The performance mindset begins, rather prosaically, with practice. The practice is where creativity begins. Musicians play scales and exercises for hours at a time. Dancers build stamina and core strength in the gym, and then they are their dance partner work on small aspects of their routine – for hours every day, day after day. Actors spend weeks studying scripts and talking to themselves, looking for a way to inhabit their role. All great performing artists practice very hard. Nobody masters their craft without practice. The same tips apply to how to practice in business. We hear from authors of The Five Principles of Performance Thinking by Jonathan Gifford and Mark Powell.
Practice a lot
Practice in the world of business tends to be confined to education: MBAs, skills training, leadership development courses. Once we have finished our ‘formal’ education, ongoing training tends to be sporadic and ad hoc.
The rest of our practice is ‘on the job’: we practice our business skills on our colleagues and on our own businesses. This isn’t great.
One good way to really ‘practice’ is with a coach or mentor who helps to draw meaningful conclusions from our experiences to date and who presents us with useful ‘What if?’ scenarios to help us sharpen our insights and skills.
People with real talent – like you – can probably deliver a better performance than someone with less talent. But someone who really puts in the graft of hard practice will eventually catch up.
Your experience to date represents your ‘practice’ so far. That’s good. How much better could you be if you could pack in more practice?
Geoff Colvin is now senior editor-at-large for Fortune magazine. When, as a journalist there, he was asked to write a piece for a special issue on a great performance in business, it got him thinking: What was the secret of great business performance?
Most of us tend to assume that some people just make better businesspeople than others, just as we assume that great golfers, or great musicians, must have some kind of special, innate talent. Colvin looked at the research and decided that this just wasn’t the truth of the matter.
“You are not a natural-born clarinet virtuoso or car salesman or bond trader or brain surgeon,” he concluded, “because no one is.” What makes people exceptional at what they do, in business as in sport or the performing arts, decided Colvin, is “deliberate practice.” He was so convinced of this that he wrote what was to become a best-selling book: Talent is Overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else.
A core aspect of ‘deliberate practice’ is setting goals for ‘how to get better,’ and then keeping track of your own performance. Here’s what Colvin has to say about goal setting:
Self-regulation begins with setting goals. These are ot big, life-directing goals, but instead, are more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today. In the research the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and often focused on simply achieving a good outcome – win the order; close out my position at a profit; get the new project proposal done.
The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome […] Within [any] activity, the best performers are focused on how they can get better at some specific element of the work, just as a pianist may focus on improving a particular passage […]
The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. – Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated
Sweat the difficult bits
Modern leaders don’t have to be Renaissance men and women skilled in every art and every branch of knowledge. But there is a lot of stuff that we have to master and that we dare not bluff. Sweat the hard bits.
If you don’t like media appearances, practice with your PR guys. If you’re not great at some aspects of finance, study up on it. If you’re a bad delegator, work at it. If people find you ‘difficult’, change. One weak area can ruin the performance – your own performance and the business’ performance.
You know what you’re not great at. Sweat it; put in the painful practice needed to make yourself better.
You don’t have to do this on your own; study the masters. Choose your business and leadership heroes. Read their speeches, learn their strategies, understand their skills. Get to know them so well that a little part of you is like them. When things are difficult, ask yourself, ‘What would my heroes do?’ Internalize them. Use them to create your own unique style.
Practice until it’s second nature
The point of practice is to be able to forget about it. You can perform without thinking about what you are doing. That frees your mind to think about the subtleties of exactly you want to perform and to react in the moment to what your fellow performers are doing. In business, practice brings us to the point where the possible solutions to any issue immediately present themselves.
Now you can see the issue clearly; you know the options available to you. What is the best, the most beautiful solution?
All athletes and sportsmen and women practice a lot, for exactly the same reason. They need to get to the point where their bodies automatically carry out the actions that they have painstakingly perfected so that another part of their mind can focus on the subtleties of their performance.
Tennis players train until they can ‘instinctively’ return a 120 mph serve. In tournament play, they are able to give their return the weight and direction that can make it a winning shot.
Gymnasts train until they can unthinkingly carry out their complex routines. In competition, they can focus on adding grace and poise to their perfect execution in order to deliver a winning performance.
When it comes to performance, great businesses and impressive individuals do more than simply deliver their numbers. They also engage with us; they make a human connection; a great performance moves us in some fundamental way. Great companies, great teams, and great individuals are defined y a wider set of abilities that create extraordinary levels of performance. This book explores the mindsets and techniques used by top performing artists and adapts these for the creation and delivery of great business performance.
Based on five core principles – ‘Adopt the Artistic Mindset’, ‘Build Connected Ensembles’, ‘Create Compelling Narrative’, ‘Rehearse Creatively’, ‘Deliver Brilliant Performances’ – the authors bring together unique perspectives and methods for anyone in business who wants to excel in their work and career.
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