The common attribute of high performers in sports, music and chess is not talent, as is so often assumed, but 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This begs the question, what is deliberate practice and can it be applied to individuals and organizations to improve the quality of business leadership? The following is an adaptation of a set of principles defined by Geoff Colvin in the book, “Talent is Overrated.” By studying the principles of deliberate practice and how successful business leaders such as Steve Ballmer of Microsoft have applied these same principles throughout their careers, Geoff Colvin provides valuable insight into how we can develop better business leaders.
Deliberate practice is far different than what most of us do every day as we set about our task of getting work done. Most people in business are content with a relatively low pace of performance improvement. High performers in any discipline are only content if they are achieving measurable improvement every day, and they are willing to work extraordinarily hard to maintain that level of improvement over long periods of time.
- Have a long-term goal. First and foremost, you must know where you want to go. Take the time to stop and consider what you want to accomplish in 5 to 10 years. The rigors of deliberate practice are so demanding that we don’t have a chance of sustaining the required level of intensity over many years to achieve success unless we have a firm commitment to our long-term goal. Think of Tiger Woods who, at an early age, set a personal goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major golf championships.
- Design a system of deliberate practice that can be applied every day. Great performers in music and sports have highly refined daily practice routines designed to achieve incremental performance improvement. Granted, the world of business does not lend itself to what we traditionally call “practice,” however there are methods and routines business leaders can employ that lead to steady improvement over time.
- Set a daily goal. Before you arrive at work every morning, target a competency or skill for improvement. This could be presentation skills, providing feedback to employees, financial analysis or even technical skills.
- Reflect on your performance. As you go about your day, reflect on how you react emotionally as you are challenged to improve. Is there an emotion or feeling that may be derailing your progress? If so, why is that and what can you do to overcome this problem? Great athletes are in tune with their bodies and will rate every practice session and drill. They don’t wait for the end of the day to rate and reflect on their performance. The same principle can be applied to business. Having the emotional maturity to reflect and self-regulate in this way is another reason why emotional intelligence is becoming so important for leadership development. It is critical for improvement.
- Seek Feedback on Your Results. Just as great runners time their practice runs and compare their performance to their daily goal and past performance, so to must business leaders seek feedback on their performance. Some people think there is too much feedback in business but I don’t think there is enough. That doesn’t mean you ask for 360-feedback every day, but you can identify specific measures of improvement. Most people in business are content with saying, “I did a pretty good job today.” High performers are only content when they can validate their performance with results.
- Identify errors that were made. The fad in business today is for business leaders to focus on their strengths and largely ignore their weaknesses, but that’s not how Michael Jordan achieved his success. High performers are diligent about recognizing and admitting to errors, and taking personal ownership for addressing their weaknesses and improving. Mediocre performers in any field are much more willing to assign blame to external factors when considering their poor performance. I find myself falling into this trap when I play golf. After hitting a poor shot my mind often assigns blame to some defect in my equipment or the poor condition of the course. I highly doubt Tiger Woods takes this same approach.
- Get a coach. Having a coach, someone with deep-seated knowledge and experience in your field, is extremely valuable for business professionals. In the business career path, we all eventually reach a point at which there is no rule book for what is the “right” or “wrong” decision. This can be said for any field, but it is even more true in business where, unlike chess, music or sports, the rules of engagement are not clearly defined. A coach helps business leaders go through the steps of deliberate practice, from setting a daily goal to giving feedback and identifying performance improvement. After hitting the poor shot on the golf course and assigning blame to my equipment, it is my coach who points out the flaw in my swing and suggests a subtle adjustment.
- Deepen your Domain Knowledge. One of the by-products of logging 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is an extensive knowledge-base within your area of expertise. This extensive knowledge is put to use by high performers to achieve a competitive advantage over others. They are faster at making decisions (Malcolm Gladwell has great examples of this in his book Blink) and they are better able to identify future trends. Mediocre performers in business tend to assume that the domain knowledge of their company and industry is something they will pick up naturally over the course of their career. There is no real urgency to go out and acquire the knowledge proactively. High performers are the opposite, they eagerly read about the history of their companies and industries, they interview other high performers, and they study competitive products and strategies. Deepening your domain knowledge is not simply amassing statistics and facts. To really put domain knowledge to use, high performers build and conceive mental models for how a company and industry function, or even how they communicate and interact with others. These models provide a framework for analyzing and understanding situations, helping leaders to make better decisions and continue to improve every day.
Deliberate practice is not easy and unfortunately, the organizational culture and systems in place at most companies today do not support business leaders who strive to apply the principles. Those of us working in professional and leadership development today must ask ourselves how the cultural and organizational factors in our organizations support the principles of deliberate practice. Perhaps, instead of investing more time and resources in the next great leadership training program, we should be designing systems to help our future leaders log their 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as timely and efficiently as possible.