Leadership: Playing a Different Tune

Recently, I hosted the second in a series of sessions that form a coaching assignment with a senior procurement manager in one of the U.K.’s pioneering high-tech companies.

Most of my coaching clients are managers seeking ways to improve their leadership capabilities, to get more out of the staff who work for them, and to gain insight into their leadership style – to cement the link between how they behave as a leader and their authentic self.

Some, particularly younger managers, lack conviction and a confidence in fully embracing their role and their potential, often finding themselves hyper-conscious about their status in the hierarchy.  Well, most of us have ‘been there’ and perhaps look back on the period as a necessary part of the journey to becoming respected as a mature leader.

But how do you cross that threshold from low to high confidence, from rooky to experienced and credible?  And when do you become adept at creating a winning team?

Recently I came across an article from INSEAD Business School that starts to answer some of these questions. Included in the article is the following inspiring video that summarises the approach taken by pharmaceutical firm Merck in developing its leaders. It involves The Merck Orchestra and conductor Wolfgang Heinzel.

Here’s the video:

In the video Heinzel infers that, in an orchestra set-up, the conductor (or ‘maestro’) is often perceived to rule with a rod of iron. Those with an interest in classical music might recall the fearsomely autocratic reputations of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and sometimes Herbert von Karajan; but Heinzel waves a different baton. To him, brilliant leadership is about empowerment, trust and respect for the individual.

In describing how he rehearses a new piece with his orchestra, he starts by sharing his vision for the piece in a clear instructive style. At this point he is testing the musicians’ understanding of that vision and diagnosing which sections of the orchestra need the most attention and why. However, he very quickly begins to delegate leadership to the ‘first’ violin, cello and woodwind lead musicians and paves the way for them to provide coaching guidance to the musicians around them. Before you know it, the whole orchestra is performing in near-perfect harmony, with the conductor there to keep everyone focused on ‘serving the interests of the piece’ but without creating an expectation that ‘pleasing the boss’ is the key performance indicator for each musician.

We watch as Heinzel explains to the Merck leaders looking on, some of the guiding principles of his leadership:

He starts from the premise of accepting the individual, respecting their human presence, assumes their intention is to do good work, to perform to a standard that qualified them to be part of the orchestra in the first place. In our own work, how many times have we approached a new leadership role with preconceptions about individuals that are based on some previous experience or a gossip-like ‘tipping-off’ from others in the business? “Watch out for that fella; he’s a cynic well-poisoner.” It’s easy to fall into a trap of being judgmental, dismissing the potential of people to perform well, whilst ignoring competencies, qualifications, experience and professionalism of all of the people in the team we inherit.

Heinzel: “I swear to you that every artist, I think everybody in the world, wants to express what he has inside, and now it’s up to me to take these energies and bring them all together.”

Heinzel works to create what he calls ‘a safe environment’, where everyone is important and has a role to play, trusting that his approach will lead individuals to respond with enthusiasm and zest. He gets the whole orchestra to share his vision for how the piece will sound, which has parallels with the challenge of developing the overall strategy leaders in other situations typically face. There is something of a higher purpose in play here: the musical performance, the creation of a customer experience, implementing a project on time and within budget, etc. This is what it’s all about, not the performance of particular individuals in the set-up or system.

From the original article: ‘Ultimately what Heinzel wants his musicians to understand is they must listen to each other, so that no one can overpower his or her colleague, but should complement the sound. “What I want them to know,” he says, “is that they can do this for the piece, not for me.”’

Next, he gives responsibility away, as described above with his lead (first) musicians who, in turn, coach their musician colleagues. Heinzel trusts the lead musicians to be competent themselves and to inspire a commitment to competence amongst all players, each person fully knowing what part they are playing. The result is an empowered team, trusted (that word again) to tap into their skill, and their intrinsic motivation, their desire to do well.

I find that such empowerment is a thorny issue for some leaders. Most of my own work is with Procurement or Sales leaders and their respective teams and, time and time again, I see targets being cascaded down the hierarchy, wrapped in a blanket of ‘empowerment’ when what is really happening as the doling out of accountability (and woe betide those that don’t hit their – imposed – targets). It’s as if some leaders genuinely believe that empowerment is something that can be imposed from above; which of course is what it can’t be, not if the leader hopes to succeed in the long term.

One of the lessons for leaders is to play down being directive and think less about cajoling, persuading and target-setting as methods of motivation. Instead practice guiding, coaching, delegating and trusting until such time the team revels in its shared sense of purpose.

Returning to my coaching clients and their desire to improve their leadership, perhaps what they need to become comfortable with is the notion of giving away some of the leader’s burden. Don’t seek to have the answers to every dilemma or issue, and resist the temptation to encourage escalation of difficult challenges. Don’t be a fountain of knowledge. Share leadership instead, through genuine empowerment and whole-team involvement in developing strategy and action planning.  That is more likely to bring sustained success.

Whilst the era of command-and-control leadership is so last century for most of today’s organisations, we haven’t quite transitioned to a new leadership paradigm. The theory and practice of genuine empowerment is clearly out there (and credit to Merck for their orchestra initiative) but more and more leaders need to embrace this way of working.

Here’s the final question: To cascade targets and accountability right through the hierarchy or liberate the organisation’s talent through empowerment? What’s it to be? I think you know the answer.

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