Curse of Competence: How Being Good gets in the way of Becoming Great

Just before the storms hit last winter, my father-in-law and I replaced 26 feet of fence on my property. I must say, for a couple of non-handyman-sorts like the two of us, it is a very well done fence.

The fence posts are appropriately spaced and perfectly vertical. Four nails are equally distributed on the fence boards to allow for shrinking and expanding. The boards are evenly spaced and level across the top and bottom.

The whole job took less than five hours from start to finish and several of the neighbors have complimented us on both the quality of the work and the speed we accomplished the job. For my first fence job, it is very well done.

Would I like to do it again? Not on your life!

On occasion, I can appreciate the need to get one's hands dirty to take care of an important job. Sometimes, a person has to do what a person has to do. It was also a good opportunity to dabble in a task that allowed me to grow competence in an area where I am admittedly weak. To save time, money, and the headache of finding, identifying, and monitoring a fencing contractor, it was simpler for me-with my father-in-law's help-to complete the job personally.

But just because you can do a thing, doesn't mean you ought to. The same can be said for companies who expend time and resources performing a task, because they can as opposed to if they should.

Sometimes, companies can end up performing tasks or undertaking roles that they really should not. Mix a little operational necessity with situational urgency; add in a dash of latent personnel competence and a company can find itself performing a function that my father would call, "not its best and highest use."

While it is laudable to shore up weakness, a company should never fail to consistently capitalize and leverage its strengths, its highest and best use. There is a curse in competence. Competence is merely the minimum ability to carry out a task. Why should companies curtail-or at the very least strongly reconsider- activities for which they are merely competent?

* Competence hampers growth - If competence is the minimum ability needed to carry out a task, it requires little or no effort. Growth requires rigor. Where is your time best spent: on activities that make you and your company better or on activities that offer little intrinsic reward for their completion? Growth requires sacrificing what is comfortable. Rigor commands your full attention. You can choose either growth or competence. There is no room for both.

* Competence masks distinction - When you deliberate where to go out to eat, one of the earliest questions you ask is, "What kind of food do we want: Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Steak, Seafood, Vegetarian, etc." Now imagine if you had half dozen restaurants to choose from and they all offered all choices. How would you choose? Your potential customers have the same problem when they are looking for someone who does what you do. In a crowded marketplace, you do not want to look like everyone else. Distinction is strongly correlated with success.

* Hedgehog Principle - In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies factors that set the best companies apart from their competitors. Within the Hedgehog principle, he identifies "What can we be best in the world at?" as one of the key questions that the best companies answered. There is much more to be gained by being the very best at one thing, rather than very good at a number of things.

How can you catch yourself performing a non-essential competence? To start, ask yourself the following questions:

Is this task compulsory?

Are you are doing something because you have to and not because you want to? There are times when forces external to your business compel you to undertake certain tasks. If you and your people are not passionate about the task, but have to perform it nonetheless, consider an outsourcing arrangement.

Does it align with our purpose?

A purpose statement should embody something that you have a reasonable chance of being. When considering whether a task is essential, ask yourself if it contributes to the fulfillment of your purpose. If it does not, then it is drawing energy and time away from activities that will.

How did we come to engage in this task?

Are you not really sure how you got around to doing a task in the first place. In the exigency of performing your natural function, competencies develop. This is a natural outgrowth of effective performance. However, if after considering the history of a task you cannot clearly remember how you got into the practice, chances are it was somewhat unintentional. Consider that a clue.

There are two factors that combine to encourage you to widen your breadth of competence. The first is our corporate role models. Do you have any Jack Welch books on your bookshelf? I do, too. Welch is great. Many of us can learn from his wisdom.

However, that does not mean your business should become a General Electric. There are very few enduringly successful conglomerates in the world. Do not fall into the assumption that just because it works for one, it will work for all, or most importantly, for you and your business.

The second factor is the Judeo-Christian ethic that encourages you to be a well-balanced person. Balance is laudable. The more options you have, the more problems you can solve. Balance provides options. But, balance is not as helpful if you do not live in and leverage your strengths.

By all means, continue to expand your personal horizons. You will be healthier for it. But, your business is weakest when its activities are too diffuse. As an organization, focus on what you do best. Strive to become the best in the world at it. Resist the comfort that comes with mere competence.

REPUBLISHING PERMISSION: You are welcome to download or reprint this article so long as you include my byline and copyright at the end of each piece with a live weblink. Please forward publication specifics to The attribution should read:

"By Jeff Simon of Jeff Simon Consulting, The Client Retention Specialists. Are you having trouble keeping your best clients?

Please visit Jeff's website for additional articles and resources for keeping your best clients."

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