Practice Makes Perfect

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds.”                                                                                                                                                                     - Winston Churchill

My seven year old recently started playing piano. After the first lesson, his teacher gave him a binder and a sheet to record his assignments for each week and how long he practiced. At first, the practicing was a point of friction for us. My son was resistant to play a series of “C’s” in a particular pattern rather than playing around to figure out “Monster” by Eminem, which he had learned in a class at school. For me, having spent most of my childhood and teenage years as a pretty serious musician, I knew that the only way to really excel was to learn technique and music theory (notes and rhythm) but when I tried to nudge him to play, it came off too strong and he bristled. Luckily, after a month or two, he started to be able to play more interesting songs and feel a sense of pride in his progress and I stopped being so concerned he wouldn’t put in the proper effort, so the conflict has resolved itself.

This experience reminded me of the importance of rote practice, something that is not always fun or pleasant but a key to getting better – if not always becoming “perfect” – at most things. I know that in my family we happen to be pretty musical so it comes relatively easily to my son and me. I also know, though, that I would not be half the musician I was at age 18 if I hadn’t put in hours and hours of practice in the preceding years. Similarly, I was also a pretty serious swimmer for a few years and although I did not have any particular talent or skill for it, I was able to be an above average competitor because of all the early morning dives into the pool and evening practices in which I participated. With our kids, my husband and I focus a lot on “growth mindset” and the importance of hard work (our five year old actually used to think our last name was synonymous with “works hard”) but what about for us as grownups?

Something I spend a lot of time doing professionally is interviewing candidates for leadership roles, assessing their ability to meet a particular standard and move forward in a client’s hiring process. Thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours” theory from Outliers (although I have to admit that my mind automatically goes to the Macklemore song – I mean, who else talks about Gladwell, David Bowie and Kanye in the same phrase?) I am not sure I literally have spent 10,000 hours interviewing people over the past decade, but if not I think I am getting close. Conducting interviews and hiring people is a skill, just like piano playing or swimming. And yet many of us approach hiring as if we are naturally gifted at it, or automatically know what we are looking for and how to assess it in the brief interactions we have with candidates during a selection process.

To me, this feels a bit like Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” statement about pornography – we assume we will just know which candidates are great when we talk with them whether we have taken the time to practice our technique or prep for how to rate candidates' responses in advance. However, unlike Justice Stewart, thousands of hours of interviewing have shown me that our snap judgments are often wrong – even biased in a whole range of troublesome ways - and we usually don’t “know it when we see it” unless we spend time practicing our interviewing techniques and thinking ahead to what we want to get out of each interview before it begins.

When I first started interviewing aspiring principal candidates in my work at New Leaders for New Schools a decade ago, I did not have a clear picture of what I was looking for or how to identify it in an interview process. It was only through conducting rounds of interviews with more experienced colleagues who gave me targeted feedback and rote practice (asking the same questions and listening for the same kinds of responses over and over again) that I became competent in interviewing school leaders. Over the years I have refined my skills, getting better at listening for key pieces of evidence that fit into the competency buckets we are testing and recognizing when a candidate is qualified – and when they are just talking around the answers to my questions, using jargon or saying what they think I want to hear.

One of my favorite kinds of engagements with clients is to support the development of their leader hiring process, facilitating conversations about their priorities for the role, competencies that will lead someone to be successful, and ways of testing candidates’ ability to meet these standards during the selection phase. And then we get to the part where we practice the interviews themselves. It strikes me at these moments how often this is the first time these close colleagues have ever sat together and practiced what they will say to candidates, how they will say it, and what they are looking for in the responses they receive. For me, this is the moment when the magic starts to happen – folks find themselves practicing interview questions and scoring responses relative to a competency framework and they realize together how much more confident they are in their ability to evaluate candidates and make high-quality hiring decisions, feeling better about the whole hiring process in the bargain.

A few weeks ago, my son’s piano teacher asked us to work on a duet to perform at his recital in May. As a result, instead of me calling out to him to practice from the other room, the two of us are sitting down at the piano together almost every night, working through our parts in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” We both get excited when we nail a particular phrase, laugh at ourselves when we mess up, and support each other when we are struggling. My husband likes to come by and just watch us work together on something that used to drive us apart. I can’t guarantee that we will nail every note perfectly when we perform next month, but I do know that our collective practice will set us up for success. And hopefully by modeling my own need to work hard to get something right – and my failures along the way – my seven year old will understand that even grownups need to practice things sometimes to ultimately get them right.