How to ramp up your skills base

‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,’
said the Red Queen to Alice.
‘If you want to get anywhere else,
you must run at least twice as fast as that.’

The need to keep moving forward, improving and adding to your professional knowledge and skills base, is becoming ever-more challenging as business becomes increasingly complex and new areas of knowledge pop up just about every time you blink. Add to that the fact that a good deal of what you now know and base your decisions and actions on is destined to be out-of-date soon, you can easily see the stark reality today’s managers face: you can’t afford to rest on your laurels.

Rather than trying to become better at something you’re not, and never will be, any good at, it’s more efficient and effective to concentrate on improving in areas where you have some natural talent or flair, and in areas where you already know quite a lot (but not everything). That’s the advice of management guru Peter Drucker. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Are you tone deaf but can feel a rhythm and like to move? Take dancing lessons, not singing lessons, because no matter how much you may enjoy singing, you’ll never sing well; but you could become quite a good dancer.

If you’re like most people, you probably know what you’re not good at. But do you know what you are good at? You should, because you perform best when working from your strengths, in the areas your natural skills and inclinations take you and where you can put what you know and understand to good use.

A good way to spot your strengths is to ask people — you’ll probably hear things that will astonish you! You can also monitor your own performance to look for three pieces of information:

  1. What you enjoy doing most and what seems to come most naturally and easily to you. That tells you where to seek opportunities to contribute and improve.
  2. Areas where you have no strengths, talent, skill or inclination so you know what to stay away from. Continually exposing your weaknesses only erodes your self-confidence and trying to gain more than the bare-minimum competence wastes the time you could more valuably spend on building your strengths.
  3. Areas where you where you need to improve your existing skills or acquire new ones, particularly areas you’re already good at or potentially good at.

It may have become a cliche, but it’s a fast-paced world and to stay in the game, never mind ahead of it, it’s essential to keep learning. The Red Queen knew what she was talking about. Meanwhile, keep dancing and sing when no one is listening.

How to be a peak performer

When I was heavily into designing and leading management training programs for lots of organisations around Australia and New Zealand, I got to know thousands of managers. It became pretty clear that the star performers all shared similar attitudes and mindsets towards their jobs and life in general. And I developed a theory about the ways their minds worked.

I took my theory to a cross section of these organisations who agreed to identify their peak performers objectively, based on their results, and I interviewed them individually and in small groups to pick their brains about how they thought. The goal was to train other managers to think and behave like the peak performers so that they, too, could become ‘stars’.

As expected, we found that the peak performers all shared remarkably similar ways of looking at the world. Here are the highlights, in no particular order because they’re all inter-linked.

  • Peak performers have high standards and expect the best for themselves, from themselves and from those around them. That attitude reminds me of a sign that hung in every classroom of my high school: Mediocrity is a choice — so is excellence. Peak performers opt for excellence and don’t settle for second best. Why should they?
  • Those high standards mean they set challenging goals and keep moving towards them.
  • Their high standards also mean that they constantly strive to improve themselves, the way they work and the results they’re getting. Peak performers are always looking for different and better ways. One way they do that is by reviewing the day’s events and selecting one to pick apart — what went well, what could have gone better, how can I do even better next time? Then, when they come across a similar situation, they can put their improvement plan into practice. (Find out more about that here.)
  • This leads to another characteristic of peak performers: they take responsibility. They work out what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They don’t sit back and wait for the magic to happen; they get out there and do something in a proactive way. And when things don’t go as well as they’d hoped, they don’t blame circumstances, the economy, the weather, other people or anything else. They take a look at what happened and figure out what they can do to make things better.
  • Peak performers deal with mistakes differently than ‘also-rans’, too. When peak performers make a mistake, they don’t deny they’ve made a mistake, bury it, blame someone else or make excuses. Nothing changes when you do that. Peak performers see the mistake as a practice shot, move on and try something different. Soichera Honda famously said that success is 99% failure, which may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes a good point.
  • Peak performers focus their efforts where they’ll count. No one can fix the weather or the economy but when an El Ninio is predicted, peak performing farmers might plant crops that don’t need as much water, put in a more efficient watering system or build a grey water irrigation facility. When the economy goes south, peak performing sales people might figure out ways to sell more to existing customers, pick up new customers or help develop new and improved offerings.
  • Linked with that is focusing not on their difficulties and the obstacles in their path but on what they can do to circumvent them jump over them or work their way through them. They can do this because they keep their eyes on the goal, not what’s getting in their way.
  • Finally, peak performers communicate and work effectively with others. The world of work is changing dramatically and important as this ability has always been, it is becoming ever-more important as work is becoming increasingly team-based and temporary. This means managers (and team members) need to be able to work well with a wide range of people in different situations and work out quickly what specifically they need to do in order to add value.

How many of those mindsets do you share? What about your team members? What can you do to help them adopt those ways of thinking and acting so that you have an entire team of peak performers?

The art of subtle coaching

Coaching is one of every leader-manager’s most important activities. You’re probably most familiar with coaching to improve already-good performance by gently tweaking someone’s behaviour to further enhance their results. My Describe–Explain–Suggest model is one way to do this, and my Flag–Example–Benefit model is another. Also useful is the Intent–Outcome model, where you help someone compare and contrast what they intended by their behaviour or actions with the actual outcome and then help them find ways to bring their intention and outcome closer together. Socratic questioning, where you help people find their own insights and solutions is another powerful coaching technique. (You can find examples of these models and techniques in Chapters 16 and 26.)

