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.
Michael Blanding is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.
[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]