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You Cannot Excel at Everything

| July 21, 2015

by Jim Bruce

In the Harvard Business School 2015 winter term, Frances Frei, UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management at HBS, and Amy Schulman, Senior Lecturer in Technology and Operations Management, also at HBS, taught a new course “Why You Should Care:  Creating the Conditions for Excellence” to a group with equal numbers of law and management students.  The purpose of the course was to help the business and law students help each other define and achieve their own interpretations of success.

The first of six sessions focused on one’s inability to be great at everything which is key to you defining what constitutes your personal success.  Notes on that session, Excellence Comes From Saying NO, by Michael Blanding, senior writer for HBS Working Knowledge, are this week’s Tuesday Reading.

We all know people who perform at a level higher than those around them.  And, we have likely had moments ourselves when we were performing at a very high level and where everything seemed to work.  But, we don’t usually perform at such high levels for long periods of time.  Professor Frei’s book Uncommon Service:  How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business reports on her research in this area.

Key to performing more consistently at a higher level is Frei’s philosophy that “in order to achieve excellence, you need the courage to be bad,” or at least, less than excellent in some work related areas.  She has observed in her research that “well-intentioned, energetic people following their own instincts end up being part of the problem.”  The main obstacle that most people face is trying to be good at everything, and therefore not being excellent at anything.  Too often we aren’t willing to acknowledge what we do not know, and we are reluctant to seek help.

Today, we are in constant overload, trying to focus in all possible directions, and we work harder and harder.  Friel argues that you don’t need more capacity to break out of this operating mode, but you do need courage to give yourself permission to be less good, i.e., bad, at some things other than the small number of things you have chosen to excel at.

Once you have decided to focus on excelling in a few areas, you need to work with others on your team to complement your work in those areas where you are less strong.  This requires that you actively collaborate with those team members and, perhaps, others in your organization and elsewhere.  In fact, you need to look at the strengths and weaknesses of your entire team to ensure that the collection of strengths represented on the team addresses all the skills required in your area of responsibility and that you are actually actively collaborating.  In doing this, you as a leader will need to make yourself vulnerable, showing that you are not superhuman, that you have failures, that you don’t have all the answers.

Schulman notes that for collaboration to succeed, it’s also necessary to cultivate your communication skills.  She says, “It’s startling how liberating it is to talk about what is actually going on and we can only do that when we risk discussing the undiscussable with grace and care.”  Can you communicate this openly in your team?

So, there are three lessons here:

1  You cannot personally excel in everything.
2  You need to collaborate with others who excel in areas where you are less strong.
3  You must openly communicate about the work being done by you and your collaborators so that the result is unquestionably excellent.

As I close this Tuesday’s Reading, I want to urge you to take some time this week to follow-up on several things in this essay:

1  Begin by thinking about how you define excellence for yourself.  And, for your team members. 
2  Then, step back and think about what you are personally excellent in.  (You might want to make some notes here.)
3  Think about your team members and, by individual, note their areas of excellence.  (If you can’t do this, you will need to take some one-on-one time with each of them to flesh out your knowledge.)
4  Review the work that you and your team are doing.  Are you poised to deliver truly excellent results in every instance?  If not, you may need to increase collaboration and communication, and/or to build new skills.

Make this a great week.  .  .  .     jim