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The Relationship Between Skill Practice and Deliberate Practice

By Victor L. Magdaraog

The skill practice component of our leadership development program, Interaction Management always fascinated me. In all my years working with DDI clients, I’ve always heard “ah-hahs” and literally seen “light bulbs” switching on after a good round of skill practice. The skill practice usually starts slow, with participants considering it a chore, or a workshop activity they just have to do, but after the first round of feedback, most realize the tremendous learning they just experienced. They realize what leadership is all about.

Leadership after all is an acquired skill and a form of expertise. One cannot develop leadership by simply reading books, sitting through a lecture, doing case analysis, or listening to a round of motivational speeches. You have to do it. You have to experience it. You have to want it. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities to practice leadership on the job. Being a leader is not like a concert pianist who has time to practice before going on stage for the concert. When one gets promoted to a leadership role, there are usually no “practice runs”. You are online on the first day, and if you are not ready, it can be a rough transition. For those in leadership roles, we all know that becoming an excellent leader is tough and the result of hard work. If it were easy, we would all be great leaders.

So, why are there superior leaders and others are just not good enough?  The better ones invest time and energy in focused development, which has two parts. The first part is the Interaction Management skills course itself. It provides foundation skills necessary to be successful in a leadership task and through the skill practice opportunities offered. A major area of the skill practice that is part of each course is to hone the target behaviour and provide the confidence necessary to try out the new behavior on the job. The second step in the Interaction Management process deals with on-the-job skill strengthening of the behaviors taught in the Interaction Management course. This is a major opportunity for deliberate practice

Over the past years, there has been an increase in interest on the concept of deliberate practice.  Very recently, popular author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, and Goeff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated, has an entire chapter on it. Renowned executive coach Ram Charan refers to this as “deliberate leadership development.” In the book Extraordinary: Stories for Aspiring Leaders, it is referred to as “Deliberate Development Initiative.” The thinking in deliberate practice is that expertise or superior performance is achieved through years of purposeful practice and exercise.

Dr. Anders K. Ericsson, one of the leading researchers on deliberate practice says “You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.”

Since there is pressure on leaders to achieve project outcomes or resolve work issues, performance takes center stage, and on-the-job practice takes the rear seat.  In most situations, we are satisfied with what is good enough performance. We are happy to float, rather than learn how to swim well. If we are successful in these instances, we learn just enough functional competence. Ericsson cautions against a mistaken notion of that good enough achievement level will lead to superior performance. In some cases, being satisfied with everyday performance could even lead to “arrested development”. To minimize the possibility of arrested development, it is necessary to couple formal learning with guided on-the-job experiences.

Our challenge as leadership development practitioners is to blend the learning outcome of Interaction Management courses with challenging developmental initiatives on the job. Helping leaders keep their focus on the learning goals as they pursue the development initiative alongside achieving performance goals, increases the likelihood of developing leadership expertise.

After learning more about deliberate practice, I have developed an even higher regard for the simple, yet powerful skill practice in Interaction Management and I am more concerned that we need to encourage our students to practice the same deliberate practice on-the-job. Would a little more skill practice help you?

Victor L. Magdaraog is a vice president at DDI in the Phillipines.

Posted: 05 Feb, 2011,
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