Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 7, 2018
“You can’t be great at everything,” Frances Frei, Harvard Business School professor
That would seem to be obvious. Yet, many of us (my mother included), know this to be true, but we don’t really internalize and believe it. More to the point, we don’t act rationally on that data. We find it very hard to say no to the next challenge.
Frei teaches a class that has as its mantra — “you need the courage to be bad.” Her research seems to indicate that well-intentioned, energetic people following their own instincts end up being part of the problem. In their zeal to be good at everything, they end up not being excellent at anything.
The key word above is excellent. Many of us are good at multiple things, but she suggests that very few of us can be excellent at many things. I coach really smart people, and one of the primary tasks is to teach the CEO that he/she cannot micromanage everything. Even more to the point, I encourage them to pick one thing that they think they can control or master — and then master that.
In the case of a new little software company, we know that there are multiple revenue streams available and lots of problems we can address, but if we try to corral all of them at once we will go broke. Obvious, huh? Frei’s work wonders why what is obvious also seems at times to be so opaque. Why is it so hard to delegate, and in so doing, to accept our limitations? This theme naturally leads to learning to prioritize and then to focus. Do not spend time picking up nickels if dollar bills are nearby.
She says, “People compete against each other on every dimension. To break out and rise above, you don’t need more capability, you need the courage to say, ‘if I am going to be really good at something, I am going to be bad at something else.” Sure we all get that she is right, but we assume, we believe, that the rule does not apply to us.
My readers know that I teach at the Donovan Correctional Facility, and when I ask an inmate what he was thinking before he committed the crime, his answer is universally the same, “I didn’t think I’d get caught.” That behavior is mirrored from the ghetto to the board rooms of the Fortune 500. We fool ourselves into thinking the rules of the universe do not apply to us.
Frei goes on to say that the next required behavior that goes with acceptance of limitations is collaboration. “You need to learn how to work with others.” Again, duh. But I love that the obvious is also very hard to do. We humans are just wired in a way that resists this. We know that the team needs to work together, but what processes have we put in place to achieve this?
Frei turns to Amy Schulman, venture partner at Polaris, who explains startup investing in this way: “When you get people with different objectives, you create more value for everyone. The sum is greater than the parts.” Don’t you love that what is being said is so right — and yet it is so hard for us to truly integrate and internalize that knowledge into our thinking and behavior?
Schulman and Frei proceed to the next required characteristic: communication. You need to talk to each other. (Now in fairness, I do not think you need to go to Harvard to get this concept.) In your company, do you have a concrete, immutable way to foster communication?
And finally, both women turn to the last concept needed to achieve excellence: change. They note that it is hard to change. As many of you know I have been seeing my favorite shrink for more than 25 years. Here is Freud’s summation of the psycho-analytic process: “The goal of therapy is to change pathological, destructive, neurotic behavior into normal human misery.” Change, hah! We all know about the leopard and his spots. I will end with a favorite quote from Albert Einstein, “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Rule No. 580
Can you make change for a $20?