As I write this column, I'm preparing to speak at a client's upcoming sales conference. Also on the program is Geoff Colvin, who wrote "Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else."
Geoff postulates top performers are not determined by DNA, but rather, by practice and perseverance. I agree, and would further argue practice is underrated by some who ostensibly wish to achieve mastery.
My perspective on that is different from many. I grew up a musician, practicing the trumpet up to six hours a day from the age of 10 onward. I was playing professionally by 19, having amassed something like 12,000 hours with that mouthpiece on my lips.
I achieved a reasonable degree of mastery…but not enough to make it in the tough New York City recording business. I gave up the horn and became a computer programmer. After a long hiatus, I've gotten back to playing the trumpet. I've put in a thousand hours or so of practicing during the past two years, and finally, it's paying off. I'm starting to sound like a trumpet player again.
I'm also a pilot, and as of this writing, I'm getting ready for my biennial flight review. This is a 2 to 3 hour session with a flight instructor mandated by the FAA. I've got a 948-page book, all of which I must be (at a minimum) somewhat familiar with. That's an hour or more of discussion on the ground.
Then we go flying. I've got to demonstrate enough flying competence to be endorsed by the instructor for another two years. We'll do landings, emergency procedures, stalls, steep turns, recovering from unusual attitudes and other practical exercises…which, if performed well, will assure the instructor I'm competent to continue flying.
I've accumulated just under 1,600 hours in the 15 years I've been flying. Just as a point of reference, very experienced airline pilots can log 12,000 to 20,000 hours. Chesley B. (Sully) Sullenberger has 19,000.
I've been a safe, competent pilot. I'd like to believe I've practiced enough to handle myself and my plane in an emergency—but hey, you never know. I've landed 1,765 times, precisely equal to the number of times I've taken off. I can tell you that although I still hit the runway hard once in a while, or misjudge some minor aspect of wind speed or direction, I've now reached the point where almost every landing is very good to perfect. That's 15 years of practicing.
I regularly practice both yoga and writing (the latter through some of ESR's work, my blog, and this column). I've spent many hours with speaking coaches, being videotaped and painfully observing what others were and would be subjected to. More practice. Delivering a compelling signature story to drive an important point home (skydiving, eating "live" sushi in Tokyo, firewalking, losing electric power in a rented plane over Boston, etc.) to an audience of skeptical, jaded sales types requires lots of upfront and ongoing work.
I feel lucky to have learned practice doesn't always make perfect, but if you do enough of it the right way, you'll certainly progress in that direction.
Sales leaders need to listen less to their people who tell them they're too experienced to need workshops, role playing, and other individual and team practice sessions. Those salespeople are wrong.
I've worked with sales teams that were required to practice their companies' marketing messages until they could deliver them perfectly. Each salesperson, especially the most experienced ones, were delighted to have crossed the divide from winging it to master. Why doesn't every company do that?
Practice pays off. It really does.
Dave Stein is the author of "How Winners Sell" and CEO and founder of ES Research Group in West Tisbury, Mass. In addition, he delivers keynote speeches and workshops on sales performance.