The Secret to Performance

Family Matters - Practice Makes Perfect

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works.

You’re not just a furniture retailer – you’re an entrepreneur. You’re someone who worked hard to make your business a success. So, let me ask you a question: What’s the secret to getting ahead? Is it hard work, talent, brains or something else?

The reason why this is important is obvious to all of us, because we are constantly on the lookout for talented people who will help us achieve our personal and business missions.

One of the best business books I’ve ever read is Greg Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated.” Of all the stories and anecdotes and lines in the book, one of the most memorable to me was short and sweet: “In 1992, a small group of researchers in England went looking for talent; they couldn’t find it.”

That is an arresting sentence. That really gets your attention. I loved it then and still do. What Colvin talks about in his book – and there’s all types of research to support this – is that experience is vastly overrated.

It doesn’t matter if it’s auditors looking for financial fraud, psychologists trying to diagnose a mental illness, surgeons trying to assess the probability of healing a condition, stockbrokers picking stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, or college admissions officials predicting who will succeed in college. None of them is any good at it with experience.

Colvin writes that a person with 20 years of experience is no better in his or her job than a person with two years of experience.

I know. This doesn’t make sense, right? This flies in the face of everything we think we know about experience and running a business. I mean, with 30 years of experience, I’d like to think I’m a family business expert.

Let’s talk about what really contributes to success and expertise. It’s not talent. It’s not brains. It’s not hard work. There’s something specific that causes people who are great at what they do to be better than the rest of us who just kind of jog slowly in place over time.

People with lots of experience don’t perform any better in their jobs than people with little experience, and that’s just a research fact. Think about it. How many of you have hired a young sales associate who came in and instantly ran circles around more experienced sales associates?

Experience counts, but not always. What counts, according to Colvin and the other researchers, is something called “Deliberate Practice.” Not just practice, because often when we practice things, we practice the wrong things.

Deliberate practice is designed to help someone improve in a specific way. It’s almost always designed by a teacher or a coach, an outside third-party or objective observer. Colvin likes to refer to sports as a good example, because it’s easy to see the benefit of deliberate practice when you look at somebody like Tiger Woods or Roger Federer.

Clearly, they’ve done things to allow them to get to the peak of their sport. And with sports, the feedback is immediate, which is important. In tennis, if you try a new forehand stroke and hit the net 62 consecutive times (I feel your pain, believe me), there’s your instant feedback. You know there’s something you need to adjust. We don’t get that benefit in business often.

Here’s something else unique to deliberate practice. It’s repetitive. It’s something you can do over and over to improve a certain aspect of your performance. So, whether it’s closing a sale, learning how to buy accessories at market, or business development, there are things you can do to improve. But it helps to have repetition, so you just don’t do these things once in a classroom somewhere and never bring them into your business.

The third thing is the feedback, which I talked about before. Easy to understand in sports, not so easy to understand in the business world where you might not see the result of something you did for six months or a year. You might not see the final product, and all accounting may not be done. So instant feedback is a little trickier in business. Again, that points to the need for objective coaches or teachers.

Next, the deliberate practice must be mentally stimulating. It’s hard work, but if you are in the furniture business, you don’t shy away from hard work. We do shy away from repetition for its own sake. That’s boring. So, practice must be mentally demanding.

Finally, there’s a corollary condition. The person who’s undertaking the deliberate practice must have a passion for getting better. You know the old saying about leading a horse to water, right?

In the absence of some burning desire to get better at my job or my skills as a father, husband or whatever it happens to be, the practice won’t make perfect.

Now that you know a little about deliberate practice, you might realize you’re already doing it. What can you do to implement more deliberate practice in your store and improve the quality of your people, and ultimately your services? Leadership by example is the way to go. What are you doing to improve yourself? If your people see you trying to improve, that example will ripple through the organization.

About the Author

Wayne Rivers
Wayne Rivers is president of The Family Business Institute. He has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, CNBC and is an expert panelist for The Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at wayne.rivers@familybusinessinstitute.com.