What I Learned from World-Class Sprinters: Basics Count, A Lot

As a masters track sprinter and pentathlete, imagine my joy as I  walk onto the track at UCLA’s Drake Stadium and observe the revered Coach John Smith working with Olympic Medalists, Tyson Gay and Carmelita Jeter. Across the track doing warm up drills is another world champion, Allison Felix. Be still my heart!

I quickly took notes on the workout and the coaching style.  I expected to see Coach Smith teaching unique and advanced sprinting techniques.  I was wrong.  During a break in training, I said to Coach Smith, “In coaching these world-class sprinters, I notice you focus on mastering the basics.” The questioning tone in my voice implied, “Am I missing something?”

Smith retorted, “The athletes who don’t focus on fundamentals never become world-class.”

I instantly noticed the sharp contrast between Smith’s mindset and the mindset of business leaders who assume their staff possess the fundamental skills for their jobs, and don’t even care how a task is performed.  I recalled managers in my workshops saying:

“As long as my sales reps get results, I don’t care how they go about pre-sales call planning.  Results are what counts.”

“If you asked our senior management team to describe the steps of our company’s decision-making protocol, it would be so quiet, you could hear crickets chirping.”

“When I delegate, I don’t tell people exactly how to do the task. I give a few guidelines.  Who knows they might figure out a better way to do it.”

Sound familiar? Most organizations might have a list of leadership basics, but never spell out performance standards or orchestrate sufficient practice opportunities to continually refine basics. Managers are left to practice “free-form basics.” The term “free-form basics” refers to occasions when managers perform their fundamental leadership tasks in their own idiosyncratic ways, without adhering to a step-by-step process to guide their thinking and actions. They do what comes naturally without seeking to reach standards that constitute elite skill proficiency.

Free-form basics produce competent performance at best. Do you notice people in your organization struggling to stay engaged during meetings?  The conversation is saturated with free-form basics, rather than highly-skilled thinking and communication. And a plethora of important work processes—delegation, conflict resolution, listening, and time management to name a few—are being done cavalierly.

In this blog, I’m going to describe four key steps for making mastery of vital basics into a routine for how your team engages with their work. And it won’t take extra time because you’ll be building elite leadership capabilities while normal tasks are getting done.

Step1: Create a mindset that grants a reverence for basics.

Jeter frontI watched in awe as Carmelita Jeter sprinted out of the starting blocks and sprinted the first 10 meters in 1.47 seconds. But Coach Smith was not impressed. He told Jeter, “I don’t care how fast you run, if you aren’t using the right form.”

He went on to explain, “Hard effort hyped up by adrenalin during a race doesn’t produce your best performance. Your muscles tighten up and can’t move at optimal speed for the full 100 meters.” Bottom line: To get better through practice, proper sprint mechanics takes precedence over fast times. Elite sprinters rely on relaxed high speed movements from the start to the finish of a race. Such quality of performance is made possible when basics are ingrained in muscle memory to produce auto-pilot skill proficiency.

Notice the contrast in business where achieving short-term productivity takes precedence over executing a skill or work process with high proficiency. Managers place priority on getting tasks done efficiently and at a competence level that most people can achieve with reasonable effort. The implied universal performance standard becomes—“Do the task efficiently. Do the task in a way that feels comfortable.” Few organizations adopt the over-riding standard, “Do fundamentals to continually improve skill proficiency.”

But notice the destiny-shaping consequences at stake. Efficiency is an attempted “short cut” to aid productivity, but it also insures never approaching mastery level skill proficiency. And that compromise is costly.

Over the long-term, extremely proficient performance can produce results faster and easier than efficiency “short-cuts.” When you deliver highly proficient service to customers, they keep buying from you, are less likely to negotiate price, and rave about your service to colleagues. When you provide more proficient training and development to managers, they’re going to stay with your organization, so there’s no waste of time repeatedly hiring and training replacements.

Even worse, I’ll encounter an organization whose managers or sales team operate without formal performance standards. In my workshops, I’ll ask participants, “How does it feel to walk into a sales meeting without having well-defined performance standards?” Their responses include:

  • Scared of being found incompetent
  • Winging-it
  • Throwing junk at the wall and hoping something sticks
  • Easily diverted
  • Making it up on the fly

Do you see how tolerating free-form basics amounts to doing a disservice to your team members?

I invite you to disturb your mindset. Follow Coach Smith’s example. Adopt a reverence for mastering leadership basics. Operate with the mindset that mastering basics builds the foundation for elite performance.

Step 2: Develop elite performance standards for leadership fundamentals

To streamline my clients’ efforts to compose their own list of leadership basics, I share a framework with three categories: thinking skills, communication skills, and work-process skills:

Thinking Skills Communication Skills Work Processes
Idea generating Raising issues Decision-making process
Strategic thinking Meeting facilitation Debriefing process
Recognizing assumptions Performance-based feedback Problem-solving process
Taking accountability Enrolling change-collaborators Action-planning process
Meeting design Empathic listening Forming teams
Diagnosing root causes of
teamwork breakdowns
Advocacy & inquiry Meeting design
Self management Delegating Mindset Disturbance
Coaching for accountability Deliberate practice

Once you list fundamental skills, check to see if your team performs them according to well-defined standards or is using free-form basics. Here’s a simple test. Before you embark on a task, ask team members to describe the sequence of steps to perform it effectively. If you receive almost as many different process descriptions as you have team members, your modus operandi for this task is a free-form basic.

