What is Your Personal Best?

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The New York Yankees!  Rafael Nadal!  Tiger Woods!  Lionel Messi!  Itzhak Perlman!  Ernest Hemingway!  What does this list have in common?  We’ll get back to that later.  The question I have for you is simple.  Are you at the top of your game in your “sport”….meaning are you the Tiger Woods of Sourcing/Supply Chain??  Can you take over a game like Messi from Barca and re-define the way the game is played?  Can you play the violin like Perlman?

I just finished reading an article by Atul Gawande in the The New Yorker called “Personal Best”.  For those of you that don’t know him, he is a renowned surgeon and a writer.  His most recent book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” got rave reviews from Malcolm Gladwell who said it was “powerful and thought-provoking.”  Atul’s basic premise is this – “no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own”.  He goes on to argue that he reached a plateau where it was obvious that he was not improving at all as a surgeon and what radical steps he had to take to fix that.  Turns out that the physical aspects of doing the surgery are fairly easy to master. Doing surgery is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive. Surgical mastery is about familiarity and judgment. You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.”  The point being that learning the “process” is the simplest part of the equation.

He noticed that over time, even with more and more practice of the process he had learnt, “My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.”  So clearly, even though he had been through medical school and learnt the surgical process, had been very successful at applying the process, over time his results were declining.  In researching this phenomenon, he reached a startling conclusion – “ no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”

And the answer he found in talking to many world renowned high performers was coaching. “Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—…. You have to work at what you’re not good at……But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short “

Itshak Perlman has his wife (accomplished musician) as a coach…“Her ear provided external judgment…She is very tough, and that’s what I like about it,” Perlman says. He doesn’t always trust his response when he listens to recordings of his performances.  When Renée Fleming (great soprano) is preparing for a concert, she practices with her vocal coach for ninety minutes or so several times a week.  The Kansas Coaching Project, an effort aimed at improving teachers’ skills in the classroom, quickly realized that “Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent”.

Gawande goes on to cite many other examples to support the hypothesis and then cites his own example of inviting a coach to observe him in surgery.  “That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”  Imagine that!!!  A world class surgeon who has been practicing for decades now has a check list of improvements??

So if you are truly interested in achieving your personal best AND getting others in your organization to achieve peak performance, don’t forget the absolute critical role coaching plays and make sure you incorporate that into any Talent Management strategy that you might be developing.

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Dalip Raheja
Dalip Raheja is President and CEO of The Mpower Group (TMG). Dalip has over 30 years of experience managing large organizations and change initiatives. He has worked across the spectrums of supply chain management, strategic sourcing, and management consulting.

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