Are you getting better at what you do? Unless you’re actively practicing the key skill sets involved in your work activities, the answer is “no.” Research with more than 3,000 human resource executives showed that senior executives receive the least amount of training, and 41 percent receive no training and development at all.  It’s ironic that as a leader assumes more responsibility and makes decisions that have a much greater impact on the overall business, they’re given less practice and training.

Practice is defined as “to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient; to train by repeated exercises.”  While we most often see the applicability of practice to sports, music, and hobbies, the reality is that practice is also integral to success in intellectual pursuits. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s intellectual rigor and success in his field are due in large part to his willingness and discipline to practice.

Writer Roger Parloff describes Chief Justice Robert’s practice habits: “When Roberts was preparing an oral argument, he would write down—usually longhand, using a pen and a legal pad—hundreds of questions that he might conceivably be asked. He’d ponder and refine the answers in his mind. Then he’d write the questions on flash cards, shuffle them, and test himself, so he’d be prepared to answer any question in any order.” Chief Justice Roberts explained this approach with oral advocates in a speech: “The advocate . . . must meticulously prepare, analyze, and rehearse answers to hundreds of questions, questions that in all likelihood will actually never be asked by the court.”

Renowned surgeon and professor Atul Gawande echoes the value of practice when he came to the following realization: “I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my tennis serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?” Dr. Gawande’s insight demonstrates that high performers in intellectual fields generally don’t even consider practicing because of the very fact that they are high performers in an intellectual field. Understanding that practicing the behaviors critical to one’s role is important at any level of the organization opens up the potential for dramatic organizational improvement. The next step is determining how to practice those behaviors.

Practice Principle #1: Begin with the Goal

If you’ve ever coached your young child’s sports team, you understand the challenges of balancing the fun factor with actually teaching them skills to improve. With all that energy on the field or court, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of rapid-fire drills or chaotic scrimmages just to keep things moving along. But, no matter the age group, each practice needs to have at least one goal to work toward. The goal is what you are trying to achieve during that practice. Goals can include faster footwork, better defense, improved fielding, and so on. Once the goals have been identified prior to the practice, the activities that build toward the goals can be chosen.

The same holds true for managers. When you look at each manager and the responsibilities they have, what goals will help them improve their key behaviors? In other words, what should they be trying to achieve when practicing that behavior? Is the goal to improve their understanding of a competitor’s strategic approach to the market? Is the goal developing medical-expert relationships to secure a greater number of clinical trials at a key academic hospital? Is the goal influencing without authority in order to align priorities across different functional areas in the organization? Determining the goal of the practice is step one.

Practice Principle #2: Break the Whole into Pieces

New behaviors are most effectively mastered when they are broken into their individual components. Once in the individual components, each piece can then be practiced slowly and repeatedly until that circuit has built up more bandwidth. An Olympic diver masters each chunk of the dive and then puts them together during the competition so that they flow together automatically.

 Once a manager has a goal to practice, the next step is to break that behavior into its individual pieces. The behavior of the resource allocation of time can be broken down into individual steps including analysis of where current time is invested, where current time is wasted and changes in time distribution. Mastery is then demonstrated when the manager can seamlessly weave together the individual elements of the behavior into its whole. To assist in the process, use a visual flow chart to plot the separate pieces and show the manager how each part fits into the sum of the behavior.

Practice Principle #3: Correct with a Solution

The great teachers and coaches are skilled in correcting their students or athletes and then providing them with an immediate opportunity to practice the activity again to improve on it. Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden, who led the UCLA men’s basketball team to 10 national championships, was studied in the 1970s to better understand his highly successful practice habits. The researchers recorded and coded more than 2,000 discrete acts of teaching during his practices. Of these, only 6.9 percent were compliments and 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. The vast majority, 75 percent, were pure information: simple directions on how to play basketball. Coach Wooden didn’t waste time with long, monologue critiques of his players. He told them what he wanted them to do and had them immediately do it.

One of Wooden’s former players described the process: “It was the information I received, during the correction, that I needed most. Having received it, I could then make the adjustments and changes needed. It was the information that promoted change.” Coach Wooden didn’t waste time with evaluations (“No, that’s not right. What are you thinking!”). He provided clear, concise, and informative solutions. How much time each day do you observe is spent on trite praise in emails or long-winded monologues in meetings? 

Not much stays the same. You’re either practicing key skill sets and getting better or tied to the activity-for-activity’s-sake treadmill and getting worse. Which is it?

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