As an orchestra conductor, I lead my team of musicians from a very different platform than a business leader does. But you may be surprised at how similar my challenges can be to the ones learning executives are now facing. Conductors are sometimes forced to wrest success from a seemingly hopeless situation.
A few years ago, a well-known orchestra in one of Europe’s major capitals was to perform under my direction for hundreds of conference-goers. However, after only 15 seconds into the first — and only — rehearsal, I realized that the orchestra was far less prepared than I’d expected. Five minutes in, I concluded that this orchestra was probably populated by substitute players, most of whom had never even played this piece. And by the seven-minute mark, I fully apprehended how desperate the situation was. I would need another hour and a half of rehearsal to whip this group into shape, but I had only 53 minutes left.
Under these high-stress conditions, there’s not a second to lose. The clock was ticking — 52 minutes and 30 seconds left now! — and one way or another, I absolutely had to create a success.
Based on my own experience, here are some useful lessons to pass on about what to do when you don’t have enough:
Keep the successful outcome very alive in your imagination. When orchestra members see that the conductor is fully committed to a clear vision of their success, they will begin to believe in it, too. Only when I vividly imagined how this orchestra could sound did I clearly define the gap that separated its current playing from what it needed to be. Then I could quickly devise a strategy for narrowing that gap.
Make it a priority to help your people communicate with each other. There’s no time for you to supervise everything. That fosters dependence, anyway. So you must awaken your people’s initiative and ability to make the right decisions on their own. I frequently insist that an unmotivated orchestra play without my conducting until they are listening to each other, sending and receiving subtle signals that keep them together. Once the musicians understand that they are accountable for the ensemble, progress is much faster — and more fun, too.
Set the agenda to create a series of successes. Break larger goals into crisply defined, short-term assignments that are achievable immediately. A new level of collaboration or a new standard of accuracy might take your team members a few tries to achieve, but do not move on until they do. Be a relentless advocate for their achievement, and consistently hold them accountable. Success, even on a small scale, develops a hearty appetite for more success in the next challenge.
Let the horse do the jumping. When the great German conductor Herbert von Karajan was young, he studied horseback riding. One day, his instructor announced that at the next lesson, he was going to learn to jump the horse. Karajan confessed to having worried all week about how he was ever going to get such a big animal over that hurdle. But at his next lesson, he learned that it was much easier than he’d imagined. All you have to do is get the horse to the right place in the right way and it will do the jumping itself.
Our job as leaders is not to do our people’s work or even help them with it. It is to make specific deadlines crystal clear and make sure they understand with whom the most fruitful collaboration can be established. Make their goals palpable and compelling, and make the strategy easy to understand. Then stand back and watch them execute, projecting confidence that they will.
Draw your own inspiration from the goal. While your people are mired in the challenge of executing their tasks, you can’t always expect them to be happy, or even positive. They may very well resent you. But they need to sense that their leader can see beyond the temporary difficulties and has enthusiasm for a better outcome.
Think of the glass as half full. A conductor can watch his rehearsal minutes tick away and feel that time is his enemy. But you must communicate that time is, in fact, the ally. When there are only nine minutes left, for example, that’s stillO nine good minutes of productive work. But if you despair of the time that you wish you had, then those nine minutes will be ruined by tension and anxiety. Find a way to make peace with your limited resources and work happily with what you do have.
Find freedom within your constraints. Don’t allow the high-pressure environment to rob you of your humor and spontaneity. By demonstrating to your people that you can still feel free, even under enormous pressure, you create the atmosphere that allows for the best work to be done.
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