Dr Anders Ericsson's exhaustive work on expert performers helps us understand what can be done. He has discovered that innate talent does not cause excellent performance; instead it is achieved only through conscious practice, what he calls as 'deliberate practice'. Deliberate practice is a kind of training in which the person concentrates on one item at a time, constantly listens to the feedback, and then corrects himself. This is done continuously. His 900 page book cites cases of excellent performers from varied professions: surgery, music, firefighting to computer programming. If you have limited time, you could read his short article.
Here are four actions you can take to make your experience count ( all four actions are not independent, but co-related):
1. Break your objective of gaining 'expertise' into different behaviours: If you are a project manager, for instance, bifurcate your expertise into small and manageable outcomes such as Manage customers and Manage internal team. Bifurcate these outcomes into visible behaviours, such as 'Confront customers when customer fails to meet his side of expectations' or 'Understand customer's business' etc. If you are a design engineer, you may bifurcate into 'Capture customer requirements correctly' and ' Understand the limitations of technology-in-use'Due to the difficulty of setting experiments and getting accurate and quick feedback in corporate setting, it is natural that one cannot use this method for mastering all type of behaviours. Instead, one has to choose the specific set of behaviours which are meaningful and critical for your career. It could be mastering the skill set of Program manager; and that too a program manager who can manage, say clients, of Healthcare. Even that mastery of small skill set is enough to provide you a platform from which you can explore many more options.
2. Find time to engage in deliberate practice of this behaviour: Dr Ericcson has found that uni-dimensional performers like violinists spend at least 10 hours every week. For a multi-dimensional performer like a corporate professional, who is working on many different 'skill sets', this time limit may not be relevant. What is however important to remember is that developing expertise requires practice every day with 'concentration'.
Dr Anderson discovered that violinists took a nap after lunch. "The argument they made," says Ericsson, "was that the real constraint on how much you could practise was not the number of hours in the day, but the number of hours in the day you could sustain full concentration. If you couldn't sustain your concentration, you were wasting your time."
For a corporate professional who is working on numerous items simultaneously ( multi-tasking is supposed to be an in-thing today!), this is important to remember because he will have to find time to concentrate only only on 'one item'.
3. Set up careful experiments to practice Unless corporate professional, like a golf player, learns to set up 'experiments' to practice different shots from the same location, he cannot learn.
If a corporate professional is successful say in negotiating with customers, the corporate professional has to find 'why he is successful' to know 'the various actions he unconsciously does' to succeed in negotiations. He won't find this until he experiments with different 'variables'. If he does not experiment, he may 'fail' one day not knowing 'what went wrong'. If he experiments and knows why, he can replicate his success 'confidently' in different settings and situations. Like a expert performer, he can even do 'damage control' when the negotiation seems to be lost.
4. Get constant feedback on your actions ( behaviour) to correct and improve. Getting quick and accurate feedback is the most difficult task in a corporate setting, because there are too many variables 'on the table' in a complex corporate setting. For instance, how can one evaluate one's skill to negotiate with a successful customer who is satisfied with the past record? The performance goal exercises conducted once in a year in companies provide feedback that is 'too late' and 'too gross'.
A corporate professional therefore has to use lot of ingenuity in getting feedback on his intended actions. 360 degree appraisal is a good feedback tool on perfecting some type of behaviours. This is why ability to set up experiments is critical for assessing one's performance and getting accurate feedback on a specific behaviour or action. It is not surprising to observe that even solo performers like sportsman need coaches for setting careful experiments to get quick and accurate feedback.
If you however ignore this, you will become like Sreenath. I met Sreenath a year back. With an experience of over 12 years ( and that too in good organisations), he came to me because he was not getting a job, not the job. Isn't that surprising?