You know that practice makes perfect – and that’s also true for managers who want to become great leaders. Great leaders are happier and have teams that perform better and have higher retention and engagement. It’s little wonder that managers and their companies both want to develop effective leaders. But years of research have shown emphatically that traditional leadership development doesn’t work.
There are many reasons leadership development isn’t effective (see here for more on why leadership development doesn’t work) but one key reason is that it doesn’t promote enough practice. Anyone who wants to be a better leader needs to practice, a lot.
Why is practice important for leaders? There are several reasons.
It builds skills – most leadership development focuses on teaching what good leadership is, but the much harder part is learning how to apply that knowledge in real-world situations. For example, saying “communicate a clear vision” or “build a trusting environment” is much easier than actually doing it, especially with team members who respond differently to different types of communications or different actions. The hardest part of being a great leader is learning which types of leadership actions will produce the effect you seek from people who often differ greatly in what they want, need and respond to. And that takes practice – a lot of it.
It encourages experimentation – deliberate and systematic practice encourages developing leaders to try different approaches, which is important because leadership isn’t one-size fits all, different team members or situations require different leadership approaches. For example, if a leader has a careful plan for helping a junior employee who lacks confidence but it’s not working, then focused practice means that leader acknowledges that the plan isn’t working and tries new and different things. By tinkering with what works and what doesn’t, leaders can learn what leadership tools are effective when, and with what kinds of people. That’s one of the most important elements of building deep and flexible leadership skills.
It builds habits – becoming great at anything requires change (if no change were needed, then you’d already be great), and changing how we behave, especially with a complex job like leadership, is hard. For example, a leader who is introverted and prefers not to meet with employees will have to work diligently to have regular meetings and challenging feedback conversations with team members. A class doesn’t help with that at all – only steady, consistent practice transforms those new behaviors into automatic skills.
While practice is critical for building leadership skills, not all practice is equal – simply doing the same thing over and over isn’t helpful. But fortunately there is a great deal of research on what makes practice work. Deliberate or strategic practice – practice that is specifically planned for learning and growth – has a significant impact on growth and development.
Key aspects of deliberate or strategic practice include:
- Setting an explicit goal of what to work on
- Preparing so that the activity actually includes the leadership tool the leader wants to practice. It’s easy in difficult situations to get thrown off plan, and preparation helps ensure the leader deals with the situation in the way she planned and wants to practice
- Engaging in the activity or practice
- Getting feedback. Feedback to understand what worked and what didn’t is one of the most important aspects of practice. The feedback can be self-feedback (the leader’s own reflection on what worked or didn’t) or feedback from someone else, or, ideally, both. If the situation allows, asking the employee how they felt or what they’ve learned is a great form of feedback.
- Being clear about what worked and what didn’t. A clear description of what aspect of the way the leader approached the activity worked, and what went wrong, allows her to focus on where skills need further improvement. This can mean the leader just wasn’t able to be effective with the plan or that the plan was wrong. For example, if a feedback situation that the leader expected to be productive instead left the employee frustrated and unclear on what she can do better, is it because the leader wasn’t t effective at communicating the feedback? Or did the leader misread the kind of feedback that this particular employee needs? Those are different issues and require different development.
- Try to figure out why the things that didn’t work failed, so the employee can develop a plan to change going forward. This “innovation” or brainstorming phase is a great place to include a coach or mentor, to get help on how to improve next time.
- Repeat – the key to practice is doing it regularly. As noted above, simply doing an activity is very different than engaging in deliberate practice. To learn, the leader should turn as many of her leadership activities as possible into deliberate practice.
We suggest that leaders use two important tools for deliberate practice – the planning sheet and the post mortem. A planning sheet prepares the leader for the leadership activity and spells out exactly what she plans to do in the activity and what she expects to happen. This document both prepares a clear roadmap for how to engage in the activity and also sets out expectations that can be evaluated in the feedback phase.
The post mortem encourages the leader to drill down on what worked and why. Honest feedback can often be painful and discouraging but it’s essential for growth through practice, and we’ve found that the post mortem, with its non-judgmental format, takes at least some of the sting out of the process.
Of course it’s easy to say leaders should practice, but the reality is that practice is hard. It takes time and effort and it can be stressful or even painful – both because it requires leaders to try new things and because the new things frequently won’t work, or won’t work as well as the leader hoped. To encourage practice, companies should provide leaders with a support system that first, helps leaders deal with the emotional challenges of changing their leadership approaches and, second, provides accountability and support to ensure that they actually do. We’ve found that leadership coaches are the best way to provide both those necessary supports.
The path to leadership excellence, like excellence in anything, requires deliberate and strategic practice. Helping your leaders engage in deliberate practice will improve them as leaders and bring you the benefit of great leadership.
Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350-person internet company. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.
Careerwave’s technology-based leadership coaching service is effective and affordable enough to provide a coach to every manager. Whether you need to coach 1 leader or 100, and whether you need a full program or just an addition to your current program, we can build a solution for you. To learn more, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit careerwave.me.
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