Sunday, February 28, 2010

Practice in Place

Four years ago, a Fortune senior editor named Geoff Colvin wrote an article called "What It Takes to be Great". It spoke about research supporting the notion of deliberate practice playing a key role in the success of people in sports, business and other professions. His new book is "Talent is Overrated".

I highly recommend you get a copy and pass it around the office. In our jobs, we can get trapped into continuous performance with occasional injections of training interspersed at various points in our careers.

Many think we improve in our careers through apprenticeship, experience, hard work, mentoring, luck and the most prevalent of all learning tools - osmosis. All true. The key though to getting a lot better at your life's work, according to Colvin and the research, is deliberate practice.

I wholeheartedly agree.

What many of us lack in our work lives is a process of deliberate practice to continually raise the level of our game. We are like pitchers who don't warm up in the bullpen or singers who don't rehearse with the band. Performance suffers.

I coach people who talk to clients all the time - to inform, to persuade, or to sell. Rarely do they admit to doing a dress rehearsal before a pitch or role playing client Q&A before a meeting or doing their update to the boss with a colleague first.

Question: Why Not? Answer: No Time! Solution: Make Time!

Easier said than done of course - especially when you're already working too much, sleeping too little, eating too poorly and not finding enough time for the important things in life. So, what can a busy executive or salesperson or banker do to squeeze in some practice?

First off, who can play clients better than us? We see them all the time. Second, when we deliberately practice we discover better ways to frame our case, make a point, or counter an objection. Third, we hear how we verbalize thoughts before the client hears them. In group practice, we may say "God, don't ever say that with this client" or "that was a killer point - make sure you bring that in".

A few suggestions (and remember - everyone is your client - even your boss):

Buy a $20 tape recorder and practice in front of a mirror. Start with 15 minutes twice a week. Throw yourself questions and tape your answers. Tape yourself telling key stories about your business. Tape yourself pitching a prospect. Tape yourself doing introductions at a client dinner. Tape yourself giving an update to an executive committee. Try them over and over until they're ready. Then put them in your mental I-Pod until needed. You will build up an amazing library.

Make business meetings your practice lab. Try out new things there like being a more patient listener; handling a tough question from a boss; being more assertive; trying out new types of questions; projecting more physical or vocal presence; or occasionally taking over the room with a compelling story for two minutes - just to see what that feels like. Let a colleague know what you're doing and ask them for feedback afterwards. You'll get better, quicker.

Grab pizza with colleagues and take over a conference room. Assign client and sales roles to each other and practice the most difficult and challenging questions a client could throw at you - either for a specific meeting or just in general. Or use the session to pitch each other ideas or products to get a feel for how the client might respond to it. You'll make each other better.

Practice phone calls on the phone. If you've got a big call coming up with a client, write a few notes and then speak it to your voicemail. Listen back and then try again. How many times do you have to retape your out of office message to tell people you're at the beach? If you're like the rest of us at least 2 or 3. It may take a few extra minutes, but practice pays off with a smoother call. You'll find your best voice.

Dress rehearse the big stuff. It could be a bake-off for a deal or a Town Hall or a TV interview or a keynote address or an update to the executive team or the board. If it's a team pitch, rehearse with the team. If it's a talk or a speech, rehearse in the actual hall or a close facsimile. If it's a TV interview, get in front of a camera for a mock interview to get used to the environment. Eliminate as much surprise as possible.

We make time in life for what we think is important. Make deliberate practice important! Try to make it organic to your business life. When you do, the real time result for your client or your audience will be "planned effortlessness." You will make it look easy and they'll never see all the practice.

There is one more thing you can do. Hire a Coach! That helps you do "informed" deliberate practice - which is even better.

If you want to truly make a deliberate investment in your business, I know this wonderful fellow named Andy....

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