Interview about my first book, Practice Greatness

practice greatness


Five years ago, I published my first book, Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best. Marissa Brassfield of Ridiculously Efficient (RE) interviewed me about it in writing. Our exchange provides a good summary of the book’s key ideas, which shape my work with clients. Many of you weren’t following me then, so I’m sharing the interview below. Enjoy!

Practicing Greatness = Realize Full Potential

RE: What steps can leaders take to realize their full potential?

Master difficult conversations

Learn my best tips for staying cool under pressure and elevating your leadership in complex times.


The first and most important thing to realize is that you are not a generic leader, but instead a person with unique gifts and limitations in a situation with distinctive challenges and opportunities.  So don’t listen to generic leadership advice. This may sound obvious, but it’s a common trap many leaders fall into. And for good reason: in my estimation, 98 percent of the leadership advice out there is generic. For example, “act with boldness” is sound advice for some leaders but terrible advice for others. Ditto for “be generous with your time,” “collaborate more,” or “think before you act.” I’ve coached leaders who’ve been drawn to such advice only to find that it amplified a weakness or distracted them from more pivotal areas of improvement.

Second, expose yourself to a variety of challenging experiences and extract as much learning from these experiences as you can. It’s not about moving up the ladder or getting greater visibility as much as challenging yourself in new ways. For example, if you’ve done a turnaround, try a startup—or manage a team that has a track record of success. Each of these experiences teaches different lessons. If you’ve spent years managing people who report to you, try a role where you have to influence without authority. And then learn as much as you can as fast as you can. Ironically, we learn faster when we slow down to reflect and get feedback.

Third, get support from colleagues, mentors, or a coach. The greater the challenge you take on, the greater the support you need.

Fourth, realize that you have an Achilles Heel, find out what it is, and then heal it. I think of the Achilles Heel as the one big flaw or blind spot that, if ignored, can screw up your career or at least keep you from realizing your potential. It’s a set of habits wired into your brain and body that limits your repertoire of leadership behaviors. Fortunately, the latest neuroscience tells us that you can rewire these habits well into adulthood. My favorite approach to helping leaders understand their Achilles Heel (as well as much more, like the quality of their greatness) is called the Enneagram. It provides nine answers to the question, “What makes me tick?”

Fifth, identify one or two skills that are pivotal to realizing your potential. These could be strengths that you want to use in new ways or skills that you haven’t fully developed. In my book, I offer fifteen inner and outer practices of great leadership. I call them “practices” because the idea is to practice them over and over again just like you would practice swinging a bat or playing piano. Repetition matters.

Finally, find a reason for leading that ignites you. In my experience, one factor differentiates leaders who carry on the hard work of practicing leadership to completion from others who barely get out of the starting blocks: a sense of purpose beyond their own narrow self-interest. Getting a raise or promotion and making more money are great, but neither provides enough fuel to sustain the practice of great leadership. Now, discovering this purpose isn’t easy, and it often takes years if not decades. Here are some questions to ask: What do you want to be known for? What do you feel passionate about taking a stand on? What would you risk embarrassment or fear to bring into being? These are big questions, and for good reason. We’re not talking about getting slightly better. We’re talking about realizing your full potential!

The Four Steps In Deliberate Practice

RE: You mentioned that deliberate practice at work requires four steps — preparing, acting, reflecting, and getting feedback. What do each of these steps entail and how can leaders benefit from this type of practice?

Before I answer that question, let me state the obvious: practicing on the job is not a familiar concept for most of us. Unless we are professional athletes or musicians, practice is what we do when we’re not working. We practice playing tennis. We practice guitar. But practice our jobs? Hardly. When we’re working, we’re working, right? It’s just like that Tom Hanks line from the movie A League of Their Own: “There’s no crying in baseball!” That’s the basic assumption in organizations: there’s no practice in business!

Except that’s not quite true. In my field, leadership development, research tells us two things: first, excellent leaders learn best not through training or reading, but from on-the-job experience; and, second, the way that they learn is by having a chance to reflect on their experience and by getting continuous feedback from people who see them in action. In other words, they’re not just moving from one meeting or action to the next. Instead, they’re stopping, even for a moment, to look back. What’s another word for these things? Practice.

Let’s start with reflecting. This means quietly and non-judgmentally reviewing what just happened. “What went well? What could I do differently? What did I learn from this experience about myself, others, the market, and so on?” Reflecting is the deliberate act of capturing the lessons that your experience provides. All it requires is intention, somewhere to write or type, and a relatively quiet space. I encourage the leaders I coach to designate ten minutes every day to quietly reflect. It can be the most valuable ten minutes of their day.

Getting feedback also involves learning from what happened, but instead of asking yourself, you ask others. “Hey, Sally, I want to get some feedback from you about that meeting this morning with our sales team. How clearly did I communicate the rationale behind our strategy? What could I do next time to be clearer?” Boom—suddenly, you learn something you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t asked. This accelerates your learning and, over time, elevates your performance.