Now take every skill on the list and develop performance standards. Here’s the approach I orchestrate with management teams:

  • Team members read a classic book or article on the skill to be refined. Harvard Business Review can serve as your editor to determine the best sources for standards.
  • Go to the author’s websites and download assessment tools to distinguish effective and ineffective skill proficiency.
  • Write the first draft of a performance standard.
  • Design team meetings so the agenda requires participants to practice the identified skill, like idea generation, problem-solving, or decision-making.
  • Give feedback to each other using the new standard as a reference, and make any needed revisions.

Your list of leadership basics becomes the menu from which a management team selects skill sets to focus on and refine in a given quarter or month, and throughout the year. Notice this rhythm suggests a best principle: leadership basics always get refined.

Step 3: Turn your workplace into a practice field

Gay w videoJohn Smith’s version of a team meeting takes place on a track. He establishes conditions for team members to receive instant feedback to improve performance. After Tyson Gay explodes from the starting blocks into a 30-meter sprint, there’s a timer in the grand stand who shouts the time into a megaphone. I witnessed a fastest time of 2.47 seconds. A videographer films Gay’s run, so the arm and leg movements can be dissected and replayed over and over in slow motion. Gay studies the footage on an I-Pad and incorporates the feedback in his next practice heat.

Coach Smith refers to scientific studies to determine the ideal distance from the starting line to each of the two pedals on the starting blocks where each sprinter places his/her feet. He sticks band aids on the track to indicate the ideal distance where the ball of a sprinter’s foot should strike in the vital first steps out of the blocks. After a practice start, he inspects the band aids to look for punctures made by the sprinter’s spikes.

How’s that for precision in coaching sprinting basics!!

starting blocks w bandaidsUnlike Coach Smith, you don’t have two hours four days a week for your team to drop their work in order to practice basics.  Instead, turn your meeting saturated with free-form conversations into an occasion for skill practice.

For example, let’s take two leadership basic skills that are vital to productive meetings: public speaking and performance-based feedback.

Pre-speech setup: Before launching into delivering a PowerPoint deck, all speakers describe a specific skill they’ll be practicing in their upcoming presentation, as well as the evaluation criteria audience members should use in offering feedback. For example, any speaker might choose to practice a skill like organizing a speech, using vocal variety, crafting a persuasive message, employing nonverbal gestures, or telling engaging stories. A one-stop shop for feedback criteria covering a range of speaking skills is The Competent Speaker manual available from Toastmasters International at http://www.toastmasters.org.

During the presentation: Meeting participants listen to the presentation to grasp the speaker’s message, and write down feedback.

Post-presentation: After the presentation, each speaker listens to feedback from a designated evaluator, who shares strengths, weaknesses, and suggestions for improvement. The speaker summarizes the feedback, and indicates changes he or she will practice in future presentations. The other meeting participants pass in their written feedback to each speaker. Finally, the speaker receives a videotape of the presentation for additional self-study.

Redesigning meetings as an occasion for skill building sends a message to everyone: Winging it is prohibited. No one is permitted to plateau in mastering basics.

Step 4: Orchestrate instant practice

Instead of tolerating a colleague’s ineffective habits, a team arranges to have a ritual where any member can instantly signal to Re-Do a just-completed task or communication, and practice a more skillful response. For instance, when an entire group blames unfavorable circumstances for poor results, the meeting facilitator calls for a “Re-Do,” and participants practice taking accountability for their own actions that undermined the desired outcome. For more details on how to seize occasions for instant practice, refer to my last blog, “Take One Minute to Stamp Out Victim Mentality on Your Team: The Throw-the-Red-Flag Practice Drill”.

How good do you want to be as a leader?

Right after winning an Olympic gold medal, Carmelita Jeter recalled, “When the gun clicked, all I could hear was my coach John Smith telling me ‘Stay patient, stay patient, let the finish line come to you,’ … That’s exactly what I did.” After years of practicing sprinting basics, Jeter could be patient to permit her foundation of basic sprinting skills take over during the phases of her race.

What about you? How good do you want to be as a leader? Competent or elite? It’s you choice to create a work process where your managers are continually refining leadership basics. Basics matter—a lot.

new-bookTo assess the effectiveness of your organization’s leadership development process, go to Art’s blog and download the tool, “Conditions for Leadership Development Audit.”  http://www.turock.com/tools/

Portions of this blog are adapted from Art’s new book, Competent is Not an Option. Build an Elite Leadership Team Following the Talent Development Game Plan of Sports Champions. To order his book from Amazon.com, click on the book cover.