“The harder I practice the luckier I get” – Gary Player
The quote above was Gary Player’s response to an onlooker who dismissed Player’s ability as luck; Player was hitting shots out of a bunker next to the practice green and had just holed three bunker shots in a row. For Player, it wasn’t about luck. The champion golfer understood the importance of practice. The odds were shortened by the amount of the practice he put into difficult shots.
The very best sports people, actors and musicians practice or rehearse. They work on areas that need improvement and keep tuning those elements of their sport or art that they do well. They also visualise what they are trying to achieve. The reason? Because it works! So if this is so obvious, why do managers and leaders, by and large, spend little or no time in rehearsal. If there are aspects of their job that they need to work on, then why do they “wing it” and avoid putting in some practice. Just being a manager day in day out is not practice. It certainly will develop certain skill areas but what about the weak spots? Top Golfers spend a lot of time practicing. But they don’t practice by just playing more rounds of golf. They break the game into components and practice these separately. Take for example bunker shots; a nightmare for the amateur “Sunday golfer”. Professionals practice their bunker shots, their ability to float the ball out of a bed of sand and onto the green.
Why is practice so important? Well, for golfers, if they are playing well, they won’t end up in the bunker very often so they won’t get a lot of opportunity to play these shots during a competition. Also, if they have this as a weakness in their game then they will have this negative image of landing in a bunker whenever one is in sight. The mind can be very effective in translating “avoid the bunker” into “go for the bunker”. Likewise, musicians spend hours practicing the very basics of their musicianship, the scales and arpeggios that lay the foundation for all music. So it pays to practice and rehearse. One might argue that there is an important aspect of developing “muscle memory” in practice but there is more to it than that. There is a deep psychological benefit in being highly competent in a skill area. It allows one to move beyond sheer competence and into higher levels of accomplishment. A world class musician is not just someone who gets all the notes correct! There is more to being a top actor than remembering all the lines.
The power of denial
So, why is it that managers feel that they can do the equivalent of playing no golf for six months and then expect to get around eighteen holes of a course in level par? Based on my experience in leadership development, the following are typical reasons that managers put forward as reasons for not practicing or rehearsing.
- “I’m too busy”
- “I learn from experience, picking it up as I go”
- “I hate role play”
- “I already get too much practice every day”
- “I’m uncomfortable with this”
Don’t get me wrong, managers aren’t lazy. I’ve spent the most of my career in management roles and know the commitment that managers bring to their work. They have a lot of competing pressures; setting aside time to practice a skill seems like a luxury. But surely it’s important enough to make it a priority.
It reminds me of the Stephen Covey story of a man who was walking through a forest when he came across a frustrated lumberjack. The lumberjack was trying to cut down a tree with and was swearing and cursing as he laboured in vain.
“What’s the problem?” The man asked.
“My saw’s blunt and won’t cut the tree properly.” The lumberjack responded.
“Why don’t you just sharpen it?”
“Because then I would have to stop sawing.” said the lumberjack.
“But if you sharpened your saw, you could cut more efficiently and effectively than before.”
“But I don’t have time to stop!” The lumberjack retorted.
Rehearsal is a great example of “Sharpening the Saw”. In the short term it is an investment of time but it pays long term dividends in terms of effectiveness. Let’s take it as a given that most of us aren’t “born leaders”, even if we leave aside the debate that such mythical creatures exist. We have to work at being leaders or managers. If we identify areas for development then the next step is to have an active rehearsal plan. Common areas of development that seem to feature regularly are influencing, giving feedback, active listening and motivating others. All of these can be broken down into smaller components, rehearsed and then improved.
The basic elements of rehearsal
In order to be effective, the following basic elements should be part of your rehearsal:
A low risk environment (the practice ground). In other words, don’t try something new during a presentation to the chief executive. You might pull it off but more than likely you’ll crash and burn. Try it out in a situation where there is less pressure. Repetition (a bucket of golfballs). To really ingrain a new skill you need to practice it regularly. This won’t happen unless you set yourself reminders to do it. Acknowledge it as important and then it will get into your diary. The very fact of even thinking about it regularly will help you to improve.
Feedback (a target to measure against). You don’t see golfers just hitting balls aimlessly if they are trying to practice. They have a target to aim at so they can see their progress. You may be able to get feedback from others such as a coach or colleague and this is probably the best type of feedback, someone who observes what you are doing and is skilled and trusted enough to give you constructive feedback. You can also assess yourself if you define a clear objective up front. For example, if you are working on your listening and influencing skills you can keep track of how many open questions you ask, adding a point for each open question and deducting a point for each closed question. Set yourself a target number of points for a specific interaction and see how you do.
Adjustment (trying different things to find what works best). If something isn’t working then you have to find out what needs to be changed. So, how can find this out? Well, look for someone who you know has a highly developed ability in the particular area. Observe them. Try to identify what makes them so capable. Talk to them. Ask them to mentor you. The main thing is to come up with ideas that you can help you improve. Always have a notebook handy or, if you prefer, keep notes on your phone. Watch for tips and learning. You’ll be surprised with how much you see once you are tuned in to observing with purpose.
Here are a few practical tips to finish.
- If you are working with a coach, then you have a great advantage. You have the benefit of someone who can (a) provide you with a secure and safe practice ground (b) provide you with constructive feedback and (c) help you to make adjustments. It’s no coincidence that coaching is so prevalent in sports and arts.
- Try the skill in another context. For example, I worked with a manager who found that giving feedback was difficult for them, a task that they dreaded and avoided. However, she also taught music as a hobby and was quite comfortable giving feedback to her students. By examining the feedback technique she used with her music students and practicing it there, she was able to adapt this to her work situation and actually became a manager that others sought out to get feedback.
- Pair up with a colleague or friend whom you trust. Many development programmes include these types of peer support as a way of embedding the learning. But you don’t need to be on a development programme; you can do this with a colleague.
- Try putting a reminder on your phone or watch. I worked with a manager who had a challenge with listening; this had a negative impact on his relationships with colleagues who believed him to be arrogant. The solution? He had a daily diary task to give one person ten minutes of undivided attention, without interrupting and only allowing himself to ask open questions or reflect back what he had heard. The result? He very quickly found that his effectiveness as a manager improved. Interpersonal relationships with colleagues and clients were better and even at home he found that he was giving more time listening to what his kids had to tell him.
- If all else fails, just practice on your own. For example, if you are going to give feedback to someone, go through what you are planning to say. Listen to your own voice. Read from a script at first and then try it out. Do your best to visualise the person in front of you. Don’t role play their reactions, just concentrate on what you are saying.
Remember, practice may not make perfect, but at the very least it will improve your capability as a manager.