Five Keys to Becoming an Expert

rocket - you want to build expertise in a skill area?

Here are five keys to making this happen:

1. Knowledge

To become an expert, we know we need to learn the details of the skill area and the context where we’re applying that skill. This could involve reading, studying, observing experts in action and continually getting instruction and advice.

As an example, Gary (not his real name) knew only one way to influence team members when things weren’t going as planned: bullying. This method eventually bombed; he received one too many complaints and resignation letters. He had not seen positive role models, and he did not know there were other ways of influencing that would leave people inspired instead of intimidated and demoralized. He lacked knowledge.

2. Self-awareness

To make the changes required to improve skills, we have to know our strengths and shortcomings – from our viewpoint and from others’ vantage points.

In Gary’s case, he finally faced the reality about his (lack of) influencing skills when he heard, through a 360 degree feedback process, that it wasn’t just a few outliers who were complaining. The majority of his colleagues strongly agreed that he needed to improve in this area.

3. Purposeful practice

Reading a book and taking a class provide knowledge. And reading the results of a 360 degree feedback assessment can improve self-awareness. Neither, though, is sufficient to change behavior and improve skills. It takes purposeful practice.

(See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, and other books and articles stemming from K Anders Ericsson’s research that shows that the most highly skilled experts have logged at least 10,000 hours of practice.)

Purposeful practice involves working both hard and smart. It involves stretching beyond our comfort zone. Capitalizing on strengths. Innovation. Failure. Correction. Repetition. Trying things we’re not good at until we become good at them.

Back to Gary … he scripted and practiced difficult conversations with “under-performers.” Then we debriefed after he had these conversations and applied lessons learned to his next conversations. He repeated this process until he began to feel more confident and natural with his new approach for influencing in these pressure-cooked situations. And he began to see positive results.

4. Feedback

Combining purposeful practice with ongoing feedback is a huge accelerator for learning and skill-building. I like Marshall Goldsmith’s reframing of feedback into “feed-forward to emphasize the value of getting specific suggestions for improvement from others.

Gary and others I have coached have asked me to observe them in action – leading team calls, having difficult performance conversations, etc. What a great opportunity for them to hear real-time performance feedback from someone they trust who is objective, willing and able to tell it to them straight and committed to helping them improve.

5. Motivation

Being open to hearing the honest (and often difficult) feedback we need to hear and being willing to do the work we need to do to gain mastery of a skill…these are essential. We “gotta want it.”

“The elite don’t just work harder than everybody else. At some point the elites fall in love with practice to the point where they want to do little else.” (see WisdomGroup)

The path to becoming an expert is not rocket science (unless you’re a rocket scientist), but it’s not easy.

Image credit.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. In his work as a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior executives incorporate knowledge, self-awareness, purposeful practice and feedback to build the skills they most want to build. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr