Employees need to practice their skills to improve. Learning leaders should model the desired behavior and provide a safe place to hone skills.

Within every successful athlete, artist or musician there is some talent. But without practice, that talent will not reach its full potential. When we applaud and cheer performers, what we see are often the results of their practice. What we don’t see are the years they spend perfecting their skills. Practice is essential to their talent development, yet we often diminish its importance in employee development.

Claims from neuroscientist Daniel Levitin suggest it requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice — or at least 10 years of applied experience — to reach the pinnacle of performance. Providing employees that much time to perfect a skill is generally not feasible, especially if we expect them to apply existing skills in a 40-hour work week. Yet if we want our organizations to be full of highly productive, engaged employees, we must help create them.

Many business leaders only focus on what it takes to create top performers, discounting a huge portion of the workforce. A survey conducted in October by Aon Hewitt found only 10 percent of employees are actively engaged, implying that 90 percent are not likely to possess the motivation found in top performers to practice skill development on their own. The challenge is to find ways to engage that 90 percent by allowing them to practice and improve.

Practice Means Doing While Learning
According to an April 2010 study conducted by Deloitte and Forbes Insight, 38 percent of Gen Y employees and 30 percent of Gen X employees ranked job advancement expectations and guidelines as the third most important retention incentive. Similar research conducted by Bersin & Associates in July 2009 reported companies where most employees had high-quality development plans had 27 percent lower turnover than companies with few or no employee development plans. In other words, employees who are given the opportunity to create a development plan and the time to practice new skills are more engaged and stick around longer.

Not all companies have the resources to create high-quality development plans or to hand-hold every employee in creating a fast track to their best self. Instead, improvise to plan for, manage and develop passive performers and encourage them to practice what we teach. Make the most of the available resources and lead by example. Leaders should practice their own skills every day in a noticeable way.

“I’m a huge proponent of experiential learning, which can take shape in so many ways. Take action learning projects, for example; bringing together high-performing leaders from different disciplines and functions to work on a strategic project together,” said Maggie Judge, director of talent and learning at information provider Thomson Reuters Global Resources. “The team decides which role each member will play in executing the project. This pushes people outside their comfort zone and requires them to practice skills they may not use, or even learn, in their usual role. It is a powerful, real-world development experience that builds capabilities, tests new ways of working with others and engages leaders around an initiative that adds real value to the organization.”

Any skill development plan in the world of sports or art, and certainly in the world of improvisation, includes practice regimens and exercises that make the participants feel awkward, uncomfortable or frustrated. Therefore, engage employees in activities outside their normal jobs or skill sets. Thomson Reuters employs action learning projects to create opportunities for non-traditional skills practice, but other options include anything from job shadowing to community service. The activities are virtually limitless — think wilderness expeditions — and most are quicker to implement and less expensive than traditional learning programs.

“Our supervisors and managers are key,” said Dan McGurran, business director, traffic and vehicle systems for 3M, a manufacturing company. “One half of our employee contribution and development process is dedicated to discovering the dreams, ambitions and challenges of the employee and then working to create a pathway for their continued development. As a result, employees are clearly aware of the skills and behaviors they need to practice in order to grow, and supervisors are better able to provide opportunities allowing them to do that. Though we are a remarkably diverse organization and development is specific to the individual, the process works throughout the entire organization.”

In improvisational theater, improvisers call this skill declaration. At the beginning of a scene, each team member has to be clear in communicating with teammates and the audience what they want to accomplish. Being equally declarative, leaders should be able to tell co-workers the three most important skills they practice on a daily basis.

Practice Takes Place in a Safety Net
Role-playing, simulations, mentoring or employee-to-employee training all offer the ability to practice skill development in a safe, low-risk environment. A culture of acceptance and encouragement can increase the amount and level of practice taking place.

Cindy Lord, president of strategic consultation at Risdall Advertising, said, “Our team has been most successful in tackling the need for a new skill or product by using an explore and pilot approach. We begin by exploring a whole range of solutions and ideas, and then choose what we believe is the best idea to pilot. We create an expectation that we are not going to get this right the first time and position our new activity as an experiment. This ratchets down expectations and also gives the idea room to grow and evolve without anyone having to be wrong about an aspect of it.”

