When most consultants talk about working hard, they use the amount of time they worked as an indicator of how hard they worked. You probably heard a peer or colleague bragging about their workload and capacity to hustle: “I've put up 65 hours this week!”
Hearing this makes me feel both sad and concerned for the speaker. There are likely thousands of other professionals who generate even better results without sacrificing their health and discretionary time. Clear goals and priorities, time and task management, and a more sustainable way to look at work are just a few things that might be missing.
But more important than my personal feelings towards those who choose long working hours is the ugly truth: Simply working a lot isn't enough to make you an expert and top performer. And this is where deliberate practice, today's topic, comes in.
Look at this quote from Aubrey Daniels, the behavioral science author and consultant:
“Consider the activity of two basketball players practicing free throws for one hour. Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. The Player B retrieves his own shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”
In this example, both players could brag about their 60-minute practice. But only one of them is practicing deliberately. That's exactly how top performers in every industry practice, according to research.
The best one I've come across came from Anders Ericsson, at Florida State University. His research shows how people develop expertise through deliberate practice. You can read more about it in his book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”
But how exactly does deliberate practice work? Put simply, it consists of:
This process is what drives progress and allows you to develop expertise.
Here's an example we discussed in a previous BCC Bites. Let's say referrals and personal introductions were very important for you to build the practice you have now. But you haven't been doing that anymore for a while.
Asking for more introductions - without overcomplicating it or listening to negative self-talk will very likely generate growth. But simply doing more is not enough. You need to do it well.
This means, at a minimum, that in addition frequently asking for introductions you also spend a portion of your time reviewing results and learning how to ask them better. How to be polite and respectful. How to give your contacts an out, in case they don't want to or can't make the introduction. How to be specific and make it as easy as possible for your contacts to introduce you to who you want to reach. All of this needs to be part of your practice routine.
That's the core idea behind deliberate practice. You deliberately attack the difficult components one by one and improve them. Maybe that's creating content. Maybe it's networking. Maybe it's delegating better. Maybe it's having better client meetings. Maybe it's nurturing relationships and staying in touch with people. The key is to find what you really need to work on to take you closer to your specific goals, which is something we do in our growth assessments for boutique consultancies.
The only difference between you and the “born” rainmaker is that one of you used deliberate practice to get better at selling. Rainmakers approach selling as a craft, mastering it as methodically as they did with their core expertise.
It helps to look at it as a journey. Although every partner knows that generating new business is a responsibility they can't hide from, it takes humility to tackle a new skill once you’ve become an expert in your field. But doing so is the only way to continue growing.
“The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in.”
1 in 4 consulting firms does not track or report on business development or marketing metrics.
Can you drive a car at night without lights? Not tracking efforts means living in a world of guessing. It's not a surprise to see those consultancies struggling to market and sell their offerings.
To put this number into context: Participants of this research were mostly larger firms. Based on my experience, I estimate this number to be more like 50-60% for consultancies doing under $1 million/year.
Source: Hinge High Growth Study 2023
What skills do you want to improve, and how can you practice them deliberately?
“Some people are natural salespeople, and others aren’t”
I hear this all of the time, and it is the most common belief about rainmakers - partners who bring clients, business, and visibility to a firm. The idea is that successful partners have a specific personality type and this explains why only some of them can consistently generate new opportunities.
It’s easy to see why so many consultants think it is true.
When they see a rainmaker in action, the skills seem too advanced for them to perform. They know how to quickly cultivate relationships and stay top-of-mind. They can gain commitments and develop opportunities effortlessly. It looks natural.
But they didn’t see the rainmaker working on a strategy to sell more to that old client account. They didn’t see the rainmaker struggling to improve his presentations. They didn’t see the rainmaker writing down a list of core relationships to focus on - and then keeping in touch with them, month after month.
Believing that success depends on innate talent is a myth, and nothing but an excuse to avoid learning how to do it well. There isn't a single serious research that supports this limiting story. As a matter of fact, we saw that science shows quite the opposite - any complex skill can be learned.
The best athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs, and consultants not only work a lot, but their work is focused on consciously developing very specific skills. They have a training routine - athletes have a specific set of exercises and a number of reps they go through. Musicians practice scales religiously. That's how improvement happens.
To get your practice to where you want it to be, what does your practice routine must look like?
Ask yourself this question at least once a year. And then practice deliberately, every day, every week, every month. Improvement and results will come naturally.