Accelerating Executive Mastery: 10 ways to get better, faster >>

Work hard at something over time and you’ll get better, right? Yes, but time on the job alone gives you no guarantee of mastery. And what if time isn’t on your side. What if you want to get better, faster? This is the challenge that the CEOs and executives that I work with face. As their business and role grows, their development can struggle to keep up with the rate of change, putting their position and entire businesses at risk.

Fascinated by what it really takes to get better, faster, I turned to the scientific literature on expertise and mastery, in particular the book Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World. I’d stumbled across it via Cedric Chin’s work on Expertise Acceleration. I wanted to understand how we might apply the book’s principles of expertise development to CEOs and other Executive-level leaders, and what I could do as a coach to help my C-Suite clients.

I identified 7 common factors that the research suggests you need to be working on if you want to accelerate your journey to mastery. But I didn’t feel like the book had got me all the way the to understanding Executive mastery.

That’s because Accelerated Expertise is based on the ideas of the Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) movement. NDM studies how people like fighter pilots, soldiers, doctors and firefighters make decisions and perform cognitively complex functions in demanding, real-world situations marked by limited time, uncertainty, high stakes, team and organizational constraints, unstable conditions, and varying amounts of experience. It views mastery through a lens of extremely high proficiency within these specific types of disciplines and contexts*. With a focus on training, the book brilliantly explains how to extract an expert’s tacit knowledge of their discipline and transfer it to someone else. It’s theories explain how an individual can onboard that knowledge and develop their expertise more rapidly.

This is incredibly valuable, but it’s also narrow, technical and operational. Much of the work of leadership happens at a higher level of abstraction.

Take Ron Heifetz’s work on adapative leadership for example, in confronting the hardest challenges that C-suite leaders face. With their technical skills already well-honed, they’re no longer rewarded for tacit, technical expertise and just doing their job really, really well. Now they’re tasked with addressing increasingly complex challenges that require new ways of thinking and working. This means honing their leadership skills in the wickedest of learning environments, where information and feedback is messy, random, incomplete, unrepresentative, ambiguous, inconsistent, unpalatable, or secondhand. Where the relationship between cause and effect isn’t known until afterwards. Where what worked once may not work again. Where the challenges are so complex that there isn’t any single answer. Where leaders can’t just ‘know better’ based on previous experience. Where there’s tensions, tradeoffs and paradox. And where leaders must look not just inwards to their own expertise but also outwards, to soak up the perspectives and collective wisdom of their people, their organisation, and what their competitors and the market is doing.

How do you develop this kind of leadership mastery? Weaving in wider leadership development literature, and my own experience coaching clients on this journey, I suggest 3 more common factors that will help you become not just a better technical leader but a more expansive one.

Below is a summary of the 10 common factors that my research so far suggests you need to be tenaciously working on if you want to accelerate your journey towards leadership mastery. Think of these common factors like ingredients in a recipe, you can miss a few out but it’s only by including them all that you will get the optimal flavour. I’ve borrowed the concept borrowed from psychotherapy, which highlights the factors that must always be present in therapy in order to maximise its effectiveness. Likewise with executive mastery, if you don’t include all these factors in your development then you won’t get the best possible outcomes.

Click on the links to jump to the sections.

Common FactorTL;DRTheory
1. MotivationYou have to really want to get betterSelf-Determination Theory, Deci & Ryan
2. Time on the jobYou have to put the time in“A research finding from many studies spanning multiple decades is that high proficiency is achieved only after many years of sustained and motivated effort”.
3. Continuous LearningBe a ‘learning machine’, from a range of sources and diverse perspectivesJohn Dewey Social Learning
Cognitive Flexibility Theory & Cognitive Transformation Theory
Cognitive Task Analysis
4. Deliberate PracticeConstant repetition, outside your comfort zoneK. Anders Ericssonn
5. FeedbackSeek and soak up feedback from all around youComplex Adaptive Systems
Predictive Processing
Adult Development Theory
6. CoachingFind a great coachCoaching research & literature
7. MentoringFind a great mentorMentoring research & literature
‘Expert Mentors’
Cognitive Task Analysis
8. Inner Work‘Know thyself’
Emotional / stress regulation
Psychology research & literature
Emotional Intelligence
9. Reflective PracticeJournalling, with a coach, time alone etcThe Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön
10. Deliberately Developmental PracticeEngage in ‘Heat Experiences’
Developmental coaching
Adult Development Theory (Kegan, Garvey Berger etc)
Technical & Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz)
Horizontal & Vertical Leadership Skills (Nick Petrie)

This Series is a Work In Progress, based on where my current research and thinking has got to.
Share your thoughts and give me feedback, and sign up for The Future Of Leadership Newsletter to stay updated.

