Developing your expertise as a leader. Clocking up 10,000 hours of practice!

By Jamie Ripman and Philippa Williams, Directors of Practive

You may have come across the theory, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers” 2008), which indicates that if you want to become an expert at anything you have to commit to 10,000 hours of practice. Gulp!

For those of you recently promoted into leadership roles and hoping to make a decent stab at it, this indicates that you’d better make a start straight away. Assuming you haven’t done any leadership before and you’re starting from a zero base, and assuming, therefore, you’ll be keen to fit in a couple of hours of dedicated, focused practice every day, including weekends and bank holidays (where’s your commitment otherwise?!) but having a day off on February 29th every four years (our maths isn’t good enough) you should emerge as an expert leader in about March 2031 (or whatever 13.6986301 years from now is).

Of course, both assumptions are ridiculous. Firstly, you won’t be starting from a zero base. Secondly, what are the chances of you committing to two hours of dedicated leadership practice every day?

Let’s deal with that first assumption. Wherever you are in your career, and to wherever in the hierarchy that promotion has taken you, you will have already practised lots and lots of leadership. That’s because leadership isn’t a position; it’s an act, or series of actions. So, even if you are describing this as your first ‘leadership position’, you can already include many hours of practice from your previous experimental acts of leadership. And the great thing about acts of leadership is that you’ve probably been doing them from a very early age.

Let’s just test that out with a few of the qualities and attributes that are typically required by expert leaders; having the ability to listen without pre-judgement; having the courage to speak up about what’s important; collaborating with others to create a vision; managing your emotions appropriately; being resilient in the face of adversity. Ever done any of that before? Ever seen the young people in your life do any of this?

So that’s the good news. You’ve probably been undertaking acts of leadership for much of your life. The bad news is that in order for an act of leadership to count fully towards your 10,000 hours of practice, it needs to have been a conscious act of practice. Just having had the experience of doing something isn’t enough. K. Anders Ericsson describes the type of practice required as “Deliberate Practice”. He said, “It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well — or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” In other words, experience is helpful and will give you a good platform, but if your actions haven’t yet been part of a “considerable, specific and sustained effort to do something you can’t do well” it won’t fully count towards the 10,000 hours you need to clock up to become an expert.

So, it’s definitely helpful to recognise all of the leadership actions that have got you to the point where someone has recognised that you are worthy of that promotion, and it may not require the full 10,000 hours from here for you to have developed into the kind of leader you aspire to be.

Let’s also have a look at that other assumption we made earlier. The assumption that 2 hours of dedicated leadership practice every day is (or isn’t) possible. Certainly, if we think of this practice as something we do away from our work, in the same way as a cricketer practices in the nets or a golfer practices on the driving range, then this seems a very tall ask. However, what if we could get the ‘deliberate practice’ we needed whilst doing our work. What if we regarded every leadership action, every conversation, every encounter we had as an opportunity for some ‘deliberate practice’?

What would it require for this to be the case? We believe that with some conscious shifts in our mindset and strategies, we can start to include regular opportunities for deliberate practice whilst at work and, as a result, we can build on our experiences of the past and move gradually towards achieving those notional 10,000 hours of practice. It may also help to think about this less as a destination of becoming an expert (– is there such a thing as an ‘expert leader’ we wonder?) and more as a helpful ongoing process of developing your leadership expertise.

So, here are some thoughts about how you can build in more deliberate practice into your everyday actions as a leader:

· Be open and enthusiastic about developing your expertise. Nurture your belief that there is always more to learn and share this belief with others.

· Before every action / conversation, plan one or two things that you are consciously going to practice. Write down a couple of objectives that are specifically about your leadership development (e.g. ‘to enthuse others about my vision for this project’). Keep an ongoing record of your deliberate practice efforts.

· Stretch yourself. Find some occasions where you can safely take a risk and experiment with something you have never tried before (e.g. creating and telling a relevant story you have never shared in the workplace before).

· Involve others in your practice. Let them know what you are practising and seek their feedback afterwards.

· Get your feedback from a wide range of perspectives. This will help you to understand what are the common themes and what are the outliers.

· Regularly challenge yourself to keep practising the things you don’t yet do very well (e.g. volunteering for presentations to, or meetings with, people you find challenging)

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