Amiel Handelsman: Great Leadership Requires 'Deliberate Practice' [Interview - Part 2]

amiel handelsman interview Amiel Handelsman is the author of Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best, where he teaches leaders how to be truly great. Yesterday, we posted part one of his interview -- which focused on how leaders can realize their full potential. Today, Handelsman tells us more about Deliberate Practice, an aspect he outlines in his book. Deliberate Practice requires four steps: preparing, acting, reflecting and getting feedback. Below, Handelsman tell us what each of these steps entail and how leaders can benefit from this type of practice.

[First], let me state the obvious: practicing on the job is not a familiar concept for most of us. Unless we are professional athletes or musicians, practice is what we do when we're not working. We practice playing tennis. We practice guitar. But practice our jobs? Hardly. When we're working, we're working, right? It's just like that Tom Hanks line from the movie A League of Their Own: "There's no crying in baseball!" That's the basic assumption in organizations: there's no practice in business!

Except that's not quite true. In my field, leadership development, research tells us two things: first, excellent leaders learn best not through training or reading, but from on-the-job experience; and, second, the way that they learn is by having a chance to reflect on their experience and by getting continuous feedback from people who see them in action. In other words, they're not just moving from one meeting or action to the next. Instead, they're stopping, even for a moment, to look back. What's another word for these things? Practice.

Let's start with reflecting. This means quietly and non-judgmentally reviewing what just happened. "What went well? What could I do differently? What did I learn from this experience about myself, others, the market, and so on?" Reflecting is the deliberate act of capturing the lessons that your experience provides. All it requires is intention, somewhere to write or type, and a relatively quiet space. I encourage the leaders I coach to designate ten minutes every day to quietly reflect. It can be the most valuable ten minutes of their day.

Getting feedback also involves learning from what happened, but instead of asking yourself, you ask others. "Hey Sally, I want to get some feedback from you about that meeting this morning with our sales team. How clearly did I communicate the rationale behind our strategy? What could I do next time to be clearer?" Boom—suddenly, you learn something you wouldn't have if you hadn't asked. This accelerates your learning and, over time, elevates your performance. Now, notice that the feedback you requested was very specific. It wasn't, "How did I do?" It focused on a specific behavior—clearly communicating the "why"—that you are trying to improve. Notice, also, that you didn't wait a week to get feedback. You asked the same day, when the event was fresh in memory. Finally, consider the impact on Sally of asking for her feedback. She has gone from bystander to active participant in your leadership development. And odds are good that she appreciates being asked and now feels a greater stake in your success. So, in addition to helping you improve, getting feedback strengthens your relationships.

Acting is whatever you are doing—writing an email, attending a meeting, giving a talk, negotiating with a customer, mentoring a direct report. It's what we typically think of as "work." Acting is obviously essential to practicing on the job. However, unlike the other three steps, acting is what we do when we're not practicing. In fact, most managers spend 99 percent of their time acting—and that's it. They're not practicing with the intent to improve. Their just doing. But what we're talking about here is different: it's acting that occurs in the midst of deliberate practice.

Finally, there is preparing. Chronologically, preparing is the first step in the on-the-job practice cycle. I mention it last because it seems to be the most rare in the organizations where I work and the least discussed in the leadership literature. It's a bit of a dark horse—not well known, but very generous in its rewards. Now let's talk about what preparing is. Whereas reflecting and getting feedback involve looking back, preparing involves looking forward. The day before an important conversation with your boss and peers, you ask yourself a few questions. "What do I want to get out of this meeting? What value can I contribute? How might I do that? What could get in the way? Who else will be there, and how can I communicate effectively with them?" Such preparation provides multiple benefits. First, it gets you focused on what you want to accomplish. Rather than just going with the flow, you show up with outcomes in mind. Second, it allows you to strategize about how to accomplish these outcomes. You develop a game plan. Third, it invites you to consider what obstacles may get in the way—and how you will handle them. Finally, it wakes you up. Rather than just drifting through the day, you become an active participant in what happens. The more times you stop for a moment to prepare, the more awake you become.

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Amiel Handelsman is a Portland-based executive coach and change consultant with two decades of experience developing leaders. He is the author of Practice Greatness: Escape Small Thinking, Listen Like A Master, And Lead With Your Best (JZ Leadership Press, 2014).