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Practice, Practice, Practice

| March 14, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Practice is a word that is frequently used in leadership development.  For example, we can use practice to indicate engagement in a profession – I have a practice in engineering;  or to indicate development of a skill – I habitually practice my listening skills;  or to signify continual development of a skill – I practice the piano for four hours each day so that I can continue to hone my skills for performing as a concert pianist. 
In the MOR Leadership Programs, we define practice as “a specific, conscious, repeated act that helps you change your way of being in the service of a goal.”  And, we note that, “As in other arenas – sports, music, dance – consistent practice builds competence and confidence.”
Several weeks ago, Greg Anderson, MOR Leadership Coach, pointed me to the TED-Ed video How to practice effectively…for just about anything.  The video, which is well worth five minutes to watch, describes what goes on in the brain when a person repeats an activity that he or she wants to become better at.  And, it appears that the more we practice, whether it is a physical action like shooting a basketball or the coordinated physical and mental action of playing a cello, or a physical and intellectual event like initiating a conversation with a stranger, the better we get at performing the action.  Further, research has shown that when we understand what is going on physically, mental practice is almost as good as actually doing it.
To get you started, or restarted, on building or extending your practice vocabulary, I want to urge you to work on four “mini”-practices and commit to their use.
1. Meeting preparation – We all have too many meetings and, most likely, we skimp on preparation.  Beginning tomorrow, I encourage you to allocate at least five minutes before every meeting for your final preparations for the meeting.  Review the agenda, any notes you’ve made, and how you will present yourself once you are at the meeting.  To make sure this happens, do put it on your calendar.  (And, while thinking about your calendar, when the agenda for a meeting first arrives, that’s a good time to put the meeting on the calendar along with time for your initial preparation and the review mentioned here.)
2.  Arrive at the meeting 10 minutes early – I have a colleague who says that if you only arrive five minutes early you’re late!  You arrive early to take a few moments to “center” yourself for the meeting and or to initiate or extend a relationship.  You can make use of the first two of the 4 I’s – Initiate, Inquire, Involve, Influence – to meet someone you don’t know.  And, with a colleague, you can Inquire and explore, if appropriate, how you might be involved in some activity that one or both you are working on.  Time immediately after the meeting can also be used for this purpose.  This needs to be on the calendar as well.  Work to avoid cramming meetings too close together so that you don’t have time for initiating and extending your relationships.
3.  Listen* – As you interact with others, be effective in your listening by focusing your own attention, respecting your conversation partner, eliciting information, asking questions, showing your interest, not interrupting, and by not engaging in other activities (like scanning the room or answering your phone).  Your conversation will be much richer if you work to take these simple steps.
4.  Planning and calendaring –  I’ve mentioned calendaring twice in the previous paragraphs.  If you don’t have a robust calendaring process, you may find that planning your next week on Friday and then at the beginning of each day reviewing, and making changes driven by the circumstances of that day, really helps you get the work done that is a priority for the day.  The key I’ve found is to get everything you plan to do that day scheduled for a specific time length and slot.  While this takes time to make it a “well-oiled” practice, I believe that the result will be a significant improvement.  To reduce the number of interruptions from  drop-ins at random times during the day, consider designating a specific time for office hours, much like a faculty member will do for his or her students.
These four mini-practices can significantly increase your effectiveness as a leader.  Won’t you give them a try for the next week or two?  And, if you can see a positive change, then commit to working so that they become part of your regular, daily activities.
Make it a great week!  .  .  .     jim
*  “To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations.  True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known.  They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond.  Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.  The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves.  Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
-Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith 
(with appreciation to Ned B. La Celle, DevOps Cloudification Engjineer, Cornell University, for providing the quote)
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.