When our son Nicholas, now a sophomore at UC Davis, was being recruited to play collegiate tennis, my wife, Tae, and I had the chance to talk with quite a few men's tennis coaches. One of them was Glenn Michibata, head coach at Princeton University. In the course of our conversation with Glenn, one of the questions we asked him was: "How much time do your players practice every day?" Glenn responded, "I tell them they need to practice two hours every day if they want to stay the same; more if they want to get better." His comment has stuck with me ever since. It has become a mantra when I work with leaders on their own practice routines.
Glenn's experience taught him that becoming the best player took more than an annual weekend retreat, more than a monthly coaching session, more than a weekly tune-up, and more than a brief daily reflection on what it takes to excel. He had learned that it requires hours a day of practice. But it's not any kind of practice that works. "To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition, it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades," write K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, leading researchers in the field of human performance. "However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise."
Ericsson and his colleagues aren't just talking here about athletes or performing artists. Their research has examined "…top performance in a wide variety of domains: surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting, and many others." I think it's about time that we apply the findings from their research about deliberate practice to the development of leaders.
And just what is deliberate practice? Using the key elements Geoff Colvin describes it in his new book, Talent Is Overrated — a book I referenced in a recent blog in LeaderTalk — here is what it looks like. (The editorial comments are mine!)
- Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance. Going to the driving range and hitting a bucket of balls is definitely not deliberate practice. It may be fun, and you may get a bit better, but it's not the route to becoming the best you can be. The key word here is "designed," meaning there is a methodology and there is a very clear goal. More often than not a coach or teacher selects the goal and the method.
- It can be repeated a lot. Engaging in a designed learning experience just once or twice doesn't cut it. It has to be done over and over and over again until it's automatic. That takes hours of repetition. The norm is about two hours of practice per day every day! Anders Ericsson also adds that during repetition you need to pay as much attention to the methodology as to the goal. Sloppy execution is not acceptable to top performers.
- Feedback on results is continuously available. Every learner needs feedback. It's the only way you know whether or not you're getting close to your goal and whether or not you're executing properly. While there may come a time when you're accomplished enough to assess your own performance, you'll need a coach, mentor or some other third party to help you analyze how you did. "The development of expertise," writes Anders Ericsson and colleagues, "requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback."
- Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally. It requires intense concentration and focus. Even when the type of activity requires intense physical effort – as in athletic sports – the limiting factor is often more mental than physical. It seems that we are more likely to tire from mental strain than physical strain. That's why deliberate practice sessions are often only about two to three hours.
- It isn't much fun. While we should absolutely love what we do, deliberate practice is not designed to be fun. What keeps the top performers going during the often-grueling practice sessions is not the fun that they are having, but the knowledge that they are improving and getting closer to their dream of superior performance.
And there are a couple other critical elements that emerge from the research:
- During deliberate practice experts work on their weaknesses and not just on their strengths. These days we hear a lot how we should ignore our weaknesses or find someone else who's good at what we aren't. That message is not consistent with what those who study expertise have found. To quote Anders Ericsson: "Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become." We'll have to rethink our interpretation of what it means to lead from our strengths.
- It helps to have support. Studies of top performers strongly suggest that you have to have a supportive environment in order to develop expertise. A supportive family is very common in the stories of world-class performers. Coaches, mentors, and teachers, while tough and demanding, are also important sources of support.
- It helps to start young. The world's top performers more than likely started when they were children. Because it takes years of continuous deliberate practice to become world-class, it makes sense that if you want to make the Olympics at eighteen you have to start when you are six. That doesn't mean we are doomed to being average if we don't start until we are in our twenties. But it does mean that we can't expect to perform at an expert level until we're in our thirties, assuming we practice every day. It takes practice, and practice takes time.
All of this great research is well and good, but how can we put it into practice at work? How can we each use these guidelines to become better leaders? After all, if you're like me, you don't have two extra hours a day, every day, to add deliberate practice into our already overloaded schedules. Precisely. That's why we have to learn to turn our workplaces into practice fields and to develop practice routines in which we can engage during the normal eight to twelve hours we're at work. Next week I'll offer some tips on how you can do that. I also want to hear from you. What are you doing to incorporate deliberate practice into your leadership agenda?