Growing up, Terri Giron-Gordon says she “always had to be the lead.”

But she now attributes her company, GenQuest, Inc.’s, success to an unconventional concept: making friends with competitors.

“You have to find the right partners, someone who will deliver. Trust is key. You also need to find someone that can be a follower and a leader.”—Terri Giron-Gordon

The little red cash register was cute, almost quaint. Terri Giron-Gordon utters a chuckle when she thinks about her childhood toy. She lugged it out on many hot summer days in New Mexico, forcing her cousins to play laborers or customers to her imaginary store manager. Her laughter wanes just a bit as she also remembers playing school and preparing worksheets for her playmates because, of course, she was the teacher. That willingness to lead, to be in charge most assuredly foretold Giron-Gordon’s path to building GenQuest, Inc., which provides temporary staffing, staff augmentation, mediation services, diversity training, and various human-resources consulting to federal agencies. Yet her leadership skills aren’t the only reason Giron-Gordon developed one of the most innovative, yet practical strategies to conquering her competition. She attributes much of her business triumphs to her ability to be a good team player, a follower, to make peace, when others make war. “I have made lifetime friends with my competitors,” Giron-Gordon says. “I used to work with COMPA Industries where I learned all about federal contracting. They really prepared me for starting out on my own, supporting me. Now we support each other, sharing information with them and helping each other out.”

Collaboration has allowed Giron-Gordon to be a successful federal contractor in a state with more than 2,000 government contractors vying for $11 billion in federal-contract work each year. The competition is fierce and a small business like GenQuest could easily lose out to larger, more resourced firms. Yet GenQuest thrives, expanding to 62 full-time employees and more than 70 on-call trainers, seasonal and short-term employees over the last 10 years. And Giron-Gordon says a lot of that success is because she cooperates with a lot of her competitors.

For example, recently, a large prime contractor to the government issued a request for proposal for some services. Giron-Gordon had already been working with the agency and knew her company was the front-runner. Yet, she also knew other businesses would be competing for the same contract. So she approached a large firm about doing a team proposal. The idea being that if they teamed up they could easily beat out other firms. “If we win the contract, we’re both winners,” she says of her and her competitor. “We’ll have half of the pie rather than nothing and we can position ourselves to get to know the agency and perhaps they will put us on another contract. It’s just a model that works.”

Collaborating with competitors is not as easy as it sounds. There are some tips to making sure the partnership works. “You have to find the right partners, someone who will deliver,” Giron-Gordon says. “Trust is key. You also need to find someone that can be a follower and a leader, [and] how to be a good team member … That’s what makes a good partner.”

Collaborate not compete, cooperate not contest—it’s a tricky formula but worth considering. In fact, this affinity for coming together also led Giron-Gordon to create trademark healthy-workplace-environment guidelines, which she dubs “work.Happy.”

“The guidelines help people realize what they’re doing in the workplace, and how they can make their environment better,” Giron-Gordon says. “Our coaches are able to work with organizations and helping them create a happy work environment.”

Though Giron-Gordon always had a penchant for partnership—when her family would argue she always played the peacemaker—the proclivity has become essential to her business practice especially when it comes to the issue of diversity. “I don’t want to work with people who agree with me,” she said. “I need diverse ideas and opinions in my business to succeed.  I also need diverse working styles for balance and perspective. Diversity is necessary for survival and happiness.”