1. Motivation

A research finding from many studies spanning multiple decades is that high proficiency is achieved only after many years of sustained and motivated effort. 

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

But where does this desire to improve come from? It requires high levels of intrinsic motivation to work hard on hard problems – the motivation to engage in a behavior because of the inherent satisfaction of the activity rather than the desire for a reward or specific outcome.

Self-Determination Theory, intrinsic motivation & Mastery

Intrinsic motivation and mastery is born out of self-determination theory, first studied in the 1970s and brought to prominence in the 1980s by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (and further popularised by Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us). Deci & Ryan identified three basic, universal, innate and essential psychological needs that are fundamental to individual psychological health and well-being:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self.
  2. Competence – seek to control the outcome and experience mastery.
  3. Relatedness – the will to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for others.

Within the theory, Deci and Ryan claim that there are three essential elements:

  1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastery of their inner forces (such as drives and emotions).
  2. Humans have an inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning.
  3. Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they do not happen automatically.

You have to really want to improve. Without this you just won’t have the grit, determination and resilience to keep going on what is going to be a long and tough journey. It’s on this hard and arduous journey that your brain is updating it’s mental models into increasingly expansive forms.

2. Time on the job

A general finding from studies of expertise broadly is that the amount of practice is the single greatest determinate of superior performance.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

Malcolm Gladwell first popularised the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is the magic number for achieving mastery in any field in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. But he came in for a lot of criticism on the basis that it was derived from a misinterpretation of the original research by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson has clarified that Gladwell never consulted with him before publishing his book and that the 10,000-hour figure was a generalisation and not a one-size-fits-all rule.

Regardless, if you want to be a great executive, or great at anything, you’ve got to put the time in. There’s no way around it. Whilst Gladwell’s work brought attention to the importance of time on the job, we know that this alone isn’t enough. So, what else?

3. Continuous Learning

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

Charlie Munger

Continuous learning is the ongoing process of acquiring new knowledge, skills, and competencies throughout our lives. It involves engaging in all sorts of educational activities, like formal training, self-directed learning, and experiential learning, to stay current and adaptable.

Being told that we need to keep doing it comes as no surprise. But just putting more information into our brains isn’t what’s important, because anyone can do that and often it’s where they stop. It’s what we do with it that matters. It’s only by engaging in continuous learning and then engaging in the other 9 common factors identified here that you will accelerate your journey towards executive mastery.

4. Deliberate Practice

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise. 

The Making of an Expert, by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely (2007)

K. Anders Ericsson is widely reknowned as the expert on experts. He challenged the notion that mere repetition of tasks and hours on the job leads to mastery. He emphasised instead the need for intentional, focused, and purposeful practice at the edge of one’s capabilities. He called this deliberate practice.

We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.

The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, Psychological Review (1993)

Deliberate practice involves getting out of your comfort zone, but not so far outside of it that you become disillusioned or impaired. You have to build up. Deliberate practice is about more than just good habits. If you go to the gym and always lift the same weights then it will help you maintain a baseline of fitness but you won’t get any stronger. At the same time, you don’t want to lift weights so heavy that you injure yourself. Another analogy is a hard yoga pose, which must be challenging enough to increase your flexibility but not so hard as to feel pain and again risk injury. In a work context, taking on tasks or tackling problems that are clearly way beyond your current level of skill will only lead to disillusionment and possible embarassment resulting from inevitable failure. A junior developer probably shouldn’t be updating the CTO on why this quarter’s technical OKRs weren’t met, but updating the Head of Engineering about why their team fell short would be a constructive stretch goal.

The problem with Deliberate Practice

The world does not play fair. Instead of providing us with clear information that would enable us to ‘know’ better, it presents us with messy data that are random, incomplete, unrepresentative, ambiguous, inconsistent, unpalatable, or secondhand.

