What an Orchestra Can Teach Us About Employee Engagement

“My first concert will be a special one; it will be in front of a private audience.”

That was the response from the recently hired conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel. His approach to classical music is taking the classical music industry by storm. He was (and is) the youngest conductor of a major orchestra in the world. He was only 29 when hired by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

There was discussion among the board that maybe he is a little too young and unorthodox to hold such a prestigious position. That first statement about the first concert had everyone on the edge of their seats. The question that was twirling around in their mind probably was, WHO is this special audience he’s talking about?

Public television has some of the most amazing documentaries that are always a staple in our house, even if I am the only one watching. I am always partial to classical music and opera. When I saw this special, I knew that it would be one that I would not multi-task while watching.

Dudamel told his board that the audience in his first concert will be the ushers, janitors, and the people that park the cars and sell the tickets. He wanted everyone that has a role in making each performance a success to sit and let the orchestra play for them and their guest. HE told them that during his listening tour, he was told by the vast majority of employees that they had NEVER attended a performance.

This was his way of saying “thank you” for all they do.

Engagement from the top

The board looked on and thought that we have never done anything like this but it sounds OK. And OK it was.  There were people in the audience that night that had tears streaming down their faces at their first concert ever. What a statement that made for the incoming conductor. Just imagine for moment the engagement level of the employees going forward.

This unorthodox conductor did not stop there.

He partnered with the Los Angeles school system to create a youth orchestra in the inner city based on the model that he developed in 1999 as the musical director of the Simon’ Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela. The launch of the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra-Los Angeles initiative was unheard of. The L.A. Philharmonic had never made overtures outside of the patrons of the arts.

Community outreach as a tool to engagement

Their goal is to provide access to instrumental and orchestral education in order to promote youth development. The Expo Youth Orchestra, a beginning-level ensemble comprised of students from more than 60 public, charter and private schools in South Los Angeles.

Their first concert was held in the same venue as the Philharmonic. To hear and see the parents of these kids playing in the Hollywood Bowl with such passion was very emotional for some of the parents that were interviewed.

To see them dressed in their finest sitting in the audience was a sight to behold. My eyes moistened while sitting and watching in the confines of my TV room. To see the young people having and developing a love for classical music at such an early age was a sight to behold. To see their parents sit there full of emotions was a treasure to watch.

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Creating a new culture

Dudamel has made quite an impact in the L.A. area with his unorthodox style. He has made a difference, not only from the board’s perspective, but he took engagement to an entirely different level among the employees and orchestra,m not to mention in the outside community.

Now I am sure the L.A. Philharmonic could have brought in consultants to solve the engagement issue and work on community involvement. But you know what? I do not think that any of them would have taken these two steps as the key to making a difference. It’s just too simple.

So many times we spend hours and hours sitting in a conference trying to tackle issues, looking for the big “ah-hah” moments. What this shows is that in a lot of cases, the solution is staring us right in the face.

When we read about best places to work and some of the initiatives that made them that way, we get the sense that a lot of these initiatives are simple things that collectively make a difference. Sometimes, the smallest group initiative is just the key to get the needle moving.

Employee engagement enhances the bottom line

Employee engagement is one of the most powerful factors of a business success. Engaged employees equal above average revenue. They are more productive and customer focused. Employee engagement is a leading indicator of financial performance according the Gallup organization.

These small gestures that were highlighted not only touched an entire community, but it gave orchestra members and the people that make it all happen a new sense of purpose.

Remember, these are our “greatest assets.” And if they are treated as such, the residual effects, according to all research, will improve the bottom line for the organization as well as the employees.

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.