Pursuing Excellence through Practice or Just Playing It By Ear
Recently, after sending a final draft presentation to a client for a global leader-as-coach initiative, I jumped into my car to run a few errands (one of the many perks of remote work). Over the next two hours, in between visits to a few stores, my car time was spent rehearsing my leader-as-coach facilitator role for the multiple group sessions upcoming on my calendar. To those who may have been parked at stoplights nearby, looking at me sideways while I idled, rehearsing by speaking to imaginary executives in the form of my front windshield, this is something I do all the time. Among the many approaches I use to better my work performance, I like to rehearse. It’s just one of many avenues I pursue in the spirit of self-improvement. And, as a bit of a perfectionist, I find that my need to continuously practice and get thoughts (and words) together in advance of key meetings, presentations, or conversations, while time consuming, is almost always worth it.
The idea of practice, and a routinized commitment to practice, stood front-and-center for me a few weeks back while at the 122nd U.S. Open Golf Championship, held near Boston. As one of several thousand volunteers on-site, I served as a walking scorer for players who were competing in the field, an experience that granted me live, upfront, and personal inside-the-ropes access to the world’s best golfers operating at the peak of their craft, while engaging in their craft.
This year marked my first year as a volunteer, after serving eight years as the Chief People Officer for the U.S. Golf Association (USGA). I know first-hand the extensive effort to plan, organize, and execute golf’s most open global championship. And, unlike most other major sporting events, major golf championships are conducted annually at new venues across the entirety of the country, requiring (for both organizers and competitors alike) continuous reflection, agility, and re-invention, all of which come together with exacted purpose and precision.
As a volunteer walking scorer, I accompanied a group of three competitors, (in this case a group of past U.S. Open champions), and concurrently tracked their individual strokes, club choice, distance, and location of their shots using a specialized mobile device, and a pencil and paper for back-up. The need for 100% accuracy is critical so that on-site digital scoreboards, the championship’s online app, or web-based data, can, in synchronicity, reflect how each player is performing “live” and in the moment.
Being up close and personal with the world’s best golfers is a cool experience. While I have filled this role for multiple years, this time I gained a new perspective, as an “outsider” watching closely how each player navigated the course and the game’s consummate challenges, using and deploying their own individualized plan and preparation, process for reflection, improvisation, resilience, and perseverance.
I was equally as mindful of the thousands of fans outside the ropes as each competitor traversed their own eighteen-hole journey. I observed how sometimes the distractions represented by fans so close to the action impeded optimization of the player’s “work product”, and how each player made allowance or minimized those distractions to remain focused on their performance. From weather conditions to location of the golf ball, to the risk/reward calculation behind the execution of each shot, to the pace, to the noise and the pressure, to the chance for error at the highest level of competition, it’s a lot to take in, with the repercussions for sub-optimal performance being (financially) costly. Perhaps not surprisingly, this year’s champion, Matthew Fitzpatrick from England, was lauded for his performance that appeared to be largely free of distraction — a performance marked by an unwavering focus and determination.
I was also reminded of how we, as professionals and business leaders, use our time to prepare for important workplace events — sometimes to our advantage, and sometimes to our detriment.
In the case of the elite championship golfer, the hours of practice, mental and technical coaching, and fitness, are all largely unseen. In many ways, in a corporate or business context, this is no different than our own continuous learning journey and commitment to improve our professional performance and growth. The professional golfer’s commitment and preparation is ownable and you generally “reap what you sow”. Like each of us, the self-inflicted or unplanned distractions which could derail our performance, the ability to overcome obstacles, to show resilience, to be patient, and the way in which we show up and present ourselves, say much about who we are, and are often key determinants in our professional success.
There is a long history of literature and opinion…
which speak to the question of elite performance in sports, business, or leadership: is it a gift, or is it developed through practice? Books of differing angles have sought to bring clarity to this topic of import and interest:
· In Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated: What Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else, the differentiator is allegedly deliberate practice (extreme amounts of time dedicated to the mastery of a given skill or capability).
· In Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, he posits that three key elements allow one to develop their gifts and optimize their performance: deep practice, motivation, and coaching.
· In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, his answer is that we pay too little attention to the factors which truly drive successful performance, including culture, family, generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of our individual upbringing.
Personally, I am not one to judge the quality or efficacy of their research or positing. I do, however, ascribe to the belief that hard work and practice — so long as we’re honing the right things — does make us better as both people and leaders. To be sure, in each industry, field, or sport, there are many examples of gifted talent, which, with the right foundation, are amplified by personal motivation to excel, a commitment to practice and sacrifice, a support system of coaching and grounding, and a desire to differentiate oneself among their peers, or make a meaningful contribution, either incremental or grand.
In the end, we all prepare differently — or, in many cases, we just play it by ear. For me, preparation, practice, or even mastery of relevant skills requires planning, intentional commitment, time, and focus. Often, the results are not what I want. But that’s when dedication and perseverance come into play. While improved performance may come at different rates, the need to be flexible and agile is every bit as real for us as it is for elite competitors preparing for their challenging championship situations, their conditions, and their risk-reward decisions.
You may have surmised that my passion for leadership is equaled with my lifelong obsession for the game of golf. While I am not entirely sure how many more “self-talk”, front windshield sessions it may take for me for the next important client interaction or upcoming competition, if you turn your head at the next spotlight and catch me rehearsing, you can bet I’m practicing for both with passion, purpose, and commitment.