What can Conductors teach Managers?

“In order to conduct the orchestra, you must turn your back to the crowd.”

This statement was made in a client meeting recently, and it immediately sparked a heated discussion about the orientation a manager should take.

Is their focus internal, or external? Is it to work with and primarily face their group, or to face outward to clients, other managers, etc.?

While no one believed this was a black-and-white matter, the question was “where is the balance point”.

Certainly most managers I meet could stand to spend more time coaching their staff, engaging in dialogue with them, and guiding them to higher levels of autonomous action. Successful organizations are ones where this unfolds over time, taking the whole group to higher levels.

Much as with the orchestra conductor who has been hired to take over an orchestra, there is a learning curve as both come to work together. As they do, more complex and difficult programs can be put together, ones that draw upon the unique talents and highlights available to the conductor. The conductor may prefer Beethoven, but if the orchestra can handle the works of Stravinsky he will begin to program them, and showcase the talent of the group.

Along the way, there will be times when the conductor — or one of his soloists — over-reach their current competencies.

This is similar to the challenge of delegation and management by exception: every so often, things will go awry. Frequent dialogue, not to make or vet decisions, but to provide guidance in how to decide issues, will help improve this, just as a conductor guides the players as to how to improve, and not in how to play.

Most important, however: this is the time when the manager must stand up for his or her staff, taking the heat if necessary to protect them, even when they erred.

As with Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines, who “fired” a complaining customer to defend the actions of an employee, errors and omissions are learning experiences, not something to be passed onward and downward. Managers who are too concerned with their own impression out in the organization will eschew dealing with these kinds of outcomes — and miss the opportunity to achieve departmental leverage in the process.

By all means be vibrant and visible within the organization, but remember that your loyalties lie to your ever-improving team. If in doubt, “face inward”. The leverage you gain will more than make up for any “incidents” that occur.

“What’s new here?”, you may ask — managers have known these things for decades, many say.

True enough, but in the past two decades managerial behaviour has been to move almost completely away from these practices toward a constant looking “outward”, mostly with an element of fear of being found to be in the wrong. This, in turn, is stifling innovation, customer service, and staff growth.

The “conductors” are the ones who are creating growth where others are not. To compete better, “conduct” with flair and conviction!


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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