More deliberate practice for managers, not less

Professor Phil Rosenzweig of IMD thinks that deliberate practice—using feedback and correction to improve skills—can can help executives perform better. I couldn’t agree more.

However, he cautions against applying the laws of deliberate practice too widely. “We do ourselves a disservice,” he writes at, “by implying that we can practice our way to success in all circumstances.”

I beg to differ.

The reality I see in organizations today is not too much deliberate practice, but too little. How many managers do you know who spend excessive amounts of time practicing new skills, asking others for feedback, and reflecting on how to improve? How many are applying the laws of deliberate practice to situations that don’t call for them and therefore producing negative business results?

These problems don’t exist in any of the organizations where I’ve spent time over the past twenty years. In these organizations, managers spend 99 percent of their time in performance mode. Intentionally practicing managerial skills, reflecting, and getting feedback  are, at best, afterthoughts.

Why do books about talent ignore management?

outliersThere is a big gap in the recent literature about developing talent through conscious practice: minimal attention on leadership or managerial skills. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers describes how the Beatles and Bill Gates became extraordinary at their technical crafts by practicing repeatedly over time. The book popularized the 10,000 hour rule named by psychologist Anders Ericsson. Similarly, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated reveal the rules of deep practice and deliberate practice, respectively, mostly through the examples of athletes, musicians, and teachers. On an individual level, they talk about breaking skills into chunks, practicing the chunks slowly, and correcting mistakes along the way. On an organizational or cultural level, they talk about apprenticing young people to masters and igniting talent hotbeds that inspire them to commit to long-term deliberate practices.

This is exciting and powerful stuff. Unfortunately, none of these books talk in depth about how to apply deliberate talent practice to management or leadership. OK, I lied: the Epilogue to The Talent Code contains two pages on business, specifically Toyota’s use of kaizen events to continuously improve processes and create high quality products. But, other than this, there is very little about the skills of management. Why the gap?

Book Notes: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This is the first of what will be an ongoing series of notes about books I’m reading. I read about fifty books a year, mostly related to leadership, organizational change, and adult development. Rather than write book reviews, I want to experiment with sharing what I do naturally when I read, which is to take notes about insights and questions that are relevant for my clients, colleagues, and friends. So rather than construct tidy and elegant reviews, I’ll present my reflections in raw form, unfiltered and unplugged.

We’ll call this Book Notes in homage to Brian Lamb’s long-running interview series on C-SPAN.

Key: My comments are in italics.


So Good They Can't Ignore YouSo Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Question for Work You Love by Cal Newport (2012)

The Passion Hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first find out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

Finding freedom within large organizations

Many popular business and self-help books show people how to find freedom and joy by leaving corporations and other large organizations. Escape from Cubicle Nation and The Four Hour Work Week are two examples. The basic premise is that corporate life is stifling and entrepreneurship is liberating, so leave the big company and start your own.

The message is inspiring to many people who have recently left long careers in big organizations or are chomping at the bit to do so.

But what about people who see themselves working in corporations for the foreseeable future? Do these books speak to people who like the relative security of organizational life and/or see large organizations as the primary vehicles for contributing to the world? You tell me, but I think not.