After a weekend of binge watching Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning Mozart in the Jungle, I felt equal parts saddened and inspired. Saddened, because the show follows the lives of artists — musicians — who dedicate their lives to creating. Their madness is enhanced for comedic purposes, yet the madness of a musician is something I mentally relate to far more than that of a CEO. However, I also found the show offering lessons in leadership, and a reminder that the conductor, while expected to be versed in numerous instruments and able to step in to play if needed, is considered successful as a leader, a director, an – orchestrator – not a musician, i.e., an individual contributor.
I’ve always wondered why conductors were considered so important — all they do, it seems, is wave a stick and keep everyone playing at the same pace. Perhaps they would make a bigger motion to increase volume, but it seems to be largely for dramatic effect. What does the conductor actually do? Why do orchestras — filled with musicians who can read music as well as most of us can read the English language — need a conductor to begin with?
My challenge as a manager is stepping away from my nature to be an individual contributor. Although in a small company, I cannot walk away from the individual contributor role entirely, my value is in being the conductor. With this in mind, I return to examining the value of a conductor – not as someone just waving a stick in the air in a marvelous rhythmic dance, but someone who is leading a team, interpreting the “best practices” of the music and adjusting with their vision, keeping everyone together, guiding them through to the final product. The conductor’s work and value, I’ve been reminded, largely is contributed before the product release (aka the performance.)
I think I’m actually a very good manager as a conductor, but when I’m trying to play the proverbial violin and trumpet and oboe at the same time, it makes it nearly impossible to conduct successfully. Although the conductor may step in to fill missing seats, it’s her responsibility to hire the right musicians and then inspire them to follow their greater vision. A manager must do the same thing. She must hire the right team members and determine what role they should play, how loud they should play it, and otherwise orchestrate the score of any given quarter’s objectives.
While business isn’t art, it’s still an orchestra of creation, and still needs to be conducted. Without a conductor in an orchestra, perhaps experienced musicians could play music – but they wouldn’t know which music to play, or how fast to play it, or what to do should one of their violinists get sick for an extended period of time. In romanticizing the life of an artist – which I do frequently – I find myself feeling most alive when I approach my own work as practical art. I can still bring the passion which a conductor brings to the stage in front of a large concert hall during a sold-out performance. I can inspire people to be excited to play their instruments from start to finish, even if they’ve played this score a million times. I can inspire them to think differently about the music, to hear subtle shifts in rhythm and composition, to try new things, take risks, and ultimately learn and grow and make the great music of increasing ARR.
In orchestrating a team, there is a musicality to the work, a rhythm which must be established, an ecosystem of players who must all come together to accomplish a common set of goals. So, while I likely lost the chance to live the life of the broke artist, I’ve gained the opportunity to make a new kind of music – one that 10 years ago I didn’t know existed. When I feel overwhelmed or frustrated or scared, I now close my eyes and imagine myself with a baton in front of an orchestra, and I examine by players as well as the notes written on the page, and with a deep breath, I lift the baton, and my team begins to play.