There’s another, more subtle type of coaching that I learned by reflecting on the way a former boss, Chris (let’s call him), coached me. It was my first job out of Uni, where my referent group was still that of uni students and I therefore dressed in ‘student uniform’ rather than ‘business attire’. Not a good look; enough said.

When we went to industry meetings together, Chris would introduce me like this: ‘This is Kris Cole, our safety and training officer. She’s very professional.’ That’s all, ‘She’s very professional’.

Chris was embedding a description of myself in my subconscious as being ‘very professional’. It affected my behaviour and yes, it affected the way I dressed, too. Without consciously realising it, I gradually began to grow into Chris’s description of me.

(You may be wondering why he didn’t just tell me, ‘Kris, you look like a mess; please fix up your image’. Well imagine my reaction to that: I can tell you right now I’d have crossed my arms, stamped my foot, pouted a bit and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how a person dresses; it just matters how well they do their job!’ I’d probably have tossed my hair, too. No, the direct approach would definitely not have worked. The subtle approach did.)

Chris subtly coached me in other ways, too. He’d pass on rules of thumb that I could easily follow. He’d relate illustrative personal stories or examples that gave me mental scaffolds to generalise from, to use to analyse problems or to make sense of experience. He thought out loud a lot, giving me insight into a really smart manager’s thinking processes and showing me how to consider matters from various angles before reaching a decision.

That was all incredibly valuable. But what I most treasure was the way Chris highlighted the positive, so I felt good about myself and willing and able to do my best work. I would like to think that every leader-manager makes time to regularly highlight the positive in people and give them something to grow into.

Stuck in a rut? Six tips to pull you out

Most of us periodically feel hemmed in, discouraged or frustrated by a situation or event. Or sometimes just generally ‘flat’ and ‘blah’. Here are six tips to freshen your outlook, put a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step.

Tip 1: Make a new frame.
A technique called re-framing is a way of viewing a situation or event in a more positive light by considering it from a different perspective. For example, instead of seeing a mistake as a disaster, you can see it as a doorway to discovery. Instead of thinking of team members’ friendly banter and chatting as ‘goofing off’, think of it as a sign of good morale. Instead of viewing a disagreement as an argument, think of it as a building block of understanding or an opportunity to learn a different way of thinking.

Tip 2: Remember the mind-body link.
When your body language is glum, so is your attitude. To be motivated and energetic, you need to both look and act motivated and energetic. Stand tall, shoulders back, head up, and smile to get those endorphins, the feel-good chemicals, swishing around your body. Make a point of walking with a bounce in your step. Take a quick walk outdoors to re-charge your brain with oxygen.

Tip 3: Make a plan.
People in a rut tend to put their good habits and routines, those that help them achieve goals and feel satisfied, to one side. As a result, they waste a lot of time on ‘What should I do now?’ type questions. As Stephen Covey advised, ‘Begin with the end in mind.’ Set your goals, make a plan and stick to it.

Tip 4: Support yourself with positive self-talk.
The more you tell yourself you’re bored or fed up, the more lethargic you become. Positive self-talk works because the brain doesn’t distinguish between thoughts and reality — it just follows directions. That’s what Norman Vincent Peale meant when he said ‘Change your thoughts and change your world.’

Tip 5: Squash the worry bug.
Worry, dwelling on your misgivings and focusing on all the negatives — your doubt, your fears, your nerves — can paralyse you. When your ‘cup is half empty’ you find it a lot harder to ‘get a move on’ than when your ‘cup is half full’. Look on the bright side. Find the positives and dwell on them instead.

Tip 6: Remember that motivation comes from inside.
Waiting for someone or something to motivate you is like waiting for the sun to rise in the West. You are the only person who can reliably motivate yourself. You have two options: the fear option and the desire option. For most people, fear is a weak motivator; desire is a lot stronger. When you do things because you want to, you do them better and enjoy them more.

There you go — no more excuses!

Set your learning up

How effectively do you learn? Are you a graceful learner or a lurching learner? Here are some tips to help you learn nimbly based on the two kinds of prior knowledge you use when you learn:

  1. knowledge about the subject itself
  2. knowledge about how you learn.

The more of these learning strategies you use as you study, the more easily you can learn the material at hand as well as keep on learning about it.

  • Think about what you already know about a topic before you launch into learning more about it.
  • Draw pictures or diagrams to help you understand the subject.
  • Ask yourself questions to test your understanding as you’re learning.
  • Discuss what you’re learning with others and how you can apply it.
  • Go over the material in your mind until you confident you really know it.
  • Go back over material when you don’t fully understand it.
  • Make a note of things you don’t fully understand to follow up later.
  • When you complete an activity or assignment, look back over it to see how well you did and to fine-tune it.
  • Make a study plan to organise your time for learning and completing activities and assignments.

Try these strategies before you attend a class or workshop:

  • Think about the topic, what you already know about it and what might be important ideas to listen for.
  • Know what you will do to remember the key ideas.
  • Think about any questions you may have about the topic or how to apply it.

Enjoy your learning. See it as an important pathway to the future, not a chore!