Happy New Year, everyone! This is the week we start acting on all those resolutions we made on New Year's Eve, right? You know, the one's about getting into better shape. Make sure that you include on that list getting into better shape as a leader.
And that means practice, practice, and more practice. I've written about practice five times in the last three months, and I can't resist beginning the new year with yet another reminder about its importance.
I'm delighted that this topic is finally getting some attention. Two new books that address the subject—ones I have recommended previously—Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, are both on the Wall Street Journal's bestsellers list. Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, wrote a blog about it for Harvard Business Online calling deliberate practice "The Secret to Success in a Failing Economy."
I also want to thank readers of LeaderTalk for engaging me in conversation about the issue. I've received more comments about deliberate practice than about any other topic. In response to a couple of our readers I attempted to clarify how we can build deliberate practice into our daily schedule.
Deliberate practice is not the same thing as daily execution. It's not about what we do routinely during the 8, 10 or 12 hours we're at work. Deliberate practice, as the phrase implies, is about intentionally engaging in an activity that will improve how we execute and how we lead. (See my November 12 blog for more on the elements of deliberate practice.)
Let's say you get feedback that you're not listening attentively to others and that you'd be much more effective if you'd do a better job at really paying attention to what people are saying. How, then, can you "deliberately practice" listening without having to add another 2 to 3 hours onto your already full and busy workday? What can you do to intentionally improve your listening skills using a designed learning activity while you are at work?
It might look something like this.
- Set a purposeful stretch goal. The goal of any practice is to
improve performance. It's about learning something new or fine-tuning an
existing skill. And, it should push you to the next level, not just be
something that repeats over and over what you do well. For example, you might
set a goal to always clarify your understanding of what others are saying
before you respond to them.
- Design or select a method for improvement. You need a process
for improving— steps that you will repeat in order make sure that you do
something correctly. You could, for instance, devote 30 minutes of a regular
daily meeting to practicing my listening skills. You could use the technique of
"active listening" during the meeting. (Active Listening is a
structured way of responding that requires you to briefly restate the key
points the speaker makes and to check with the speaker to ensure that you are
hearing her/him accurately.)
- Get immediate feedback. You need to get feedback on how well
you execute on the method and how close you get to your goal. In a meeting that
feedback can come from the other attendees in the meeting—you can ask them,
"Am I hearing you correctly?"—you can get it from a coach or someone
else you've asked to observe you, or you can video tape the meeting and watch
- Focus. To benefit from practice, you have to pay attention to
what you are doing. You should not be on autopilot during practice. You need to
concentrate. Stay focused and use this technique for the entire 30 minutes.
While it might feel a little awkward, the point is to stick with the routine
until it becomes second nature. As a practice aide, for example, you could have
a card in front of you as a reminder of the correct steps in the process.
- Get support. Studies of top performers
strongly suggest that a supportive environment is critical to developing expertise. Engage a coach from HR, OD, or even another line
manager who is accomplished in this skill and ask her/him to observe you in the
meeting. After the meeting, s/he can give you feedback and tips on listening.
Also, let other people in the meeting know what you are doing. They can help
you stay focused, give you feedback, and offer their encouragement. Generally,
people like to help others improve, so enlist their support.
This is just one example of how we can take a routine activity— a meeting — and turn it into a "practice field" for leadership. There are many, many other ways you can bring "deliberate practice" into the workplace. Case studies, for instance, are a terrific way to safely practice how to respond to critical incidents. Role plays are another methodology that can be more effectively utilized at work.
The best leaders are the best learners. They are curious about what is going on around them, always seeking to better understand how things work, how they are leading, and how they can improve their own behavior and the functioning of the organizations. A learning mindset is critical to becoming the best in any field.
I'd love to hear more from you about ways in which leaders can deliberately practice during the available hours at work. Please share with your practice routines with us.
I wish you all a year of continuous leadership improvement.