I’m finding that the public at large is beginning to gain an
understanding of the development of expertise through what Anders
Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” It’s been touted in all kinds of
popular magazines and talked about at the water cooler. In fact, the
public is beginning to understand that the development of expertise
takes a long time and a lot of effort. That means that whether you’re
trying to improve your golf score, your chess game or your project
management skills, it’s not going to happen overnight.
In their attempts to understand deliberate practice, I’ve noticed
that people get the practice bit fairly well, and that they’re trying to
figure out how to stay motivated and persevere in their practice and
But there’s one disconnect. Practice, practice, practice can
reinforce some very poor habits and not bring you the success you want.
Practice will not help you improve your skills without regular coaching
and feedback. And that’s easier said than done.
Anders Ericsson, the father of deliberate practice, says that not
only will our practice require full attention and concentration, failure
is likely to arise (that’s an understatement) and that gradual
improvements with corrections and repetitions are necessary.
The key phrase is gradual improvements with corrections. To
become more successful we’re going to need better coaching. Finding
effective coaches on the job is a task of itself. If coaching
is available from your manager or colleagues, that’s one thing. More
often than not they can help you with all that you need.
Over the long term, however, you may find that you really need a
master coach. In larger firms that will mean that you start working the
network to find someone. Some managers and most executives can get
their company to fund a coach to work with them over a long period of
time. I usually spend ten to twelve months with a client. It’s not
unusual, however, for me to work up to two years with an exec.
Do you need the best coach you can find?
It’s really not necessary, however, to start with the best coach you
can find for developing a new competency. As Daniel Coyle notes in the
Talent Code (see
my review), a large number of world-class talents start with
seemingly average teachers. But what’s important is to be able
to identify when you’ve learned all you can learn from that coach.
I studied piano as a kid from the time I was in the fourth grade
through high school. Even as a kid, I realized by the time I was in the
sixth grade that that I’d advanced beyond my teacher, and with my grade
school music teacher’s help, found a better teacher. Toward the end of
the ninth grade, when I’d advanced so much that I could recognize some
really terrific piano players around school who were obviously getting
better coaching, I started asking around. Eventually one of the top
high school players suggested her teacher, a University of Michigan
piano major with a master’s who had studied with the great Artur
Schnabel at Michigan. As soon as I walked into her living room and saw
two Steinway concert grands, I knew that I was in a different ballpark
than anything I’d ever experienced.
But looking back at that last teacher I realize something of much
importance. She was an outstanding pianist, and merely a very good
The great coaches not only understand their discipline, whether
piano, relationship or project management, or even strategy formulation,
but also understand the individual and can adapt their coaching to the
individual. That requires both a deep knowledge of the specific
discipline, as well as a deep knowledge of the coaching process and the
ability to identify and adapt to an individual’s need. That’s why
Daniel Coyle indicates that most of the great coaches he met were all in
the sixties or seventies. (At my age, I have a real investment in that
Remember this principle: Better and better coaches will be needed to
support your practice, practice, practice.