How We Know What Isn’t So, by Thomas Gilovich

In one of the biggest examples of mis-selling in the popular science self-help literature, we need to do more than practice deliberately if we want to gain mastery in a complex world. Why? It comes down to the nature of the environment that we’re learning in, with deliberate practice working well in kind environments but poorly in wicked ones. The late Robin Hogarth has the most straightforward framework for thinking about this:

Kind Learning Environments:

  • Characteristics: Clear feedback that is accurate, immediate, and aligned with the actions taken.
  • Example: Sports like tennis, chess, music, maths where the outcomes of actions are evident and feedback is clear.
  • Learning Process: Individuals can learn effectively from their actions due to the reliable feedback.

Wicked Learning Environments:

  • Characteristics: Feedback is delayed, inaccurate, or misleading, making it hard to learn from actions.
  • Example: anything involving interpersonal dynamics like organizational culture, external constraints (e.g. competitors), business strategy, models and capital allocation, trading and investing, where feedback on decisions can be delayed and influenced by numerous factors.
  • Learning Process: Learning is more challenging due to the dynamic nature of the environment, contextual influences, unreliability of feedback, often leading to persistent errors and misconceptions.

5. Feedback

Feedback is the lifeblood of change in a complex world. Without a constant diet of data and perspectives from those around them, people are trapped inside their own perspective and the quirks of their own, beautifully human brains. The ability to give and receive feedback, and to organise work and conversations so that feedback is richly available, is a core change capability.

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, by Jennifer Garvey Berger & Keith Johnston

We think about feedback at work as being a nice thing to have. Hopefully, we’re getting it in our one-to-ones, our performance reviews and and 360 feedback from our Board, superiors and reports. But feedback is about so much more than that. All complex adative systems – human beings are complex adaptive systems, so are businesses and economies – build and rely on models that allow them to anticipate the world:

A supercomputer’s simulation of climate change is one example. A start-up company’s business plan is another, as is an economic projection made by the Federal Reserve Board. Even Stonehenge is a model: its circular arrangement of stones provided the Druid priests with a rough but effective computer for predicting the arrival of the equinoxes. Very often, moreover, the models are literally inside our head, as when a shopper tries to imagine how a new couch might look in the living room, or when a timid employee tries to imagine the consequences of telling off his boss. We use these ‘mental models’ so often, in fact, that many psychologists are convinced they are the basis of all conscious thought.

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos

These mental models provide the basis against which the system can make predictions. But prediction without feedback is meaningless because there’s no way to update the model.

This was Darwin’s great insight, that an agent can improve its internal models without any paranormal guidance whatsoever. It simply has to try the models out, see how well their predictions work in the real world, and – if it survives the experience – adjust the models to do better the next time. In biology, of course, the agents are individual organisms, the feedback is provided by natural selection, and the steady improvement of the models is called evolution. But in cognition, the process is essentially the same: the agents are individual minds, the feedback comes from teachers and direct experience, and the improvement is called learning.

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos

Human Feedback Loops and Mental Models

Feedback process - Mastery

Based on the predictive processing model of human cognition, the feedback process can be simplified to something like the above. Without feedback we can’t update our mental models. More specifically, feedback (to the extent that we’re receptive to it, and have the capacity for Cognitive Flexibility and Cognitive Transformation) allows us to:

  1. Correct misunderstandings and learn from our mistakes – without feedback we can’t ever know what we’ve done wrong or misunderstood. We can’t learn from our mistakes if we don’t know we have made them.
  2. Highlight blind spots and areas where we may lack awareness, or insight – by identifying these blind spots, feedback prompts us to reevaluate our assumptions and consider alternative approaches.
  3. See different perspectives – beyond the realms of hard science, objective truth is rare. Getting feedback opens us up to diverse perspectives, which can broaden our understanding of a situation and challenge our preconceived notions. By asking for feedback, we are also signalling to people that we are opent to it, which can create a positive reinforcement loop, with more profound implications.
  4. Adapt – feedback makes us assess our actions, behaviors, and strategies relative to what it is we are trying to achieve. Without it, we can’t optimise our performance and adapt to changing conditions.

Feedback is essential for the advancement of any complex system, including humans. For the individual pursuing mastery, integrating feedback from any situation into our past experience allows us to create new ways of seeing and making sense of things and update our our mental models accordingly.

6. Coaching

[A coach is] your external eyes and ears, providing a more accurate picture of your reality. They’re recognizing the fundamentals. They’re breaking your actions down and then helping you build them back up again.

