GOOD MANAGERS WORK AT IT

When different people, focusing on different fields of endeavor and at different times all end up sending us the same message, seems to me we ought to pay attention.  So consider the following message from four separate authors regarding the extreme value of PRACTICE and HARD WORK when it comes to professional success.

In 1990, Washington Post columnist George Will published “Men at Work”; the subject was baseball.  Will’s chapter by chapter description of the game and its players and managers illustrates why the sport is an ideal metaphor for life and I would add for being any type of  manager as well.  Baseball, as Will and many of its players describe it, is about “learning to live with acceptable levels of failure”.  “Even the best hitters fail roughly 65% of the time”; check out Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn’s other humbling statistics on page 1.

What has also stayed with me over the years was Will’s description of professionalism and the craftsmanship of ball players and their managers, which he associates with the constant “repetition” of the essential skills of their craft.  In short, craftsmanship requires constant, repetitive, concentrated skill practice and hard work.

In her 2006 book “The New Psychology of Success”, psychologist Carol Dweck argues that there are those individuals in life who see their intelligence and abilities as similar to muscles — the harder you work them the stronger they become.  These individuals, she argues, work harder, see mistakes as learning opportunities, and willingly and happily accept new challenges.  In essence, they work hard at getting better at what they have chosen to do in life, thereby improving their chances of achieving success.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers” chapter two carries the title “The 10,000-Hour Rule”.  Admittedly, Gladwell’s focus in this book are the truly exceptional performers in a given field, all of whom had considerable talent and sometimes extraordinary opportunities that aided their path to success.  But Gladwell also presents a strong case that what often distinguishes one top performer from another “is how hard he or she works.  And what’s more”, he writes, “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder” (P.39); at least 10,000 hours worth of practicing their craft.

Now we all can’t be the top performer in our field but the message of practice and hard work is the same.  Work at any craft or profession 40 hours a week, for 48 weeks of the year, then enjoy your month off.  That’s 1,920 hours of had work per annum.  In five years you’re almost at the 10,000 hour mark; 9,600 hours to be precise.  That’s a lot of practice, enough to make anyone way better at anything than when he or she began.

Finally, consider Geoffrey Colvin’s 2008 book “Talent is Overrated”.  Colvin does not dismiss the importance of talent or opportunity when it comes to success but he does not believe talent alone is everything.  He argues persuasively for the importance of what he calls “deliberate practice” when it comes to distinguishing those best able to exploit an opportunity and the talent they do possess.  By deliberate practice, Colvin refers to a process involving concentration on those things your profession demands you improve and master, practicing them specifically, observing the outcome and then making the necessary adjustments until you become satisfied with the consistency of your results. Once again, the need for practice and hard work.

The best managers in my experience have all seemed to understand the wisdom these four authors have captured in their individual ways. The best managers do more than just work hard, they hone in on the core skills of the management profession and practice to improve how they execute them.  They honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses and work assiduously to improve their performance.  They seek out the feedback of others and strive to make adjustments when necessary.

Perhaps most importantly, the best managers recognize that no matter how hard they try, managing human beings is, like baseball, an inherently humbling profession.  Because they recognize perfection is impossible, the best managers never stop working at their craft until their managing days are over.

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