You Cannot Excel at Everything

By: Jim Bruce

Several years ago, at the Harvard Business School, Frances Frei, UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management, and Amy Schulman, Senior Lecturer in Technology and Operations Management, 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 course’s first session focused on one’s inability to be great at everything. This is key to an individual defining what constitutes her or his personal success. Michael Blanding, senior writer for HBS Working Knowledge, discusses this in his article To Achieve Excellence, Dare to be Bad.1
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. However, we don’t usually perform at such high levels for long periods of time. Professor Frei’s bookUncommon 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.” (Could this be me? You? I’m afraid that too often it is.) 
The main obstacle that most people face is trying to be good at everything, and therefore not being excellent at anything. And, too often we aren’t willing, or are too ashamed, to acknowledge what we do not know. And, we are reluctant to seek help because the costs to our reputation and standing are just too high.
Today, we are in constant overload, trying to focus in all possible directions, and we work harder and harder. Frei argues that you don’t need more capacity to break out of this operating model. However, you do need the courage to give yourself permission to be less good, i.e., even 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, you must validate that your team is 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, and that you don’t have all the answers.
Schulman notes that for collaboration to succeed, it’s also necessary to cultivate your communication, both speaking and especially listening skills. She said: “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 no matter how hard you try. So, you really need to give up that fiction.
  2. You need to collaborate with others who excel in areas where you are less strong. Active collaboration is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength.
  3. You must openly communicate about the work being done by you and your collaborators so that the result is unquestionably excellent.

Do stop and take some time this week to follow-up on several key things in this essay:

  1. Begin by thinking about how you define excellence for yourself. And, for your team members. Take some notes as you think about this. You can go back to the notes from time to time to refresh and extend your thinking.
  2. Then, step back and think about what you are personally excellent in. (You might also 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, and most of us can’t, 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.
  5. And, actually begin to make use of your new knowledge. It is very true that if you don’t use it, you will inevitably lose it.

Make this a great week for you and your team. .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
An earlier version of this essay appeared with the same title as the Tuesday Reading on July 21, 2015.  The next Tuesday Reading will arrive in your inbox on September 10 as we take a break for Labor Day and the start of classes.


  1. Michael Blanding, To Achieve Excellence, Dare to be Bad, Forbes, June 17, 2015.
  2. Frances Frei, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012.
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