Atul Gawande, Want to Get Great at Something, Get A Coach

You’re starting to pull together your own framework for accelerating your own journey towards executive mastery. You’re highly motivated and putting the time in, you’re practicing deliberately and reflecting on your actions. But wouldn’t it be helpful to have someone help you pull all this together, rather than go it alone? That’s exactly what a skilled coach does, and more.

A coach can help you across all the factors of expertise acceleration discussed so far:

  • Motivation – identify what motivates you (and what doesn’t), punch though any blockers to current motivation.
  • Continuous learning – identify learning gaps and point you towards relevant resources, educate you as it relates to their areas of expertise.
  • Deliberate practice – according to Dr. Scott Miller on the David Puder podcast, “A key point in this structure of deliberate practice is the importance of having a coach to help identify the deficit and create a path for improvement. This outside perspective can offer targeted feedback. In thinking about who these coaches “should” be, their central quality is that they are skilled in helping the individual to excel. They don’t necessarily need to possess the highest level of expertise in the particular skill being coached, but they should be highly effective in helping others to develop that skill“.
  • Feedback – provide perspective-shifting feedback based on their own observations and by facilitating feedback from others back to you.
  • Reflective practice (see below) – provides a private space to share openly what your reflecting on, to wallow in the complexity and hardship of a situation, to see things in a new light and be offered up alternative perspectives.

7. Mentoring

We know that we need to always keep learning, and one of the best ways to do that is to learn from those who are more experienced and wiser than we are. From mentors.

Mentoring originates from Greek mythology. When Odysseus set out for Troy he entrusted his house and the education of his son Telemachus to his friend Mentor, leaving him with the instruction to “tell him all you know”. Unlike coaching, which helps someone to learn rather than being directly taught, mentoring involves a more direct transfer of expert knowledge from master to learner.

On the face of it, mentoring is straightforward. A much more experienced mentor shares their knowledge and wisdom with a mentee, who weaves it into their our own mental models and updates them accordingly. This generally works just fine in the earlier stages of our learning journeys where the transfer of knowledge is explicit and learning is still very technical in nature. But it’s problematic at later stages in our learning journey, and as the complexity of the situations we find ourselves in increase, for a few reasons:

1. The tacit nature of expertise

If experts know much of what they know without knowing how they know it (tacit knowledge), then how can they communicate it more explicitly to someone else? Fortunately Accelerated Expertise has some great insights into this in the form of Cognitive Task Analysis, a methodology used to understand how individuals perform complex tasks or activities by uncovering the cognitive processes, strategies, and decision-making involved in completing a task.

2. Past experience as a guide to future action, and the role of Expert Mentors

A bigger challenge relates to the constant change and unpredictability inherent in complex environments, which means that past experience is often a less than reliable guide to future action. Imagine an already experienced CEO seeking the advice of their mentor, a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company, about whether to pursue an M&A opportunity. Should they buy the other company, or not? The answer to this question is fundamentally unknowable in advance. There’s so much complexity involved, so many reasons things could go well, or poorly. Even the most experienced of Executives may have only been involved in half a dozen such situations, so past experience and pattern recognition only of limited value.

Situations like this call for advanced sensemaking from a mentor (and a big dose of humility). Given they can’t give their mentee ‘the answer’ (though the less humble may believe they can), they must help instead help them develop their capacity for critical thinking, judgement, risk analysis and such like, rather than prescribing fixed solutions from the past.

Whilst Accelerated Expertise doesn’t refer to examples quite so complex as M&A opportunities, it does still provide good commentary on the role of ‘Expert Mentors’, who are more effective at helping learners at advanced stages because, rather than just attempt to pass on static experience, they are able to:

  • Form rich mental models of the learner’s knowledge and skill, meeting the learner where they’re at by understanding the maturity of their mental models.
  • Anticipate when the learner will form a reductive mental model and recognize the kinds of practice experiences that will force the learner to go beyond their current reductive models.

To the C-suite & beyond

Domain practitioners who achieve high levels of proficiency provide technical judgment to speed decision-making in time-critical events. They provide resilience to operations by resolving tough problems, anticipating future demands and re-planning, and acting prudently by judgment rather than by rule. High proficiency practitioners exercise effective technical leadership in ambiguous or complex situations, often by communicating subtle features that other people will not see until -they are pointed out. Often they are also the ones who understand the history, the interdependencies of units and processes, and the culture of their complex organizations – knowledge that is often essential in actually “getting things done”. 

