would continue to make them look good years after the season was over…though of course, they can’t say that outright on a show that is advertised to be about talent.
Even though the judges felt Josh’s collection was stronger, Michael Kors admitted that he could “picture what an Anya bag, an Anya shoe, an Anya piece of jewelry might look like. And that tells me that she has the potential to have a serious business with serious following.” Anya had the viewers rooting for her (see #1), the network drooling for her…and, well, the judges thought she was okay. Not exactly a hat trick, but it was enough to get her the win (and the $100,000 prize.)
So how can you get a handle on the unwritten rules governing your workplace? If you’ve got some time to dive into some solid reading material, download this free PDF research report called “Unwritten Rules: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Career,” sponsored by Dupont, IBM, Time Warner, and other Fortune 500 companies. It is geared toward women and minorities, but there is good stuff here for everyone.