Excellence Comes From Saying No

In a new course designed by Frances Frei and Amy Schulman, business and law students help each other define and achieve their own interpretations of success. Lesson one: You can't be great at everything.
by Michael Blanding

We all know people who seem able to perform at a higher level than those around them; and we've all had moments ourselves where we are firing on all cylinders and everything just seems to work. But how do you achieve that kind of excellence on a consistent basis, day after day?

Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei has explored that question for years in the retail realm, culminating in her 2012 book, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.

This past semester at HBS, the UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management applied those lessons through a new course for MBA students, Why You Should Care: Creating the Conditions for Excellence , co-taught with Senior Lecturer and venture capital guru Amy Schulman.

Together, they created a course unlike any other at the school, both profoundly practical and intensely personal. "I can't even express to you how exceptional the experience has been," says Frei. "I have never received papers like this, ever."

According to the course description, "CCE explores how to identify and overcome the barriers to personal and professional excellence, barriers that are often counter-intuitive such as a focus on individual achievement."

The Courage To Be Bad

At the core of Frei's philosophy is an appeal that Harvard MBAs are not used to hearing: in order to achieve excellence, you need the courage to be bad.

"I'm obsessed with this question of why well-intentioned, energetic people following their own instincts end up being part of the problem," says Frei. She finds the main obstacle most people face is trying to be good at everything, and therefore not being excellent at anything.

"People compete against each other on every dimension, and work harder and harder and harder. To break out of that you don't need any more capability, but you do need enormous courage to say, if I am going to be really good at something, I am going to be bad at something else. If I am going to compete on cost and quality, then someone is going to beat me on speed."

The next lesson in the course is about collaboration. Once you decide to compete on your own particular area of strength, says Frei, you need to learn how to work with others to complement your weaknesses. That's where Schulman's expertise comes in. As a venture partner at $4 billion venture capital firm Polaris Partners, and former executive at Pfizer, Schulman has worked in some 90 countries around the world.

"The key to creating collaborative teams within diverse environments, is to find strategies that increase the metrics of value so that individuals aren't fighting over a fixed pie," says Schulman. "When you get people with different objectives, you create more value for everyone." The sum is greater than the parts, in other words.

Furthermore, in order to make sure such collaborations succeed, it's important to cultivate the art of communication. "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," says Schulman.

Students were taught to learn their subject matter so thoroughly that they could explain it to a family member with no background in the topic. "Often we don't need better ideas, we just need to frame them more effectively," says Frei "To describe something simply, you must really understand it deeply."

Mixing It Up

The class had just 20 students, tiny by Harvard Business School standards, and unique in that they were a 50-50 mixture from the business school and Harvard Law School. The mixing of business and law students was in part to add diversity of perspective and to take students from both areas out of their comfort zones.

"When you are being intimate in a partially anonymous environment, it's both strange and liberating," says Frei.

The atmosphere allowed for an unusual amount of introspection and reflection on the cases they discussed. Schulman recalled robust discussion between HLS and HBS students about ethics and values, where each group revealed its biases towards the other profession. "What was striking to me was the ability the students had to challenge their own assumptions, and discuss truisms in a respectful but confrontational manner," says Schulman.

That soul-searching carried on to the individual projects students created as an expression of their own individual philosophy of excellence. Frei and Schulman encouraged students to develop their own personal view of what it means to care, and what happens when they don't. One student put together a storyboard expressing her own personal credo through the characters of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Another wrote a personal essay about her struggles to overcome the stereotype of being the "Shy Asian Girl." Another student, who came from a retail background, wrote an open letter to clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch about why "It's Time To Care Again." And one student made a Choose Your Own Adventure computer game about making the right choices in a workplace environment. (When Frei played the game, "I ended up getting fired.")

One of the most moving projects in the class, she says, came from a law student who had spent time working with the human rights commission of the war-torn African country where he was raised. He systematically used the course material to criticize hypocrisy at the commission-as well as criticize himself for not having high enough standards. "I started to think that if things were being done in a certain fashion at the commission…there was no need to 'rock the boat,'" he wrote. "I tolerated more than I should have." The student ended his essay with some concrete suggestions on how to reform the commission.

"They each came up with their own point of view, and got incredible feedback from each other," says Frei of the students and their projects. That was difficult for some of the students, who found the lack of concrete guidance frustrating at times. But Frei says that freedom was necessary for each to develop their own definition of what excellence means.

One of the last lessons of the course was around change. From her service experience, Frei learned that making small changes are often more trouble than their worth-but in order to make big, meaningful changes, you often have to change at a pace faster than an organization is comfortable with.

By taking students out of their comfort zones and helping them examine their own personal values in this course, Frei and Schulman hope they have changed them for the better.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Saloni Arora
    • Educational Specialist, Educational Initiatives
    I agree about the need to collaborate when required. But I also feel that somewhere the ability to envision the entire thing together gets lost when there are so many experts working on different pieces. A diverse team brings different perspectives but there is always one person required who is not biased towards anything.