Using a similar mindset of explore and pilot, improvisers understand that most parts of even the best improvisational scenes are flawed, imperfect and unpredictable. To constantly be confident on stage in a changing environment improvisers take extreme measures to create a safe culture. Embedded in that culture are agreed-upon policies such as complete transparency, no organizational status and appreciation for points of view that are completely different than one’s own. As a rule, an improvisational culture works hard to reward both the risk and the result, essentially creating a safe place to play.

“Based on company values, which is about our clients and communities, we accelerate the skills of employees and prepare them for larger roles by involving them in community events. Eighty percent of General Mills’ employees volunteer,” said Kevin Wilde, vice president of organizational effectiveness and chief learning officer at General Mills. “The skills they gain and practice by participating in outside activities influence the leadership skills they will need within the company.”

The by-product of volunteerism Wilde refers to is that it reinforces a sense of individual accountability, which is huge for employee engagement. When an individual has made the transformation from “training is given to me” to “training is created by me,” his or her sense of accountability and the need to practice should accelerate rapidly. On stage, improvisers can look to no one but themselves. If a scene, specifically their part of a scene, is to get better, it is up to them to make it so. The audience sees all. There is no way to hide poor performance, and this is equally true for the workplace.

Others Know Who Practices

An October 2008 study by Hewitt Associates and the Human Capital Institute found that fewer than 10 percent of respondents measure the effectiveness of talent management programs, track the quality of talent, or use specific quantitative frameworks to align human capital investments with their business strategy.

According to Dale Nitschke, chief executive officer of Ovative and former president of Target.com, “Feedback from more than one source is vital as employees work to improve and practice those softer skills. Employees talk to managers about it, they talk to their peer group; it’s classic 360-degree feedback, and each time it’s framed within the relentless refinement to improve performance in the workplace.”

Think about the type of instruction Nitschke describes: It focuses on the skills and small things, not the performance or the score of the game. Great trainers and motivators work on the day-to-day progress, the behaviors, the repetitive and gradual improvement of the skills it takes to perform, not the performance itself. In the corporate environment, however, organizations typically measure learning success by the end result. If we followed the lead used in arts or athletics, we would measure and reward individuals for small and gradual improvement on specific skills and behaviors as much as the results.

Think of the situation in terms of the ratio of coaches to employees in the average workplace. Often there are more coaches for a 48-person college football team than for a 1,000-person corporate division. In theater, performers rely on peer encouragement and coaching. The most successful improv teams create individual boundaries within an environment of trust and safety, and use a specific set of coaching vocabularies to adhere to those boundaries.

“In some sense, the result of practicing behaviors is a change in behavior,” said Jim Wadsworth, director, organizational development for Marquette Real Estate Group. “Measuring that change and the resulting benefit is not always easy. We can and do provide immediate feedback to the individual, but how this affects the rest of the company is less clear. We’ve started to tackle this recently by conducting an all employee engagement survey that includes 13 behaviors commonly associated with soft skills such as listening first and speaking clearly. We intend to use the results as a baseline for coming years to help us more accurately track how employees view their development in the company.”

Tracking and measuring practice does not need to be different from how we measure results. It can be as simple as identifying individual skills needed to achieve the overall goal. For example, in college football coaches track and post everything — not just the things accomplished in games, but speed, strength, a place on the depth chart — athletes need to be aware of to become better. It’s all tracked and usually displayed in the locker room. In theater, performers do check-ins at the beginning of the day’s rehearsal and set talks at the end of the day. Artistic directors constantly assess what is needed for individuals to get better, give them opportunities to practice and then evaluate how they are doing. This model is a given in sports and the performing arts, but not in the typical workplace.

The results of practice likely will be as unique as the individual. “Learning is completely different for each of us, otherwise this would be easy,” said Judge from Thomson Reuters. “Practice (and application of learning) is also equally individual and as much about learning on the job as deliberately changing your behavior or improving your skill set. The extent to which an individual is provided diverse experiences to learn on the job has a significant impact on that individual’s career advancement and professional growth.”

John Sweeney is the owner of the Brave New Workshop, a satirical comedy theater, and the author of three books including Innovation at the Speed of Laughter: 8 Secrets to World Class Idea Generation. He can be reached at [email protected]