As leaders, we’re accustomed to being good at what we do. Learning something new is hard, especially at the beginning when we’re likely to struggle and make mistakes. The reality is, the only way to learn something new is to practice. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. Perhaps more of a realist, Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, writes that to go from “knowing nothing to being pretty good” actually takes about 20 hours of practice – that’s 45 minutes every day for a month. So whether you aspire to “pretty good” or “expert,” practice is essential. Yet practicing can be difficult and painful when we’re used to having a high degree of competence.
Perhaps this is why most leaders are resistant to the idea of practice – often, the more senior the leader, the more reluctant they are to practice something new. Many leaders believe that intellectual understanding is enough, that all they need to do is read about something or discuss it in order to be able to do it well. But we know that skill development is vital.
Swimming is my favorite analogy. Two of my teenage children are competitive swimmers, which means I have been volunteering at swim meets for over a decade. My volunteer job is to monitor races and ensure that swimmers follow legal stroke technique. I have received hours and hours of training – lecture, video, discussion, observation – on what constitutes proper, legal technique. I can tell you exactly what the butterfly should look like: the kick and the pull, and how the arms have to be synchronous, and how the touch and turn need to work. I know all about how to swim butterfly. But I can’t swim the butterfly at all. Not even 25 yards. That’s the difference between intellectual understanding and the skill development.
As leaders, we generally have the intellectual capacity to quickly grasp concepts and ideas, which can lead us to mistakenly believe we also know how to execute on them right away. The reality is that we don’t – not until we practice, get feedback, refine our approach, and practice again – for somewhere between 20 and 10,000 hours. This is hard to do. Learning something new means being clumsy at it initially, making mistakes, course-correcting, and trying again. It’s uncomfortable. And even when we know the skill is valuable, it often makes our work more difficult at first, causing many leaders to stop trying new things and revert to old habits.
Knowing the importance of practice, how do we build it into our training experiences? And how do we hold ourselves and others accountable for the hard work of practice?
- Acknowledge the Challenge
Be honest about the difficulty of learning something new, especially when you’re in a leadership role. Expect mistakes. Celebrate effort and risk-taking rather than expertise and skill level. Create a culture where leaders are rewarded for trying new things and building new skills, even when their early attempts are less-than-perfect.
- Limit the Scope
Training often includes information on many different behaviors, approaches, skills, and techniques. It isn’t possible to practice and master all of them at one time. Encourage leaders to choose one or two things that have a high potential for enhancing their work, and focus their practice on just those things – at least to start.
- Commit Time
Commit time every week – ideally every day – for practice. Block time on the calendar. Minimize distractions, and work on skill development as seriously as you would on any other project. You might even create a project plan with deadlines and deliverables.
- Leverage Tools and Materials in the Program
Most training programs include opportunities for practice – action learning projects, individual action planning guides, cases, role plays, etc. Use them as much as you can – individually or in study groups or with partners. These can be extremely helpful for practice, even outside of the program.
- Create Practice Partnerships
Work with colleagues to hold each other accountable for practice. Practice partnerships are also a great way to get feedback on your development.
- Consider Coaching
Sometimes leaders need more support than can be offered by practice partners. In these cases, a coach can be extremely useful. Coaching may be available through HR or L&D, or you may decide to invest in coaching on your own. A good coach will help you create a plan, offer feedback, and help you stay accountable to your own goals.
Making a commitment to practice is essential to maximize the impact of training. After all, practice is the only way to become proficient in a new skill or behavior. As leaders, we need to embrace the discomfort of being beginners in order to continue to grow and improve.
What new skill should you be practicing?