As a coach, clients ask me into their business to help them get better at what they do. Whether it’s an individual leader, a team or even a whole company, these clients are always interested in improvement.

Most of the time they’re pretty successful (sometimes extremely successful) but they’re looking for something a little bit extra. Some of them realise that what got them to this point may not get them to where they really want to be.

At the beginning big nouns are bandied about: “leadership”, “engagement”, “collaboration.”  I know that big consultancies make big money from trying to grapple with big nouns.

Perhaps foolishly, I start with a few small verbs. Because that literally is where the action is.

There are three verbs – three actions – that guarantee improvement

This is the learning loop

It’s a ruthlessly simple process that relies on you consistently doing all three of these things.

It doesn’t work if you skip one of them

I work with a lot of knowledge professionals and, for a group of people who pride themselves on what they know, they’re often awfully keen to get doing.

This might be IT people eager to start designing or building a system, before the full business requirements are known, or lawyers who pride themselves on responding to clients within the hour, without doing that extra bit of research or reflection.

And don’t get me started on the number of people who routinely fail to prepare for key meetings or practice presentations.

This is the equivalent of Novak Djokovic saying “I’ve been in a Grand Slam final before, I don’t need to practice.”

The quality of doing erodes over time if there is no learning and development

Djokovic hits as many forehands and backhands in practice as he ever did.  Yet I will never forget a senior HR person telling me that my proposal to get senior leaders practising feedback “was too basic for their level.”

When it comes to continuous improvement, there is the WHAT part related to practising key skills and there is the HOW, which is mental and emotional. How can you replenish your energy so that you can learn? How can you focus on your next challenge?

Contrary to popular belief you don’t learn by doing

Well, ok that’s not quite true. Athletes gain muscle memory and us folks with white collars FEEL what it is like to do something (hopefully) well.

Real learning comes from reflecting on the doing

HOW did it work? WHY did it work? Or why did it NOT work? Athletes, no matter if they are at the top of their game or just starting out, never skip the review process.

This is where it gets tricky though.

Review requires an openness to feedback

There are many reasons Ken Blanchard refers to feedback as “the breakfast of champions.” You need to be prepared to be vulnerable; to be strong enough to take both criticism and praise.

The review process reinvigorates the new planning cycle

For review you need other people. You cannot properly reflect on your own. This is why successful people in all fields get a coach. But you need a range of supportive people to help you achieve sustainable improvement:

“Cultivating special relationships, those whose sole purpose is to help you along your path, is crucial to continuing development” ~ Boyatzis, Goleman and McKee, Primal Leadership

Or as Djokovic says:

“You need to have a filter, something that gets your mind off the tennis and just relaxes and recharges your batteries, so the next day you can be motivated to practise and do the same things over and over again. Because if you are completely in it, if you don’t have a social life, if you don’t have other interests, it’s very hard to maintain this will to win.  If you want to reach the biggest heights …. you need to be able to holistically approach everything and satisfy your needs – emotionally, privately, professionally.”

High performance is a cycle of rest and reflection, practice and performance

Executives who fail to learn this lesson burn out or make poor bosses, terrible team mates and spectacularly bad decisions.

So how are you doing?

Are you doing or are you also learning?

If you’re serious about getting better at what you do or how you do it, find out more about my  leadership and team coaching.

For more tips and advice on managing your time, join my free community!


I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank