Make Your Next Manager a Conductor

Everyone plays a different instrument.

While enjoying a symphony performance a few years back, I was struck by the level of talent within the orchestra. Many musicians playing in their own space, yet each of them contributing their expertise to the success of the music.

Leader as conductor

The most visible role of an orchestra is that of the conductor who sits at the top of the food chain and is responsible for team coordination, discipline, role definition, flexibility, goal setting and execution. These tasks, so important for the success of a symphony orchestra, are mirrored in the workplace every day by managers. Each manager plays the role of a symphony conductor.

The exquisite precision, timing and intonation all coming together in a collective wave of music that can be awe inspiring. This is leadership – and teamwork — in its purest form. The strategic goal or business outcome is a great classical score. A full orchestra may have 100 players or more. It’s the conductor who must meld the individual performers into an orchestra. That leadership role is the most visible. It is the conductor who is ultimately responsible for even the smallest detail.

Playing together

In our workplace, everyone on the team plays an instrument. Each role is important to complete our symphony. Inspiring and enabling each of our members is a must. As a leader, you are the conductor; the captain of the ship with lieutenants responsible for their specific teams. Each contributor has ownership of their own work, while supervisors and managers are the conductors of their section. But all take their cues from the conductor.

I have attended numerous classical concerts, yet still marvel at the conductor’s head turn, the inflection, the pointing of the baton. That stick, a sort of magical wand, is used “primarily to enlarge and enhance the manual and bodily movements associated with directing an ensemble of musicians.”

Those movements might be the understanding nod, the listening silence, all showing respect and emoting the sense we are all in this together. To get the highest level of performance requires this type of connection of respect and inspiration from a “conductor” who inspires her team members.

Just as an orchestra conductor must feel the emotional connection and communicate it to the musicians, so must a leader – a manager — be connected to their team.

However so many “leaders” do not walk the talk; they are acting out some leadership script. But those old management scripts do not work any longer. Today, a new set of skills are required — the ability to sense a need, read the room and adjust accordingly.

A conductor inspires

A conductor must inspire the orchestra, says Christopher Warren-Green, music director and principal conductor of both the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra.

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“If a conductor talks a great deal, it doesn’t work. You have to show it… It’s not simply waving your arms about. Performers can feel it from the podium. My job is to help them come together as one instrument, to play from the heart.”

Leadership today is facing a VUCA environment and it requires a set of new skills. We in organizations must be laser focused on whom we promote to “conductor.”

Gallup found that managers are responsible for 70% of the variance in engagement.

Korn Ferry says 70% of the variance in team climate can be explained by leadership behavior, adding, “A positive climate will increase bottom-line performance measures by up to 30%.”

Who would not sign on to that deal of increasing a team performance by 30%? Think about it.

Yes, it is that important. Create conductors.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.