"People in twenty-first century organizations don’t practice. They just perform. Working for nine hours means performing. Practice is not included."
Riddle me this: why do some organizations and occupations value the concept of practice (think professional sports, musicians, performance artists) while others find it perfectly acceptable to wing it (think managers, leaders, some entrepreneurs)? This question gave me pause as I read Amiel Handelsman’s book Practice Greatness because I could personally relate to the disconnect it highlighted – I’ve done both. Even if you have natural talent in an area, you cannot attain greatness without practicing…a lot! And yet our work calendars and routines likely contain very little, if any, ‘practice time’. Not a recipe for success, is it?
Handelsman wanted to write a “how-to guide with an edge” – a book with actionable recommendations for developing great leadership skills. He defines greatness as “realizing our full potential in a particular domain in life” and great leadership as “realizing our full potential for the sake of a larger purpose.” He then describes 15 practices associated with great leadership: eight ‘outer practices’ like holding conversations for possibility, flipping complaints to commitments and asking great questions, and seven ‘inner practices’ such as visualizing, seeing patterns and managing commitments.
As the title suggests, greatness is grounded in deliberate practice and so Handelsman outlines a four step, common sense process for integrating practice components into your daily job commitments – prepare, act, reflect, and get feedback. Greatness, he believes, is achievable for everyone. The question is, “Are you prepared to practice?”
The Big Idea
Adopt the Boy Scouts Motto – Be Prepared!
"On-the-job practice requires, among other things, preparation (for conversations, meetings, projects and reviews) and reflection (on what went well, what you could do better, and what new possibilities you see)."
Be prepared! Great advice that is all too often ignored. In workplaces where back-to-back-to-back meetings are frequently the norm, being prepared often equates to knowing where the meeting is being held and bringing the agenda. Woefully inadequate if the meeting is to produce anything of value for the organization.
Handelsman suggests thorough preparation for any type of interpersonal interaction involves three foci:
- Macro-preparing – reflecting on your overall intention and mood, and embracing a spirit of possibility.
- Micro-preparing – defining what success looks like and considering what strategies are needed to get there.
- Preparing your body – relaxing, focusing, being nourished and refreshed.
As a consultant I typically execute #2 and #3 reasonably well and often overlook #1. Note to self: incorporate macro-preparation activities into my planning processes to ensure I am emotionally ready and open for new possibilities.
Being prepared also requires reflecting on our experiences to understand what went well, where improvements could be made and how we might approach things differently next time. Sports teams are masters at this – they review and analyze game tape, re-design plays to address identified weaknesses and then practice those plays repeatedly until they can execute them with confidence.
Too often when we ‘replay’ that disastrous meeting in our heads or with a colleague over coffee, we focus more on what others did or did not do to contribute to the poor outcome. It takes courage and practice to step back and reflect more deliberately on the role we played in co-creating those outcomes and identifying how we can act differently next time. A not-for-profit Board I belong to recently started ending our meetings by having participants answer four questions that assess meeting effectiveness. It holds us all accountable for identifying and changing poor meeting behaviours so we better utilize our time and achieve our desired outcomes.
Identify the ONE thing!
"What’s the one thing that has the greatest potential to improve my leadership? Pick it. Practice it. Practice it some more."
In addition to Practice Greatness, there are numerous books and blogs that describe the skills and competencies great leaders need to possess. As it stands, you are probably doing reasonably well in a number of them already. To make noticeable strides towards leadership greatness, many experts recommend you pick one high leverage practice that has the potential to be a game changer for you and focus solely on developing that one skill. Improving this one competency has the added bonus of creating a subtle ripple effect that also lifts your performance in other areas!
The following outer practices contribute significantly to my success as a consultant: listening well, holding conversations for possibility, turning towards others and asking great questions. And while I definitely will continue to develop and practice these skills, the game changer practice I’ve decided to focus on is telling powerful stories. Stories create stronger connections that other information-sharing mechanisms struggle to achieve. Whether I’m delivering a workshop or facilitating a planning session, being able to incorporate meaningful stories into my sessions will enhance my rapport with participants and engage them more fully (intellectually, emotionally and behaviourally) with the content.
What about you? What’s the one thing that has the greatest potential to move you closer towards leadership greatness? Are you prepared to practice it?
Uni-Task for Multiple Purposes
"Practicing on the job requires not new time but new attention."
I’m not sure I whole-heartedly agree that practicing won’t require a commitment to finding new time in your calendar, however I do believe that extra time can be reduced somewhat if we are more attentive to learning and practicing ‘in the moment’ as opportunities arise. Handelsman’s concept of ‘uni-tasking’ for multiple purposes is a creative solution. He described how he began to use story time with his son as an opportunity to practice his presentation skills. He focused more deliberately on his tone, tempo, inflection and expression which enhanced both the story time experience and his future presentations.
I am now on the look-out for opportunities in my daily activities to practice asking more and better questions and then listening deeply to the answers to those questions to gain understanding, rather than listening to compose a response. I will also look for opportunities to share a story or two and seek feedback on how I might make those stories more engaging and relevant. And I will schedule some additional calendar time so I can develop a catalogue of stories and practice telling them until I can do so comfortably and confidently.
Where might you leverage the concept of uni-tasking for multiple purposes to practice your high impact skills? Schedule deliberate practice time in your calendar and be alert for opportunities throughout the day to practice your game-changer leadership skills.
Practice Greatness. It’s a book title and a call to action. It’s a reminder that we need to be clear about what we want, identify the key skills and competencies we need to develop to achieve those outcomes, and continually practice those skills until they become second-nature to us. I mentioned this earlier and it’s worth repeating: Greatness is something everyone can attain. It simply requires a willingness to practice. Are you ready and willing to practice greatness?
What do you want to be great at? What do you need to practice to achieve that greatness?