Think Leadership Ideas

Expert Performance Is Not What You Think

In a knowledge-driven economy, chances are greater than ever that the value you offer comes from making use of expertise. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you get the best from your expertise by deeper learning your field, by keeping up with new developments and understanding the nuances and intricacies of your domain – in short, investing in knowing more.

However, I believe using knowing more as your primary strategy for increasing the value of your expertise will likely leave you missing the boat – big time.

In the way knowing is not the same as doing, expertise is not the same as expert performance, i.e. actions in your domain of expertise that are considered to be best-in-class.

Conventional Wisdom tells us natural talent is what drives top performance. Modern research challenges this notion. K. Anders Ericsson, co-editor and contributor to the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, notes the common factor of expert performance in almost every domain researched is “deliberate practice” – ongoing practice and repetition shaped by active feedback. For example, there are many talented golfers in the world. It’s feedback driven practice that makes Tiger Woods a consistent champion.

Raw talent can certainly provide motivation and acceleration to feedback-driven practice, but it is the practice that creates the performance. In most domains, people with average talent can achieve expert-level performance by diligently exercising best practices based on ongoing feedback. Kenneth Blanchard hit the nail on the head when he said, “Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions.”

Top performing professionals seek feedback from clients and colleagues. Top performing businesses seek feedback from customers and employees. In all cases, a performance edge is obtained through diligently acquiring feedback, and even more diligently using it to guide performance improvement.

In the realm of leadership and management, executives who want to be top of their game use coaches or 360 reviews to garner feedback, both within and outside of their organization’s formal performance system. Where organizations often go wrong with these tools is using them primarily to shore up weaknesses rather than to accelerate performance of existing strengths and expertise.

Questions for leadership insight: What systematic feedback are you providing for yourself and other leaders in your organization? Are you using feedback to develop and polish best practices? Are you seeking expert-level performance as much as expertise?

We can all agree that it is critically important factor to continue learning and keep up in your field. But knowing more in a field does not necessarily contribute to better performance or more value from expertise – for this you need diligent practice based on systematic feedback.

By Tom Stevens (c)2007

by Tom Stevens (c)2007
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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