Becoming better

25 February, 2019

How to get better at getting better, because what got you here won’t get you there

I recently finished reading Chandramouli Venkatesan’s (Mouli, as most of us call him) new book, Get Better At Getting Better, a very interesting take on the much debated topic of why some people end up being so much more successful than others. Whether you are a senior leader, a new people manager or someone just starting out yourself, this is most certainly something that you have grappled with – or are doing so even as you read this. 

As we know, we live and work in constantly changing environments that demand reinvention. Standing still just isn’t even an option.

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably agree that it isn’t enough to just want to be better. And as Mouli asserts, by just working hard, one doesn’t get better. We have to be deliberate and prioritise getting better.

So, my message this week is on what you can and should be doing to grow and become better. 

Here are some reflections for your learning journey: 

1. Become more self-aware 

Most of us are quite poor at being self-aware and objective about ourselves. It’s difficult to scrutinise ourselves with the same ruthlessness as we do others. Consequently, we aren’t okay with being uncomfortable with learning new things to get better. This becomes a bigger challenge as we get more senior because we are now even less willing to admit what we don’t know or spend the time learning something new. When was the last time you stopped someone (more junior even) publicly and asked them to explain something that you didn’t understand? If yes, did it make you uncomfortable? And if you’re holding yourself back, then why is that so? 

You must push yourself out of your comfort zone and be ok with what you don’t know. That’s the first step to learning. If you’re willing to admit this, then the next step is fostering a support system to counter these blind spots. Find people who you can learn from and also people who will push you to dig deeper and admit when you don’t know something that you need to. Ask them for regular feedback and mark the progress that you make. 

2. Learn in the flow of work 

In their Harvard Business Review article, ‘Making Learning a Part of Everyday Work’, Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders point out that 80% of CEOs now believe the need for new skills is their biggest business challenge. Similarly, employees now identify opportunities for development as the second most important factor of workplace happiness (after the nature of the work). Ironically enough, this doesn’t translate into action mainly because corporate learning is seen as a “separate destination” to go to. Given everything else going on, people tend to give this extra effort a miss. 

But what if this wasn’t so? And if learning was aligned around working days and working lives? Bersin and Zao-Sanders suggest some helpful approaches for this: 

(1) Practice mindfulness 

Try to be more aware ion what you are doing while you do it. Don’t just run through things to get them done. Instead, ask questions and try to understand the “why”. These queries and discovering the answers will be learning experiences in themselves.  

(2) Maintain a to-learn list 

Just because you’re too busy right now doesn’t mean that you should write off a learning gap that pops up. Keep a running list of these thoughts and practices and go back to it when you have some time.  

(3) Calendar in learning time 

This is really important enough to have on your calendar, along with all your other meetings. Commit to setting aside some specific time for this and then hold yourself to actually cutting off and immersing in learning. It’ll also give you a good sense of how much time you’re investing in this. 

(4) Contribute to a learning channel 

Learning really does become more enjoyable when it is shared and tested. So, sign up for a space where other people are also sharing ideas and learnings around the topic you’re exploring. Start writing in or attending these sessions and become part of the conversations. 

3. Change your competition 

Who or what are your benchmarks of success? In their Harvard Business Review article, ‘4 Self-Improvement Myths That May Be Holding You Back’, D. Christopher Kayes and James R. Bailey talk about how many people believe that they can get better by benchmarking themselves against others. I’ve seen the equivalent of this play out repeatedly when it comes to conversations around careers. Surprisingly, most people still, a good 8-10 years down the road, still want to be benchmarked against their batchmates from business school – never mind that you may have made very different choices and are displaying very different approaches. Kayes and Bailey highlight why this ends up negatively: 

In some cases, we benchmark against those who are more capable or accomplished, which can be counterproductive when we fail to match them. In other cases, often in a subconscious effort to preserve our self-esteem, we rate ourselves against people who are less successful – a “downward comparison” that is obviously anathema to personal development. 

So if not other people, then who do we compare with? Perhaps yourself and where you want to get to? It will certainly be much tougher and you will have to introspect deeply, but these are questions you really do need to ask for yourself. It will give you a much sharper sense of what you need to do. 

4. Talk curious 

 There’s a reason why children pick up things so quickly. They are constantly exploring and playing and questioning and just plain curious. Sure, we may not be children anymore, but that’s no reason why we can’t inject curiosity into how we approach things. In her Harvard Business Review article, ‘Learning to Learn’, Erika Andersen offers a very insightful tip: 

Great learners retain this childhood drive, or regain it through another application of self-talk. Instead of focusing on and reinforcing initial disinterest in a new subject, they learn to ask themselves “curious questions” about it and follow those questions up with actions. Carol Sansone, a psychology researcher, has found, for example, that people can increase their willingness to tackle necessary tasks by thinking about how they could do the work differently to make it more interesting. In other words, they change their self-talk from “This is boring” to “I wonder if I could…?” 

You can employ the same strategy in your working life by noticing the language you use in thinking about things that already interest you-How…? Why…? I wonder…?-and drawing on it when you need to become curious. Then take just one step to answer a question you’ve asked yourself: Read an article, query an expert, find a teacher, join a group-whatever feels easiest. 

5. Find your personal kaizen 

Mouli suggests that people who excel consistently, do so because they have a model or framework of sorts, based on which they can improve anything that they want in themselves.: 

Success is not about how good you are; it is about how powerful and effective a model you have to improve how good you are. 

So perhaps that’s the silver bullet then – not one answer, but a tested way for you to continuously find answers. He calls this the Get-Better Model – “a kaizen for working professionals”, it can you help yourself get on a process of continuous improvement. 

There are 4 key aspects to this, which you can read about in more detail in the book. 

(1) Getting better by yourself 

It’s not enough for you to find answers from someone else. You have to discover the method for yourself and be able to use it to generate answers in any situation. To do this, you need to find more structured ways to reflect and review on your responses and approaches. 

(2) Getting better by leveraging others 

Get smarter about how you leverage the people and opportunities viable to you. What are you doing to get the best out of your manager? How do you make the most of your team members? Do you seriously get the best out of the learning opportunities that you are offered? 

(3) Making others get better 

Build an ecosystem around you that multiplies your efforts. It only benefits you if you can create a stronger team and have all your partners co-opted into win-win partnerships. Don’t view the system as something separate from you. Instead, make it an extension of yourself and vice versa and you’ll see a perceptible shift. 

(4) Making and implementing a get-better plan 

Finally, all of this comes together in a realistic, implantable plan. Identify select areas where you want to drive improvement. Detail how you can integrate this with actions on a daily basis. Even the best laid plans end up being shelved sometimes because you have other pressing priorities that come up. So, you need to really commit and be clear on what it can get you. 

Do set aside some time this week to reflect on what your get better method is and how you can leverage it to help yourself, your team and our company get better. If there are any reflections you have on your personal approaches and what we can learn from them, do write in. And do pick up a copy of Get Better at Getting Better. 

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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