Practice makes perfect, but I’ll settle for better

I’m reading the book “You Can’t Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar” by David Sandler and David Mattison.  The book is mostly about sales, although I think it has lessons that extend beyond the selling profession.  At its core, the book is about the hard work of practice.

I grew up on the operations side of the business, and I never really had any in-the-trenches sales time.  Even as a COO and CEO, I wasn’t the point person in front of the customer.

Now, as a solo consultant in a pandemic, I am finding that I need to sell.  As Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” only I’m not talking to Stan Laurel.  I’m looking in the mirror.

I’ve been practicing my sales approach with some friends and colleagues, and I’m finding that I’m pretty bad at it.  I won’t castigate myself publicly to you, but suffice it to say that I have work to do.  That said, I know that I’m getting better each time I practice.  Each interaction teaches me a little bit about what I’d like to do differently next time.

The flaws in my selling are not because I don’t know what I should do.  I’ve read plenty of books about sales that have told me hundreds of things that I should do.  But maybe that’s part of the problem.  The avalanche of material told me what I could do, but I hadn’t narrowed it down to the few things that I’m going to do so that I could practice them to the point of mastery.  However, as I gain experience, the concepts are becoming more tangible.  I think this even holds true as I practice future conversations in my head.

I had a similar experience recently that reinforced the need for practice.  I went to school to get certified as an executive coach, and as part of the training, we did a lot of role-playing.  I was scared to death because I knew that I would make mistakes, and I did.  However, the instructor did a great job of making it safe.  He made it clear that we were all going to make mistakes, but that’s how you learn. He forced us to practice and make mistakes and practice some more.   We learned that to be a great coach, you need to participate in the discussion in real-time and ask high-powered questions to guide the conversation.  There is just no substitute for practice.  The academic material was useful, but the practice is what made it stick.

As I reflect on these experiences, I wonder if we build enough practice into our development experiences at work.   Do we encourage trying and failing?  Have we created a supportive environment that encourages people to take the risk of trying to do something new, knowing full well that it may not go well the first, second, or third time?  Do we have the coaches and mentors in place to gently and firmly guide a student as they are learning something new?

When I look back on my career, I think that maybe I was too impatient with some people, and I expected people to just “get it” or be a natural and advance through the learning curve rapidly.  I wonder how things would have been different if I had allowed more time to practice and fail?  I can’t undo the past, but I can change how I behave in the future – I just need to practice.

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