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World (Chapter 1, page 2)

Here’s the rub. With its emphasis on technical judgement and decision making to resolve tough problems, Accelerated Expertise’s definition of high-proficiency bears all the hallmarks of what Ron Heifetz would call technical leadership. Every business needs great technical leaders, but we know from Heifetz’s work, and that of people like William Torbert (Action Logics) and Niko Canner (Mode’s of Seniority), that it’s at this level that leaders often get stuck even though they have the ambition to progress to more senior levels.

Technical LeadershipAdaptive Leadership
Involves applying established knowledge, procedures, and best practices to solve problems and achieve goals within a known framework
May be complex and critically important but problem is clear, has known solutions
With a focus on expertise, efficiency, and optimization within existing systems and structures, great technical leaders can efficiently managing tasks, resources, and processes to accomplish specific objectives
Navigating challenges and driving change in uncertain or complex environments where problem isn’t easily defined and solutions not readily apparent – can’t consult an expert
Requires ability to identify and address underlying systemic issues, manage conflicts, and mobilize people to adapt and thrive in changing circumstances
Adaptive leaders encourage innovation, foster resilience, and facilitate learning and growth within individuals and organizations
Radically different from doing your job really, really well!

Why do leaders get stuck? Even though it does require lots of expertise, technical leadership offers familiarity and comfort as it focuses on solving problems with known solutions. Organsiations reward these quick fixes and tangible results with increasing levels of seniority. But only up to a point, at which the shift to a more adaptive leadership style is called for. This creates a tension in the most self-aware leaders. Either they get frustrated that they’re not progressing because they don’t know why. Or, they’ve already been promoted into a senior position but feel in over their heads.

Leadership - Mastery

Leaders may fear the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in adaptive leadership, experiencing anxiety and a perceived loss of control. Torbert’s Action Logics suggests that many leaders operate from an “Expert” or “Achiever” mindset, focused on efficiency and effectiveness, rather than progressing to more advanced stages that support adaptive leadership. Resistance to personal change and entrenched habits hinder the transition. Organizational culture and systemic constraints add to the challenge, as many organizations prioritize stability and predictability, resisting the flexible and innovative approaches required for adaptive leadership. Insufficient training and development opportunities often mean that leaders are not equipped with the necessary skills for adaptive leadership, further entrenching them in a technical leadership, expert-led approach.

How can we help these leaders punch through? Here’s three more common factors – not discussed in Accelerating Expertise – that can help take a leader to that place.

8. Inner Work

“Leadership is this intense journey into yourself”

Jeffrey Immelt, former General Electric CEO

The late David B. Peterson was the former Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership at Google. In Good to Great Coaching: Accelerating the Journey, he wrote that a common theme in virtually all of the literature on expertise and mastery (for example, George Leonard’s 1992 book Mastery: The Keys to Success And Long-Term Fulfillment) is the notion of self-awareness and self-discipline in the pursuit of excellence. He suggests the following practices for self-reflection at a deeper-level.

  • Look inward: What is most important to you? What values matter most and how are you manifesting them in what you are trying to achieve?
  • Look outward: What matters most to others? What expectations do they hold that you need to address in order to be successful at your endeavors? How do they perceive you?
  • Look back: What have you been trying to learn and what new things have you tried? What has worked well and what hasn’t worked? What have you learned?
  • Look ahead: What will you do differently? What do you need to keep learning? Where are your opportunities to try new things?

The book Upgrade: Building your capacity for complexity calls this Self-relating, which:

Summarises our ability to relate directly to aspects of our inner experience – our thoughts, emotional responses, beliefs, gut-feels, historical patterns and habits of mind. These things play out continuously in the internal theatre of our brains and bodies, influencing our actions and decisions whether we are aware of them or not . Capacity for self relating plays a pivotal role when it comes to interpreting and operating in this world. The more we understand the source of our habits, decisions and choices, the less we are at the mercy of unconscious forces and rules of thumb that biases our thinking and can keep us stuck in unhelpful patterns of behaviour, thought and emotional response.

As a leader, it’s very hard to differentiate between leadership effectiveness and personal effectiveness. Your character comes through very quickly. Whether you are insecure or courageous, aggressive or permissive, trustworthy or manipulative is obvious. That’s why to be a greater leader, you have to be willing to do the inner work to understand yourself and do your best to change as required. Pursuing this deeply is the journey of personal mastery, which is the pathway to leadership mastery.

