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How Mastery can Make you a Rock Star at Work

08/08/2013 05:55 EDT | Updated 10/07/2013 05:12 EDT

American Idol. Maybe it's your favorite TV show ever. Maybe you think shows like it and The Voice -- with their Top 40 pandering and on-stage tears and warped "reality" -- are a cultural nightmare brought to prime-time life.

Whether you're a fan of these pop-star factories or listen exclusively to Norwegian death metal doesn't really matter, if you're interested in growth and personal development (and I'm guessing you are, given that you're a human being, reading a business blog about how to change the workplace).

They illustrate something remarkable, whatever your taste in tuneage. The growth -- in maturity, confidence, stage presence, chops -- that contestants show between their first shaky-kneed appearances and their final televised clutches at the brass ring? Profound.

These singers, in their tube dresses and hipster hair, are contemporary examples of the power of mastery.

Malcolm Gladwell, the uber-talented mop-topped Canuck pop psychology writer, popularized the idea of mastery, or at least the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. But Gladwell's concept of mastery is like Voice coach Shakira's stage outfits -- there's a little bit missing.

Simply put, it's not just the number of hours that matter. If you're just counting hours, you're missing the point.

For more complete takes on the subject, I gravitate toward the Daniels: Coyle and Pink.

Dan Coyle, in particular, has genius insights on the ecosystem an organization needs to create to have mastery flourish: a culture where there's an aspiration for excellence, passion to truly master the skill, heroes to emulate and aspire to, an opportunity to see your weaknesses and opportunities to improve through tools like social media and video review, and expert coaches to help you transform your raw attributes into consistent high-performance.

This is what mastery demands - 10,000 hours in this ecosystem.

That's why shows like Voice and Idol produce results, and it describes businesses that have put a premium on mastery. Those businesses have decided to create a culture where even their worst work, their worst interaction with a customer, is excellent.

Behind the curtains at my shop, ATB Investor Services, it looks a lot like these shows. In a bid to delight our clients and recognize that every investor wants a masterful advisor, we invested in creating this development ecosystem for our people.

Like Idol, we select a very small percentage to be in the program. Participants need the right attributes, in practice or in game situations with real clients. Most of their "performances" are recorded and reviewed, with world-class coaches, like Behavioural Psych PhDs.

Surprisingly, this doesn't happen anywhere else in my industry. Many investment firms would contentedly deem acceptable a marginally profitable advisor who meets basic compliance standards. Why bother? That's fast food, that's the GAP, that's a hastily recorded bonus track from the new Justin Bieber album.

If you required surgery you wouldn't want an "average" surgeon -- who was just good enough to obtain his licence -- bumbling his way through your operation, bringing you writhing to the brink of an "acceptable" threshold of pain and discomfort. So why would you accept this from your investment advisor?

We accept mediocre far too often as clients, and as people running businesses. Why? Maybe we think it's an impossible dream to have a firm of masters. It's not. As Dan Coyle writes: "Greatness isn't born, it's grown, here's how."

To have mastery flourish, you have to start with inspiration. Show the people you want to transform how others, people just like them, have achieved something amazing in their own careers. That promise of inspiration is why people sleep in lineups to get on Idol, and why we have dozens of would-be masters applying for every single spot in our program.

Once you have the right talent, move to observation, and be serious and deliberate about it. Show your would-be masters what they're doing right -- and wrong -- through webcams and video and social media. After any given Sunday, football teams retreat to the classroom for days to break down film, pinpoint what went wrong, what went right, illuminate the points of excellence, discuss what needs to be repeated and amplified to be successful, what needs to be discarded in pursuit of a championship. That's what this is about -- coaching, feedback, personalized drills. Lather, rinse, and repeat -- for lots and lots of hours.

Then you change your structure, eliminating a layer of managers and administrators and re-aligning your organization to give your budding masters the support they need. The Voice has Adam Levine and Christina; we have a neuroscience PhD and experts in client communication and relationships.

It's about working with a coach who understands the fundamental techniques and skills that lead to performance, then putting in the practice until those honed skills become natural, a part of you.

George Leonard who wrote the book -- many books -- on human potential, said it beautifully: Masters are "connoisseurs of the small, incremental step."

This isn't easy. And it isn't for everyone.

The good news: it doesn't have to be. We guess -- conservatively -- that our master advisors return results that are three to five times better than average. Not everyone needs to be a master to drive exponentially improved results. We have doubled our business without adding anyone; in fact, we have fewer numbers and better client loyalty.

Even beyond results, imagine how mastery feels: to an advisor who's performing every day with excellence and purpose; to a client, who knows they're getting the best advice, the best relationship, in the world.

Imagine what that does to your workplace, to your business, and if enough of us do it, to our world.

It's the difference between the potential-filled hopeful debuting on the Voice, and the transformed winner at season's end, record contract in hand, adulation in the air, and the world at her feet.