Management and the Martial Arts

Over breakfast, a young entrepreneur asked me for my advice on how to become a better manager.  “I think I’m pretty good,” he said, “I’m really clear about what people need to do, and if they’re not sure what to do, I lead them through it.  But it’s really frustrating.  I told a team member what he needed to do, and when I checked back two hours later, he had barely made any progress.”

I instantly had flashbacks to my days as a brash, young, impatient entrepreneur.

Here’s how I explained it to him:

Me: “Have you ever practiced the martial arts?”

Him: “Yes, Tae Kwon Do.”

Me: “Do you remember learning your forms [sequences of 15-20 moves used for practice]?  Was it easy or hard?”

Him: “It was really hard.”

Me: “You see, you couldn’t possibly learn your forms just from listening to your sensei talk, no matter how good the explanation.  Your sensei probably had you practice your forms, a few steps at a time.  When you erred, he’d correct you, then have you practice the same couple of steps again.  To help someone learn, you need to help them practice, and then give them immediate feedback.  When you gave your instructions, then went away, you took away any chance for your team member to benefit from your feedback.”

My young friend saw the point.

It’s hard for the brilliant and capable to become good managers.  It’s the reason why great athletes don’t always make great coaches–things come too easily for them, which means they have a hard time explaining them to mere mortals.

Focus on teaching just a couple of steps at a time, and provide constant feedback.  It works for the martial arts, and it works for management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *