When I was about 14 years old I went to a music masterclass given by Steven Isserlis. I was in awe, as were the rest of the young musicians. I wasn’t playing for him – only cellists had that privilege. He could see we were all a little bit nervous.
He said that he was in New York carrying his cello and asked a pedestrian for directions to Carnegie Hall. The pedestrian looked at him warily and said, “Practice. Practice, dear. Practice”.
We laughed and the masterclass went on.
I was reminded of this joke the other day. I have the privilege of working with some of the brightest and most talented individuals. Some of them, especially the younger colleagues who are establishing themselves ask me for advice. It’s flattering. Of course it is. I look at them, their skills, their drive, their ambition. I wasn’t like them at their age, I think. Yet here they are asking me for advice.
We talk for a bit. Sometimes we talk about their current work or their hopes and dreams or it’s a problem they’ve encountered. I feel that most of the time I acquit myself well enough.
The other day I felt a little uneasy. As if I hadn’t fulfilled their expectation. I left the conversation wondering whether I should have been able to distill my experience into a headline, a nugget that the individual could carry with them.
It came to me, afterwards. Practice.
When you’re learning anything – any sport or acting or music you have to practice. It is tiresome. You have to dedicate time every day to it otherwise you forget and go backwards. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers talks about some research that says you have to spend 10,000 hours of concerted effort at anything to become great. This applies to any complex set of tasks – including a leadership role.
In music there is a fairly well trodden path of technique that you follow and teachers can help explain and guide you through the steps. First you learn how to hold and play the instrument. Second you learn to read music. Third you learn scales and exercises. Gradually more challenging music and exercises to train you hands, eyes, ears and body how to play. You also have to overcome other challenges such as getting a group together, overcoming stage fright and the logistics of putting on a performance.
In a leadership role sometimes the equivalent steps are obvious. You must have a vision and strategy. You need to communicate clearly… You must keep an eye on the budgets. However other activities, the equivalent of scales and exercises are less clearcut. When do you practice having a difficult conversation? When do you practice your negotiation skills? When do you practice your diplomacy and influencing? These skills are often the tools that you need to use reliably when you really need them so try to find a way to practice.