Conducting Business

by

I recently enjoyed a concert (the 2017 Honors Junior Performance) at the famous Carnegie hall, and somewhere during one of the pieces I found myself concentrating intently and trying to discern the points at which specific instruments came into and out of the movement. Was that a French horn or trombone? Violins or violas? Sometimes I could distinguish and sometimes they blended seamlessly – to me, at least.

I watched the conductor leading it all – keeping the beat, marking key elements, signaling to the orchestra what he wanted next. It struck me that the sonic distinctions I struggled with from the balcony would be completely second nature to this man. Amid the montage of rising and swelling notes, he could likely identify the single mistimed starts, errant notes, or insufficient crescendos.

I wondered what it took to for the conductor to be good at his job and found myself thinking of it again as our small group walked the streets of Manhattan back to our hotel. On one of those never-sleepy New York streets, the idea struck me that the conductor wasn’t all that dissimilar from the successful business leaders I know.

A successful conductor fully grasps the broader picture. He/she knows the score intimately and completely – the full collection of music the orchestra is going to perform and the way that different parts of the music flow together to create a cohesive whole. Shouldn’t business leaders intuitively understand the full breadth of activities they oversee? Like the conductor, an executive must establish a vision of what his/her different teams will accomplish and then understand what each group will provide toward that vision. Perhaps for the coming quarter, perhaps over the next year – it’s still a broad, overarching understanding of what the business unit needs to accomplish and how.

Next, the conductor aligns the actual performance of the musicians. Sure, each instrumentalist has sheet music in front of them, but the conductor helps guide and coordinate the transitions and overlaps between the different groups. That sounds a lot like business leaders and the effort they put into establishing plans, finding resources, and defining communication tools that ensure team B is ready and able to pick up the work as soon as team A delivers their part. Perhaps communication and coordination are a universal key – both to seamless music and to seamless business performance?

Finally, the conductor recognizes when something is not quite right and fixes it, such as when someone flubs their part, or is late on their cue (and this is where I go back to my opening statement about it being second nature for him). The conductor doesn’t need to be looking specifically at the offending musician. Rather, the conductor’s insight comes from experience – from knowing the good and expected patterns to being able to recognize from the earliest notes when something is off-key or mistimed. Similarly, strong business leaders are quick to pick up on the early indicators of issues within their organization and quick to take steps to resolve them. They are attuned to the warning signs that signal projects are in trouble or teams are in distress. Strong leaders also don’t let issues linger and become ingrained through repetition, just as a conductor doesn’t let a player continue practicing the wrong note.

At Carnegie, I heard how beautiful the result can be when skilled individual musicians are organized and work together as a cohesive whole. I’ve also seen fantastic results at work when individual, high-performing people get pulled together toward a common business goal. (My current firm was even founded with the idea of doing just that for our clients, hence the “Ensemble” in our name!) But to achieve that success, these groups, just like the teams in your own organization, need leaders with broad vision, the ability to direct and manage contributors, and the experience to recognize and address problems as early as possible. If you can hit all those notes for the teams you lead, you’re probably pretty good at “conducting business!”

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