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Donkin on Work - Training & Development

August 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 predisposition.

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 professional.

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 day-in, day-out.

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 list behind.

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 people?

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 business?

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 analysis.

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 versus nurture

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