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    Jennifer K. Crittenden earned an MBA in finance and worked for over twenty years in the US and abroad, rising from financial analyst to chief financial officer. She is the author of four books, including the award-winning Discreet Guide for Executive Women. She offers professional development programs through her company The Discreet Guide.

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Practice, Using Your Head

The lack of practice in the workplace is striking—even shocking—when we consider the difficulty of routine job requirements, particularly those of managers. Giving a performance review, terminating an employee, presenting in front of a hostile audience, running a big meeting—these everyday tasks require significant skill, and yet, they are almost never practiced. A presentation might get a quick dry run, but that still misses the benefits of thoughtful, iterative practice, including feedback.
Each session with my clients culminates with the development of some exercises they will work on until the next session. Usually those exercises are the practice of a specific, new behavior, such as speaking authoritatively with a staff member, using power poses, attending a networking event, or confronting a troublemaker. The philosophy behind these exercises is that we cannot get better unless we practice, and the more we practice, the easier it will become to undertake those difficult activities. In his book Practice Perfect, teacher Doug Lemov describes the “get it/do it gap,” the difference between being shown or told what to do and actually doing it. My efforts with my clients will be wasted if we only talk about change and never practice it.
Ironically, we often avoid the activities we don’t do well. Poor public speakers avoid the podium at all costs, managers who write badly don’t send e-mails, and people who are nervous about networking won’t go out. We stumble through a presentation and pray for it to be over. We mishandle a performance review and sigh with relief that we won’t have to do that for another year. It’s no surprise that we don’t get better at what we do badly.
Good practice isn’t just repetition. Playing a song on the piano over and over and making the same mistake every time is mindless. The weak points of your performance have to be isolated, analyzed, and overcome. Getting feedback and advice from someone else can be very helpful and will allow you to get better faster. The goal of good practice is mastery. You want these new behaviors to be so natural that you don’t have to think about them anymore and they look effortless.
If you are working alone out of the book, you will need to devise exercises for yourself, so you too can practice. Here are a few suggestions to reap the most benefit from your practice:
1. Write down what behavior you are working on. It might be most helpful to select activities that are related to the section of You, Not I that you are reading.
2. Practice in front of a mirror to the extent that it is feasible. That will allow you to do real time adjustments and efficient corrections.
3. Take your time—good practice is time consuming, but it should be rewarding. If it’s working, you should be getting better.
4. Identify the difficult spots and practice those in isolation. It may take multiple tries before you find the perfect phrasing and tone of voice for a difficult message.
5. Focus on small incremental improvements. You are unlikely to turn in an earth-shaking performance on your first few tries. Keeping your expectations low but correctly identifying when real progress has been made will keep you motivated.
6. Practice with someone else. A partner can provide companionship, motivation, support and constructive advice.
7. Ask for feedback. And practice again to prove that you have mastered whatever shortcomings were identified in the feedback.

© 2012 Jennifer K. Crittenden [Excerpted from You, Not I: Exceptional Presence through the Eyes of Others]

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