Each week I have the privilege of working with the finest executives, sales people, and business professionals across numerous industries helping them improve their skills across a wide variety of competencies. For years, while my children were growing up, weekends were spent coaching youth sports and helping them develop skills in athletics. Every now and again, those two worlds would collide when one of the executives would have a child on a team that I coached. Like many parents are prone to do, the executive will cheer and exhort their child to work hard in practice, develop new skills, and listen to what the coach is attempting to model and teach them. On one such weekend, it was during this time that a real insight occurred.
What We Tell Our Kids
We tell our kids that they must strive to improve on their current skills. We quickly get our kids to progress from shooting baskets underhanded to holding the ball higher before they shoot at the hoop and do not allow players to continue to shoot underhanded in games as it is rarely an effective way to reach the basket without risking getting the shot blocked. We get our small baseball players to migrate from hitting off of a tee to hitting a pitched baseball within a couple of years of organized play.
We do not allow them to tell us that they have become quite proficient at those skills and therefore feel more comfortable using them than trying the new skills. It is not permitted or tolerated to stick to what they did best without adding new skills, techniques, or competencies. Those players that do not adapt to the new standards are quickly relegated to less playing time, opportunities, and chances to contribute to the team.
One memorable weekend a hard-charging executive’s child was balking during a basketball practice because learning how to dribble with the “weak hand” (the hand the child did not ordinarily use to dribble the basketball) was not coming easily and was leading to frustration. The executive was displeased with the fact that the child was essentially “giving up” and refusing to try to dribble with either hand and was only dribbling with the hand that was more natural to use. I overheard the parent telling the child that it is OK to make mistakes now, as it was practice it is always hard to learn a new skill. The parent continued that no one is born able to dribble with either hand; that it takes effort and a willingness to learn. The child was told that they cannot allow their fear of not being perfect to prevent them from trying to learn. Eventually, the child was willing to make the attempt and through some hard work and effort; was able to master the skills and learned how to control the ball regardless of which hand was used.
Later that week, the executive attended a training session I was conducting for his company’s sales force around business planning preparation. The skill being taught was not the same one that the company had been using and was initially cumbersome for some attendees to integrate into their sales approach.
Part of the skill development included having the participants break up into small groups and role play using the new skills in simulated sales call scenarios. Because this skill was not intuitive for the executive and required using new approaches to business planning, he refused to participate and claimed that his approach had proven successful over time and that there was no need to change. The excuses included that his account does not need it, that it would not work with his customers, that it takes too much time, that it is not as good as what he currently does, etc. The irony could not have been more profound. He could easily see the importance of his child needing to migrate to new skills to meet the requirements of the sport; but he could not (or would not) apply that same expectation to his own skill development.
His ego and fear at not being excellent at the new skill prevented him from even trying it. His supervisor took note of his resistance and without seeking to shame him, asked him to allow himself to learn the skill through trial and error and not hold on to his preconceived notions of the need to be perfect while learning a new skill. The executive actually performed exceedingly well once he had a few opportunities to use it and had learned how to use the tools and resources being trained. Today, that executive is the Senior Vice President of Sales for the company and holds all of his sales people accountable for using the approach he was so avoidant to initially. Had he allowed his ego to overrule what was really necessary to progress in his career; he would have been no better than the player who continues to bounce the ball off of a foot because they never learned how to dribble with either hand.