2007 – Practice makes perfect
The frustration of spending the best part of your life
in a particular line of work is that you reach the stage
when you see arguments and debates floating over the horizon
that you have encountered not once but many times before.
The last time I looked at the “nature versus nurture”
debate the pendulum seemed to have swung back slightly from
nurture towards those who argue the strength of genetic
But a group of academics writing in the summer edition
of the Harvard Business Review suggests that whatever innate
talents we think we may possess, they will get us nowhere
in life without years of practice, early parental encouragement
and the benefit of a dedicated teacher.
I suppose we knew that at heart, didn’t we? But we
don’t like to face these conclusions because they
can destroy our dreams. How many times have we nudged a
friend and said “I could have done that” after
watching a player score from a tap-in during a professional
football match? We know we aren’t fooling anyone but
it’s fun to imagine ourselves in the boots of the
As a journalist it is sometimes possible to enter the professional
domain of others, gaining sufficient skills to a reach a
certain level of expertise but never enough to come close
to matching those who undertake their chosen line of work
For this reason, after lining up the opportunity to sail
with ICAP Leopard, the yacht that broke the record time
for completing the biennial Fastnet race last week, I would
have been content to have been little more than a sea-sick
passenger. Understandably, perhaps, given the forecast of
atrocious weather, the skipper decided the boat would sail
with professional crew only, leaving others on the guest
Such decisions are hard to take when your professional
instincts tell you to go where the story goes. The only
way to deal with these issues is to grit your teeth and
practice more in the hope that in future people will have
faith in your skills, but the older we get the more we must
realise that time is against us where an undertaking includes
some strong physical element.
Perhaps that’s why management can be an attractive
option for those who have learned their skills in the field.
But is it possible to move straight in to an administrative
or leadership role with no prior experience of handling
Equally is it wise to fast-track people through a management
cadre in to senior roles if they have little or no experience
of the fundamental jobs and processes within a particular
According to K Anders Ericsson, author of The Cambridge
Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance and his co-authors
of the HBR article, The Making of an Expert, “consistent
and overwhelming evidence” has been collected in the
past few years to show that experts are made, not born.
There is no such thing as natural talent, they argue. There
is simply a desire to excel coupled with years of dedicated
practice guided by knowing coaches. The great batsman, the
late Sir Donald Bradman, for example, honed his hand-eye
co-ordination by hitting a ball against a wall with a stick
at every available opportunity as a small child.
Expertise is built on years of practice and experience
yet so often it is discarded by companies enthralled by
the promise of “fresh blood”. No wonder that
many experts become disillusioned and cynical in their jobs.
Yet, for all their expertise, they need to refresh their
skills periodically just as much as trainees need to learn.
One problem, as the HBS authors point out, is that the
practice of fundamental skills can be painful and dull.
I know that my shorthand skills have fallen away over the
years and that, ideally I should take refresher training
every year, but I don’t, taking comfort from the knowledge
that my contemporaries are equally negligent. It means that
we lose our sharpness or we compensate with other skills.
Managers facing different, often costly, decisions every
day can benefit by practising their decision-making in case
studies and simulations. I took part in an exercise earlier
this year where actors played out various difficult workplace
issues for human resources professionals.
For top-level decision-making and leadership in government
I would recommend the West Wing TV series as a basis of
discussion. In the last series, the executive is faced with
a number of time-sensitive decisions in a nuclear emergency
when the lives of a few must be sacrificed for the lives
of many. There simply isn’t an easy option.
The British Army uses life or death-style decision-making
exercises in officer selection because such decisions are
going to happen in reality during a military career. While
life-critical decisions are less common in business, managers
should still practice their skills in decision-making and
More experienced managers often begin to lean too heavily
on their past experiences developing a kind of comfort zone
in which they are unlikely to develop new skills. Mid-career
professionals therefore, should challenge themselves to
take on something new that they know is going to be difficult.
The authors quote the former golf champion Sam Snead who
once said: “It is only human nature to want to practice
what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of
a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.”
A big obstacle for many managers is public speaking. I
recall one colleague who used to respond to public speaking
request by saying “it’s not my medium.”
But there will come a time in most professional careers
when the rostrum can no longer be avoided.
I know from experience that practice makes a difference.
I never go before an audience without rehearsing a delivery
two or three times, even if it’s one I have given
before. One of the hardest parts is taking feedback. I remember
wanting to hit someone who came out of the audience to tell
me he had counted all my “ums.”
Perhaps the most painful lesson of all in a society that
supports the need for building and retaining skills - possibly
the reason that makes a commitment to nurture less palatable
than the belief in natural talents - is that we must never
stop learning new skills and never allow our existing skills
to lose their edge. Talent is not a commodity that can be
mined out of the ground, it is built on endeavour and learning
that must be sustained and refreshed for as long as we live.
See also: Nature