I’m finding that the public at large is beginning to gain an understanding of the development of expertise through what Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” It’s been touted in all kinds of popular magazines and talked about at the water cooler. In fact, the public is beginning to understand that the development of expertise takes a long time and a lot of effort. That means that whether you’re trying to improve your golf score, your chess game or your project management skills, it’s not going to happen overnight.
In their attempts to understand deliberate practice, I’ve noticed that people get the practice bit fairly well, and that they’re trying to figure out how to stay motivated and persevere in their practice and development.
But there’s one disconnect. Practice, practice, practice can reinforce some very poor habits and not bring you the success you want. Practice will not help you improve your skills without regular coaching and feedback. And that’s easier said than done.
Anders Ericsson, the father of deliberate practice, says that not only will our practice require full attention and concentration, failure is likely to arise (that’s an understatement) and that gradual improvements with corrections and repetitions are necessary.
The key phrase is gradual improvements with corrections. To become more successful we’re going to need better coaching. Finding effective coaches on the job is a task of itself. If coaching is available from your manager or colleagues, that’s one thing. More often than not they can help you with all that you need.
Over the long term, however, you may find that you really need a master coach. In larger firms that will mean that you start working the network to find someone. Some managers and most executives can get their company to fund a coach to work with them over a long period of time. I usually spend ten to twelve months with a client. It’s not unusual, however, for me to work up to two years with an exec.
Do you need the best coach you can find?
It’s really not necessary, however, to start with the best coach you can find for developing a new competency. As Daniel Coyle notes in the Talent Code (see my review), a large number of world-class talents start with seemingly average teachers. But what’s important is to be able to identify when you’ve learned all you can learn from that coach.
I studied piano as a kid from the time I was in the fourth grade through high school. Even as a kid, I realized by the time I was in the sixth grade that that I’d advanced beyond my teacher, and with my grade school music teacher’s help, found a better teacher. Toward the end of the ninth grade, when I’d advanced so much that I could recognize some really terrific piano players around school who were obviously getting better coaching, I started asking around. Eventually one of the top high school players suggested her teacher, a University of Michigan piano major with a master’s who had studied with the great Artur Schnabel at Michigan. As soon as I walked into her living room and saw two Steinway concert grands, I knew that I was in a different ballpark than anything I’d ever experienced.
But looking back at that last teacher I realize something of much importance. She was an outstanding pianist, and merely a very good teacher.
The great coaches not only understand their discipline, whether piano, relationship or project management, or even strategy formulation, but also understand the individual and can adapt their coaching to the individual. That requires both a deep knowledge of the specific discipline, as well as a deep knowledge of the coaching process and the ability to identify and adapt to an individual’s need. That’s why Daniel Coyle indicates that most of the great coaches he met were all in the sixties or seventies. (At my age, I have a real investment in that conclusion. Ha!)
Remember this principle: Better and better coaches will be needed to support your practice, practice, practice.