When It Comes to Managing, You’re at Your Best When You’re Leading the Orchestra

Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

That statement caused me to stop multi-tasking. As I looked up, I realized it was a statement by Steve Jobs. The trailer of the upcoming movie about him was on TV and it projected itself out of the TV noise.

What a powerful statement, I thought. It was powerful to me in the context of leadership. My interpretation has always been that a leader directs the performance and takes their team forward in the direction that is best for their performance  — and the team.

Easier said than done

With leadership being dissected in numerous ways and methodologies, this statement was a breath of fresh air.

Lots of time, if you get the simple things right, everything else falls into place. It is highly imperative that managers understand their role in the organizational landscape.

Never fall into the mindset that it is THE organization that is responsible for all the ills on this journey. It falls to every manager to understand that they must be the orchestra leader of their department/team or business unit. It is their role to guide, coach, and cajole each and every person to a higher performance level.

If you do not feel that is your role or the importance of your role, it may be best to abdicate that responsibility because each and every manager is Ground Zero in the pursuit of organizational excellence.

Senior leaders are the master orchestra leader in theory. I say “in theory” because in a lot of cases, they are so busy in the pursuit of the bottom line that they lose their effectiveness and get tunnel vision.

Departments that get it vs. the ones that don’t

The orchestra leader concept drives the engagement and culture of his orchestra. Those the orchestra understand it, live it, and breath it, each and every day.

Think of your organization and try to envision those departments that are a cohesive unit. They laugh together, celebrate together, cry together — all in the drive to be a cohesive unit.

I had one leader tell me that she gets many people in her company asking to transfer into her department. I asked her why she thinks that is so. Her answer? They told her that, for the most part, it looks like her department just has so much fun and everyone really enjoys each other. “We are one happy bunch” was her summary statement.

Contrast that to the sourpuss department people barely talk to each other, each walking around with their head down, hating the group meetings or just barely communicating. Walking into those is like going to a wake.

We know both of these departments. We see them in our organizations. However, the key person in each one is the orchestra leader, the conductor, at the helm. They truly understand that their role is to get the best out of each “note,” while the other department just basically goes through the motions.

Without that maestro at the head, it affects the entire unit.

There is a serious need for organizations to understand this new role, and, the importance of the role in getting this dynamic working. The manager’s role is the glue that holds it all together. From the supervisor to the C-suite, the role has changed and the power is permeated throughout the organization. Don’t for a moment feel or point towards the apex at the top of the organization for leadership. Every department has an apex, and you are the head.

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Organizational diagnosis

An orchestra is comprised of basically four components: People, instruments, music, and the titular head — the conductor.

People are the greatest asset of any organization. As with an orchestra, high performing players are needed in the key roles.  They must have the tools, or instruments, to complete their duties. A leader’s role is to make sure these two are in synch.

Next comes the music or the vision, mission, and purpose of the organization. This is made explicit through the organization and its strategies and tactics.

  • Are we all on the same page?
  • Are we all playing from the same sheet?
  • Do we all know our notes and when and how it is all connected.
  • Do we understand how each of our roles are paramount in getting this performance correct?
  • Do we fully engage the “big picture?

If these are all in place, the big game-changer is leadership. Leadership also chooses the music. And, all the elements of the orchestra must be playing the same music. The music is the vision, mission, and purpose of the organization made explicit through its strategies and tactics.

The leader as organizational conductor

Finally, what holds it all together — and makes it work — is the leader as conductor.

Their role is to direct this performance in a way that the strengths of each performer is exhibited.

Each performance, whether it is project, collaborative initiative, or simply the day-to day-duties, must have a leader that understands his or her role in getting the job done.

Organizations that understand the importance of their managers and leaders will perform like a finely-tuned sports car. The ones that don’t are the ones you can hear  a mile away, huffing and puffing like an out of shape athlete trying to get to the finish line.

Orchestral music is always fixated on the orchestra leader, or better still, the maestro. Strive to become the maestro in your unit, baton and all.

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.

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