The Potential for Greatness is Everywhere

It’s hard not to think about greatness as we watch the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Let’s face it: the skill level of Olympic athletes is amazing. It has to be when the difference between a Gold Medal and Bronze comes down to just hundredths of a second. Being great — or, more specifically, performing at peak — whether you’re an Olympic athlete or not, is directly linked to one thing. It’s not talent; it’s deliberate practice.

We are so quick to say, “She is so talented” or “He has God-given talent.” In truth, when you say someone is talented, you are actually under-valuating their accomplishment. By declaring someone “talented,” it diminishes the sacrifices the athlete or person made to pursue his or her dream. It devalues the discipline required to practice in uncomfortable and occasionally miserable weather conditions (as is the case for Olympic athletes), not to mention a schedule that requires rising to practice before school or work and again later that day before bed.

It’s too bad that we can’t see these athletes practice, or that a ticker doesn’t come on the screen before an Olympic event showing the number of hours each athlete practiced so we can put their performance in a perspective that would allow viewers to better value the accomplishment. The thing we sometimes forget to realize is that for those who achieve greatness, they do so by good coaching and LOTS of practice.

Business can — and does — fall victim to this perception of talent. Organizations tend to focus solely on talent rather than looking more at the prospective employee’s history of discipline and hard work. The best candidate should always be awarded the job — but if you are basing individuals on intelligence, you’re looking at the wrong thing.

Talent management staff should instead look for accomplishments that reflect behavior patterns that have value for the corporation.

This point extends beyond the hiring in organizations, as it is also an important lesson for managers. A manager’s actions, or lack thereof, impacts whether or not an employee reaches his or her highest potential. Managers don’t teach someone to the limit of the employee’s ability, but rather to the limit of the managers’ ability.

In the spirit of the Summer Games, I offer the following tips to improve the level of practice and coaching in your organization:

  1. Aggressively train and promote people: As a manager, it is your job to retain and develop people. Part of any reward system for managers and supervisors should be the number of employees they keep and promote within the organization.
  2. Spend the time and money to train people to fluency: One of the most costly mistakes companies make is to put people in jobs before they are fluent in the critical aspects of the job. The amount of repetition required for fluency is far more than the average trainer understands, but the extra time pays off in happier customers and more confident and competent employees.
  3. Have a way of positively reinforcing and rewarding employees who put in extra time and effort: This requires observing behavior to make sure that those people who put in the extra effort are not overlooked or ignored. It has been proven that people who are rewarded for extra effort not only work harder on assigned tasks but also work harder on other tasks as well.

The business that understands that outstanding accomplishments come from good coaching and lots of practice rather than native talent and intelligence open up an unlimited pool of potentially outstanding performers.