Now, notice that the feedback you requested was very specific. It wasn’t, “How did I do?” It focused on a specific behavior—clearly communicating the “why”—that you are trying to improve. Notice, also, that you didn’t wait a week to get feedback. You asked the same day, when the event was fresh in memory. Finally, consider the impact on Sally of asking for her feedback. She has gone from bystander to active participant in your leadership development. And odds are good that she appreciates being asked and now feels a greater stake in your success. So, in addition to helping you improve, getting feedback strengthens your relationships.

Acting is whatever you are doing—writing an email, attending a meeting, giving a talk, negotiating with a customer, mentoring a direct report. It’s what we typically think of as “work.” Acting is obviously essential to practicing on the job. However, unlike the other three steps, acting is what we do when we’re not practicing. In fact, most managers spend 99 percent of their time acting—and that’s it. They’re not practicing with the intent to improve. Their just doing. But what we’re talking about here is different: it’s acting that occurs in the midst of deliberate practice.

Finally, there is preparing. Chronologically, preparing is the first step in the on-the-job practice cycle. I mention it last because it seems to be the most rare in the organizations where I work and the least discussed in the leadership literature. It’s a bit of a dark horse—not well known, but very generous in its rewards. Now let’s talk about what preparing is. Whereas reflecting and getting feedback involve looking back, preparing involves looking forward. The day before an important conversation with your boss and peers, you ask yourself a few questions. “What do I want to get out of this meeting? What value can I contribute? How might I do that? What could get in the way? Who else will be there, and how can I communicate effectively with them?”

Such preparation provides multiple benefits. First, it gets you focused on what you want to accomplish. Rather than just going with the flow, you show up with outcomes in mind. Second, it allows you to strategize about how to accomplish these outcomes. You develop a game plan. Third, it invites you to consider what obstacles may get in the way—and how you will handle them. Finally, it wakes you up. Rather than just drifting through the day, you become an active participant in what happens. The more times you stop for a moment to prepare, the more awake you become.

Great Leadership = Arguing Well

RE: You also mention that great leadership requires the ability to argue. What would a successful argument look like from a leader’s point of view?

A successful argument involves four things. First, instead of debating who’s correct, you realize that everyone has a different assessment or take on the situation. This is because most things we argue about are not facts but different interpretations of what the facts mean. It’s just like temperature. Saying that it’s 75 degrees outside is a factual assertion. It’s either true or false. But saying that it’s warm is an assessment. There is no way to prove it. A lot of the arguments we have in organizations is about whether it’s warm outside. Except we think that this is a matter of facts, when really it’s a matter of different assessments.

Second, when you give your take on a situation, you describe it as “my take” or “my assessment.” This signals to others that you are not placing a claim on the truth, but merely giving your perspective. This leaves space for them to have their own take.

Third, you ground your assessment. “Here are the reasons why I assess this acquisition to be in our best interest.” Or “Let me tell you why I don’t think he would be a good hire for this position.” Grounding assessments is a powerful way of communicating. It also allows others to learn what’s behind your thinking. It’s a way of letting them into how you see the world. Conversely, ungrounded assessments are often worse than saying nothing at all. Other than the letters, “ASAP,” they are the most pernicious source of mediocrity and suffering.

Finally, a successful argument involves gently inviting others to ground their assessments so that you can see what’s behind their thinking. Sometimes, it has the added benefit of causing them to do more thinking! The key word here is “gentle.” This is not about interrogating others. It’s about saying, “Hey, I hear that your take is X. I imagine you’ve thought a lot about this. Can you help me understand what’s behind that assessment?”

Put these four pieces together and you have a successful argument.

Great Leadership = Practice And Self-Reflection

RE: How do other employees benefit when leaders spend more time practicing and less time on self-reflection?

I’m for more of both. Practicing and self-reflection are both enormously for beneficial to leaders and the employees they serve. Reflecting is one of the four steps of the on-the-job practice cycle. So if you’re practicing on the job, you are automatically reflecting.

More Tips On Practicing Greatness

RE: What other tips can you provide to leaders to foster a productive and engaging work environment?

First, make sure you are showing up to work every day with physical energy and the ability to focus. Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Take breaks at least once every ninety minutes. Move your body. Eat in a way that you have sustained energy throughout the day instead of energy spikes and crashes. Hint: proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables will sustain your energy far better than soft drinks, sugary foods, and fast carbs (muffins, breads, and other foods that create blood sugar spikes and crashes).

Second, learn what triggers you emotionally and take on practices that allow you to respond calmly. A couple years ago, at a conference the CTO of Cisco was asked what benefits she got from meditating. She said that it helped her stay calm in very tense situations. Mindfulness isn’t the only practice for managing triggers, but it’s a darn effective one.

Third, look at Gallup’s research about employee engagement—it’s amazingly useful.

Finally, if you’re not great at developing people, hire or partner with someone who is. Ultimately, we are as good as the people we surrounded ourselves with.