9. Reflective Practice

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solution.

There are those who choose the swampy lowlands. They deliberately involve themselves in messy but crucially important problems and, when asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition,and muddling through. Other professionals opt for the high ground. Hungry for technical rigor, devoted to an image of solid professional competence, or fearful of entering a world in which they feel they do not know what they are doing, they choose to confine themselves to a narrowly technical practice. 

The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action

Most people have heard of deliberate practice, probably because of Malcom Gladwell’s popularisation. But reflective practice hardly gets attention. It manages only a passing reference in Accelerated Expertise. Yet in navigating the complexities of life and leadership, it feels essential.

Its author, Donald Schön, distinguishes between technical expertise and the type of reflective practice needed to navigate the complexity and uncertainty of ‘modern work’ (the book was written in 1983!) He explains how we start off our careers focused on solving technical problems and accomplishing tasks – navigating well-defined situations for which there is a knowable solution that we have already learnt, or can learn if we know where to look or who to ask. Whilst these tasks may not feel easy to us, they would be to anyone with more experience. Our success in completing these tasks is a function of our explicit knowledge – teachable, learnable, conceptual facts that we store in our memory, which are fairly static in nature and which form the basis of our mental models.

But “complexity, instability and uncertainty are not removed or resolved by applying technical knowledge to well-defined tasks”, says Schön. If, and as, we progress we must move to a way of knowing in practice that is much more tacit. Schön defines Reflective Practice as the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base, learn from their experience and get to a place of that he calls ‘knowing-in-action’. He identifies two types of Reflective Practice required to get there:

1. Reflection-in-action

This involves reflecting on behavior as it happens. Schön suggests that, by reflecting-in-action, professionals reflect on unexpected experiences and conduct ‘experiments’ which serve to generate both a new understanding of the experience and a change in the situation. His articulation of what goes on when someone is reflecting-in-action sounds a lot like Cognitive Flexibility Theory:

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. His inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation. He does not separate thinking from doing, ratiocinating his way to a decision which he must later convert to action. Because his experimenting is a kind of action, implementation is built into his inquiry.

2. Reflection-on-action

This involves reflecting on an experience, situation or phenomenon after it has occurred. When professionals reflect-on-action they explore what happened in that particular situation, why did they do what they did, what might they do differently next time, what did they miss and why did they miss it etc.?

Managers do reflect-in-action. Sometimes, when reflection is triggered by uncertainty, the manager says, in effect, “”This is puzzling, how can I understand it? Sometimes, when a sense of opportunity provokes reflection, the manager asks, “What can I make of this?” And sometimes, when a manager is surprised by the success of his own intuitive knowing, he asks himself, “What have I really been doing?

… but they seldom reflect on their reflection-in-action. Hence this crucially important dimension of their art tends to remain private and inaccessible to others. Moreover, because awareness of one’s intuitive thinking usually grows out of practice in articulating it to others, managers often have little access to their own reflection-in-action.

The Power of Reflective Practice

When we take the time to reflect on our action and bask in the complexity of a situation, we can reflect more deeply on why we did what we did, thought what we did and acted the way we did. In those moments, did our knowing-in-action serve us well, or could we have done better? What might we do differently in the same, or similar situations?

By reflecting-on-action we revisit what we were thinking at the time and how that has played out. What patterns were we matching, what analogies were we making, what mental models underpin our thinking and are they the right ones?

We can do this alone, by being with our thoughts and/or reflective writing like journalling. We can do it with a coach or expert mentor, who can hold up a light to our thoughts, actions and emotions and who can shine that light in different directions to expose different patterns in our thinking and feelings, the stories we tell ourselves, and the more shadowy sides of our psyche.

By talking through our experiences out loud and thinking about what we might do differently in the future we are, in those moments, already refining and updating our mental models for next time.

10. Deliberately Developmental Practice

So far, I’ve constructed a framework for accelerating executive mastery made up of a number of common factors which, when combined and worked on tenaciously, will help you advance beyond technical leadership into a more adaptive space. I think there’s one more factor required to do this. I’m calling it Deliberately Developmental Practice.

