12 July 2010

High Achievers: Born or Made?*

Last week I was fortunate to be alerted (via Twitter) to a great article from FORTUNE (Why Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin) and I was given a fascinating book written by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success, Penguin Group, 2009).

Both the article and the book examine successful people and they respectively argue how their individual successes are as the result of backgrounds and actions not greatly understood or acknowledged.

The article states:
‘...no specific genes identifying particular talents have been found. It's possible that they will be; scientists could yet find the piano-playing gene or investing gene or accounting gene. But they haven't so far.'

The article then goes on:
‘...so if specific, inborn talent doesn't explain high achievement, what does? Researchers have converged on an answer. It's something they call "deliberate practice," but watch out - it isn't what most of us think of as practice, nor does it boil down to a simplistic practice-makes-perfect explanation.'

The article lists the five specific components of ‘deliberate practice'. I found these components so revealing and relevant for recruiters I have listed the five below, along with my comments.

1.  Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance
The key word is "designed." The essence of ‘deliberate practice' is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities.'

My experience is that a vast majority of recruiters say they want to produce better results in their job, yet very few are genuinely interested in being stretched beyond their current abilities to achieve those desired results. My good fortune as a young recruiter at Recruitment Solutions was to have Greg Savage (my boss at that time), continually pushing me beyond my comfort zone, through constant practice, into a higher performance zone.

2.  Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot
‘Two points distinguish deliberate practice from what most of us actually do. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition. Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.'

Most recruiters want to know my ‘business development tips'. In other words, when telephone prospecting, how do you get past the gatekeeper, speak to the relevant person and arrange a face-to-face meeting with that person.

When I ask for the most common objections heard from gatekeepers and decision makers, 98% of the time, I get the same responses (eg ‘we have a PSA', ‘we aren't recruiting right now', ‘we don't use agencies' etc etc).

Yet when I enquire as to which of their own responses, to these predictable objections, have proven to be most effective and how often they practice those responses, there is (mostly) an embarrassed silence.

To state the obvious, if you don't relentlessly practise your telephone prospecting skills (or substitute any other skill), you will improve very slowly rather than quickly.


I was called by a FOXTEL telemarketer last week. When she asked whether I wanted to have FOXTEL connected, I said ‘I'm not interested'. She then said ‘ok' and hung up without even asking ‘why?'.

I would have thought my response would have been a very, very common one and therefore one that an appropriate comeback would have been thoroughly practised eg, ‘So that we may continue to improve our product and customer service, may I ask why you are not interested in having FOXTEL installed?'


3.  Feedback on results is continuously available
‘In many important situations, a teacher, coach or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.'

Again, my experience at Recruitment Solutions and previous to that, at Hays, was that in an open plan office, with no partitions and the desks butted flush against each other like communal dining for the masses, I received constant (ie hourly!) feedback on how I was going. Sometimes this was annoying, occasionally it was delivered thoughtlessly, but almost always ... it was right.

4.  It's highly demanding mentally
Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.'

An hour or two of training at Recruitment Solutions was intensive stuff. When I lead a training session internally, I always endeavoured to make it demanding which ensured each attendee came thoroughly prepared to listen, contribute, learn and be mentally present 100% of the time. Hint: never come to a Greg Savage training session unprepared!

5.  It's hard
‘...we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see - or get others to tell us - exactly what still isn't right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we've just done.'

Yes, effectively dealing with different people's emotions through a recruitment process is hard. Fronting up each day, week, month and year to do this over and over again, is harder still.

Seeking out additional difficult (challenging) activities, to repeat over and over again, in order to improve faster than your peers is even harder still. However as the article so succinctly puts it:

'the reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more'.

Are you prepared to do what it takes, to undertake ‘deliberate practice' to gain a huge competitive advantage? Or are you content to merely ‘survive' and be just ‘good enough'?

* this post was orginally published in InSight #87 (24 June, 2009)

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