    When you talk about 'The Courage to be Bad', does it suggest that it is necessary to have at least one area of expertise?
    • Bernadette Wichman
    • Team Leader, Security New Zealand
    Fantastic outcome from getting people to step outside their comfort zone. Excellent.
    • G S Singh
    • Higher Education Consultant, Edumint
    This is to SALONI ARORA's comment. Agree that too many views may hamper the envisioning of an integrated approach. However diversity from with in helps to put the pieces together from with in and without in a proper framework for an integrated and inclusive vision and approach. To my mind its important to have lot of learning, observation and experiences to evolve the "diversity with in". This becomes a platform to launch collaborative and discussed projects with that inclusive and integrated approach which otherwise one may miss.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None
    I applaud their efforts and I hope (and think) that they will achieve positive results but I think they are struggling with the nature of human beings and we all know that that is not easy.
    • Randy Wright
    • Senior Vice President, Taymor
    This recalls for me a quote from the late actress Mae West,
    It went something like this;
    "When I'm good, I'm very good but when I'm bad I'm BETTER".
    So is it good at being bad or bad at being good is the ultimate question.
    • Dean
    • Casad, GEOTEK
    Several things I've read recently refer to the "power of saying no". Makes perfect sense to me, but I find it very hard to do. I seem to be wired to be interested in a wide variety of areas.
    • Romesh Sharma
    • Leadership & Start Up Coach, Simpliflyers
    As one of her student, I always gets new perspective from Frances and her collaboration with Amy makes it a lethal combination, in positive sense.
    With all respect, may I add Humility as another essential virtue for sustaining excellence.
    Great insight, as always and keep experimenting.
    • Manuel Bogado
    • Founder, SIWA - Strategy Oracle
    To choose your focus and to be relentless on building upon it, upon your strength, is the core of any strategies. Somehow the corporate world lost the full meaning of strategy when the concept was imported to business in mid XX century. So many people try to be good at every level not realising that it is just impossible if within the pool there is only one individual that is focusing on his/her strength... If we need to choose one word to define Strategy it will be: Concentration... Great quote of Frances "if I am going to be really good at something, I am going to be bad at something else."
    • William Kappen
    • President, CK Distrbution
    All this is good ... But if you are in buss. Until you
    Get paid ... You have a hobby !!!
    • Carl Parks
    • Learning & OD Consultant
    Understanding your (+/-) strengths in any circumstance is a useful tool for success, and will create the ability for you to say: No. Excellence, as a derivative of saying "no" is explicitly tied to an individuals comprehension of self, and willingness to set aside (id vs. ego) mentalities... Therefore, by developing your ability to proportionately incorporate: 'courage, collaboration, communication & change', as an individualized characteristic; it may then work in tandem with the targeted excellence and expertise of a/the group (increasing performance, productivity and an applied standard of ethical operation). That noted, without knowing your own limitations - you will most likely try to be the best at all things, and master of none (missing out on the true meaning/value of success, by foregoing the knowledge base competencies/attributes of others).
    • Allan Torng
    • Provincial EPH Advisor, Alberta Health Services
    There is a phrase, and it goes like this: "Please take any two of the following three (service) parameters: fast, quality, and cost." If you selected a preference for fast and high quality service, then the cost will (probably) be high. If you selected low cost and high quality service, then that service will (generally) take more time to complete.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Those who try to be good to everyone have got to be people of weak minds without guts to say no when this is the need of the hour. The success of the business in which one is engaged should be topmost priority for the executives at all levels and they must never be goody goody with even those who create hindrances by not performing optimally. The boss has to keep his ears and eyes open to objectively watch what is happening down below and expedite corrective actions as required. There could be situations when need for taking stern actions may arise- there never should be any compromise and propriety of taking action needs to prevail.
    In my view business and for that matter every such activity is not for the timid who fancy their personal image building at the cost of what is essential.
    • Thaddeus Segura
    Very interesting idea, reminded me of an argument from Malcolm Gladwell in one of this more recent books on how it is better to be the big fish in a small pond then an average fish in a big pond. So often I think that we are afraid to commit to a single idea of challenge out of fear that it may turn out to be the wrong fit and our time would be somehow "wasted." So we overly diversify our lives and fail to accomplish anything spectacular.
    • Arlene B. Isaacs
    • Business Consultant, Arlene B. Isaacs & Assocs.
    As a Business Consultant I identify issues that are handicapping organizations. This program is brilliant and should be required for any and everyone who wants to MAKE A CONTRIBUTION, not just show up at the job. BUT managers, especially HR are $$$ shy. Lack of Communication Skills, in a multi-cultural, multi-generational workplace is endemic here in NYC. BUT, it is not high on the priority list of HR to do even departmental retraining. Phones are picked up:
    "wha ya wan.." Phone messages are garbled, no articulation... Time is lost, clients are lost - costly mistakes are made because those in power choose to ignore standards: PROFESSIONALISM EQUALS $UCCE$$.

    LOU DOBBS SAID: "Arlene, not only are you a Professional, you know how to teach Professionalism!"
    • Praveen Zala
    • Consultant, Independent Consulting
    One of the most common but valuable findings of this study is what you summarized as - "freedom was necessary for each to develop their own definition of what excellence means". When we take this line out of the realm of a group - every individual has a definition of excellence based on his/her own frame of reference and journey endured to achieve it. This course is lending that journey. And every group also has a definition of excellence (which is the most popular based on societal context). What is really interesting about this study is the norm about dealing with the emotions of having to 'let go' some traits or some behaviors as we "cannot have it all". Excellent observations by the Professor and motive behind these assignments and the topics chosen for this course. Might help to explicitly document what were the moral dilemmas or the trade-offs the students were facing.
    • Executive Director, ESAF Micro Finance
    This has once again reminded me to say 'NO' at certain areas for not compromising on 'Excellence' in some competent areas
    • Apollo Ekelot
    • Finance Director, ChildFund International
    Extremely eye opening. This is some kind of truth that has always existed but someone needed to put it together. Thank you Frei and Schulman; yes the boldness to say "if I am going to be really good at something, I am going to be bad at something else" has most often eluded us and led to settling for mediocrity! I have read the article again and again its relevance is overtly clear. We need to collaborate to be better for surely the sum is greater than the parts. It is also true that in our vain efforts to be good at everything, we have hurt relationships, failed to be better at anything and generally lowered standards for all of us. Great learning!