What Does Dancing Have to Do with Talent Development?

A good player doesn’t always make a good coach. One of the biggest challenges high performers face is how to expand their impact in the organization by developing talent and building a strong team. Because mentoring requires a different set of skills from those needed to improve one’s own performance, some leaders struggle with their coaching duties.

I am often reminded of this when I am at the dance studio. I love going to my favorite dance workout class on Saturday mornings. Mrs. Ruben is such a great teacher that I happily give up the opportunity to sleep in.  We dance to all kinds of music – pop, rap, jazz, hip hop, cabaret, salsa, samba, African, Middle-eastern or Bollywood. Sometimes kids from the other dance classes would gather in front of the glass door to watch us dance. They stare at us with their eyes wide open and jaws dropped as if we were the greatest dancers in the world, even though we are beginners.

But it’s not just the kids who make us feel like stars. I’ve come to realize that’s what a great teacher would do to you – making learning easy and bringing out the best in you.

The eclectic mix of music makes dancing fun but also challenging to learn. In response, the studio creates a repertoire of dance routines so that we can go to any teacher’s class there and still be able to learn the choreography quickly and repetitively. That gives me the opportunity to compare the teaching styles of different dance instructors at the studio.

I was particularly frustrated with one of the new dance teachers. She would break down the routines for us patiently, but no matter how complicated the routine was, the only thing she would say was, “one, two, three…. one, two, three” as she showed us the choreography.  Even after I watched her demonstration several times, I had a  hard time figuring out why we would spin from the left and end up on the right side. A few days later, I went to Mrs. Ruben’s class. She showed the exact same routine but with lots of helpful call-outs and tips.

“Start with the left foot… one, two, three.. and turn back but this time with an extra step.. to end up on the other side.” She explained.

“Aha! Three for the first spin and four steps for the second spin to get to a different side”, I was relieved to finally understand the trick to get the routine right.

One or two seconds before we get to the next chorus, she would call out, “Slide, cross and turn!” to give us hint of the next set of steps, knowing very well that we can’t remember all the routines.

For another dance, she used metaphors to help us understand the dance.

“Skid, skid and suspend. Flip your right leg and grapevine to the left like Gene Kelly in ‘Singing in the Rain'”.

And voilà! I got it.. just like that. And I smiled as the class danced in unison and felt like we were fabulous dancers.

Learning by Teaching

Some of the high performers do not understand or are not able to explain what makes them great at what they do, and that keeps them from building a great team to duplicate and expand their success in the organization.

A great mentor, on the other hand, often has a good understanding of the subject they are teaching, the success factors and potential obstacles that could trip you because they have reflected on their own experience and observed others closely. Mentoring requires leaders to dig deeper into the essence of success by exploring the thinking behind each step or strategy at a more granular level. Performance is no longer on autopilot but is built on strong self- and social-awareness. That’s why mentoring will not only enable you to help your employees but  the heightened awareness will also help you to improve your own performance as you become more mindful of what the critical steps are and what could potentially hold you back.

Understanding the Learning Process

Coaching also requires you to understand the learning process. Mrs. Ruben understands that visualization can be far more effective than verbal instructions. “The visual cortex has far more real estate in our brain than the auditory cortex and process far more information than the auditory cortex. In the brain, a picture literally can contain a thousand words. In this way, when you can literally see what someone is saying, you have created a richer circuit for their idea in your mind than just hearing the same idea.” said David Rock, founder of Neuroleadership. The more ownership there is in the learning process for the mentee, the results could also be better. However, everyone has a different learning style so it’s important to get to know each individual’s style.

Knowing Your Audience

Many of us like to teach the way it was taught to us. A good teacher tries to understand the context and the knowledge gaps of their students or mentees. They design their demo to address those challenges. Great dance teachers don’t teach beginners the same way they teach professional dancers. They have great empathy for their students. They ask themselves, “What’s like to learn to dance for the first time? What would I need to know as a beginner dancer?” In the business setting, this may require you to have an open dialogue with your direct report to understand where he gets stuck and what his capability is.

Motivating by Mentoring

When you make learning easy, you create a virtuous cycle where good progress motivates the mentee to want to learn more. They feel like they are growing and are excited about their work. Because coaching skills can be so powerful, even CEOs make developing mentoring skills a main focus for themselves. But most importantly, mentorship gives us the opportunity to inspire and make a meaningful and lasting impact. And that’s what leadership is all about.