Recall that the first common factor for mastery was Motivation. Deci & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory says that humans have an inherent tendency towards growth and development. Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan says something similar, which is that people’s strongest motive is to grow. Kegan is known for his theory of Adult Development, which describes the psychological development of adults as a series of stages characterized by increasingly complex ways of understanding oneself and the world. The question is how do we grow in this way?

What gradually happens is not just a linear accretion of more and more that one can look at or think about, but a qualitative shift in the very shape of the window or lens through which one looks at the world. 

Kegan R (1982) The evolving self: problem and process in human development

Recall also what we learnt about K. Anders Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice, still widely held up in the popular literature to be the principal factor in advancing anyone’s journey to mastery. Except that that’s only partially true, because the extent to which Deliberate Practice will help you reach mastery is very context dependent. It’s in grasping this nuance that the next stage in our personal growth lies.

AspectDeliberate PracticeDeliberately Developmental Practice (DDP)
FocusAchieving expertise in specific skills or tasksHolistic personal growth (emotional, cognitive, psychological development)
ScopeNarrow, targeting precise skill enhancementBroad, enhancing overall developmental progress and capacity for complexity
IntegrationSeparate from everyday activities, involving distinct sessionsEmbedded in daily routines and interactions
Feedback and ReflectionSpecific, immediate feedback on performance to refine skillsOngoing self-reflection, diverse feedback sources, transforming mindsets
Examples of ApplicationIntensive practice sessions in fields like music, sports, chessCreating supportive environments in workplaces, continuous learning in life

How is Deliberate Practice different from Deliberately Developmental Practice?

Imagine you’re a software developer who wants to get better. Each day you dedicate 30 minutes to focused, structured coding exercises. This might include solving increasingly complex algorithm problems, receiving immediate feedback from a mentor or code review system, and iterating on their solutions to improve efficiency and accuracy. By consistently challenging yourself with new and difficult tasks, tracking progress, and refining your technique based on feedback, you are systematically building your programming skills and increasing your chances of promotion. This is an example of Deliberate Practice.

It’s several years later and all your Deliberate Practice has paid off. You’ve been promoted to VP of Engineering and are tipped to become CTO. The CEO has asked you lead an organizational redesign of the Product and Engineering teams, to both report into you as the new CTO. She’s told you that she wants create a ‘heat experience’ for you, to support your development and prepare you for the senior role. Along with full support from her through the process, she’s asked an old colleague who is an exited CTO to mentor you. She also wants you to find an executive coach to work with, who can also facilitate ongoing 360 feedback throughout the process. A ‘heat experience’ is an example of Deliberately Developmental Practice.

Although you have been part of a big restructuring before, this is the first time you’ve ever lead one. The CEO has only been through something like this a few times before, so they can’t tell you exactly how this is going to play out. The risk of failure is significant, which would have a big impact on the team and overall business performance. The Executive team and Board are all closely monitoring the process, adding to the pressure. There’s some real resistance to this change amongst some of the teams, too, that you’ll have to work closely with the Chief People Officer to navigate.

What sets superior performers apart is the quality and quantity of their mental maps. Top performers develop highly complex and sophisticated maps of the situations they might face… These maps allow them to process large amounts of information quickly (despite the overload) and make faster, more accurate decisions in a given situation… Superior performers continually push themselves into heat experiences (e.g., bigger, more complex roles) that their current maps can’t explain. This requires them to construct new, more accurate maps.

Fast Track: How Top Silicon Valley Companies Accelerate Leadership Development, by Nick Petrie

In future articles, I’ll go deeper into what Deliberately Developmental Practice is and what examples of it are.

In the meantime, I’ve turned these conceptual common into a practical tool for leaders to use to work on their executive mastery – check out the Accelerating Executive Mastery Canvas.

* Examples of the types of roles in which the Naturalistic Decision Making approach excels:

  • Extracting knowledge from an experienced Chief Technology Officer – able to review a line of code, spot the mistake or what’s missing and suggest changes in seconds – and using it to train less experienced developers.
  • Extracting knowledge from a Doctor – able to go straight to a difficult diagnosis because they recognise a certain symptom that only presents in certain circumstances, and when other symptoms are present – and using it to train other junior doctor.
  • The often cited NDM example of IEDs in Afghanistan, where some soldiers were able to identify the location of these explosive devices far more quickly than anyone else. When researchers worked out how they did this, they could design training to get young GIs up to speed quickly before deployment.

I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.

My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.

Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.

Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.

Executive Coach - Richard Hughes-Jones