Work now. Practice More. Provide More.
Skill-building requires practice. In most endeavors, those who want to improve take this as self-evident. Big tasks are routinely broken into small elements that can be worked on over and over again: scales in music, tight moguls in skiing, certain board situations in chess.
Yet this rarely happens in management, even though we must develop and integrate dozens of discrete skills. Some are almost universally required — for instance, setting goals, coordinating across units, and intervening when a subordinate’s performance is slipping. Others are job-specific, such as critiquing complex project plans and negotiating deals with suppliers and customers.
Any organization can identify the elements that matter most to its managers’ success and help people work on developing them. But a common obstacle is the way most managerial work is organized. There are few opportunities to practice critical skills because many of them are used infrequently. For example, in launching a project, a senior manager will work with her team to set milestones and targets, lay out the work plans, and get the tasks organized and under way. But even if that manager and others on the team later realize that they could have done a much better job with the launch, many months may pass before those same skills must be used again.
So how can managerial work, at least some of it, be organized to permit ongoing practice and growth? To see what’s possible, let’s look at a job that is naturally broken into small work units that people repeat again and again: sales. It’s a good example because sales involves frequent customer contact, and each individual visit is a perfect vehicle for practicing skills. A salesperson seeking to better understand customers’ attitudes about one product design versus another or to strengthen her techniques for closing a sale can interact with real customers in the presence of a coach (the boss, perhaps, or a colleague). Ideally, the coach and salesperson will discuss in advance what skill the salesperson is trying to improve, and even do a bit of rehearsing before the visit. Then the coach can provide feedback on what went well and what to work on next time. It is important for them to make a number of sales calls together soon thereafter, so the new skills can be practiced and reinforced. They can supplement the training with role-playing as well. Feedback and repetition are key. That’s what makes it practice.