Of jazz and C-suite leadership
Our C-suite superstars have made their way to the top as accomplished individual contributors, but once there, how do we get them to work together? To “pass the ball” when appropriate? To cheer on the latest superstar? Do we nurture teamwork with the retreats and ropes courses, the Myers-Briggs and other exercises that turn out to be 90 percent navel-gazing and only 10 percent about working with others? Or are there more subtle and sophisticated processes of team development at work in the best companies?
The ‘magical’ team
First, we need to be clear that in business, as in sports, forming a team does not create some magical synergy that surpasses aggregate individual effort. Team meetings are notorious time-wasters, and teams can make deadly mistakes when groupthink, consensus decision-making or other feel-good philosophies prevail. Yet we have all witnessed teams that seem to tap into something almost magical and produce results that astonish.
“In jazz and business, it’s important to be given the chance to improvise.”
In an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “Why Teams Don’t Work,” Diane Coutu hits on a fitting analogy when she says the best team leaders “are like jazz players, improvising constantly as they go along.” Adaptive, creative responses – a carpe diem approach to unexpected inspiration – is a leadership quality worth cultivating. As important, however, is nurturing improvisation in the team members, allowing each to solo in turn while the rest of the “band” upholds the skeleton of the musical score.
Preconditions for improvisation
In the jazz world, it is common to talk of musicians as “naturals” or “prodigies,” but the truth is that most jazz musicians improvise from atop a scaffolding of deep theoretical understanding and years of practice with other musicians. They learn to excel in solos by developing a well-stocked musical toolbox, and they learn to succeed in a band by becoming skilled at predicting the tools others may pull out. A bassist plays well with the saxophonist to the extent he can read him like a book. Creativity becomes possible only because of their common understanding of jazz fundamentals. The key changes and the rhythmic and harmonic deviance that define jazz have to become familiar enough to the players to elicit quick recognition and response.
Next time you watch a jazz group, look for the communication that takes place both before and during each song. On the surface, it might seem like a loose, free-for-all jam session. In reality, there is a complex exchange that depends on an assumption of shared musical tools and the accompanying automaticity that is, paradoxically, a springboard for the wild sounds that make us swoon.
Automaticity as a foundation for C-suite team effectiveness
In sports, a coach builds an effective team when he can train players to get into “the zone” with people whose actions become familiar and predictable enough for them to respond with automaticity. In his classic book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell writes of the 10,000 hours of practice or immersion that one must commit to reach world class proficiency in a field. Attaining automaticity is a vital component of greatness. The toolbox of moves and the understanding of the other players’ strengths and propensities, along with exhaustive practice of the plays, creates the framework for top results.
Automaticity in the C-suite may sound like “inside the box” thinking, but it is usually a necessary precursor to inspired ideas. Like anything done excellently, fragments of learning have to come together, be practiced and repeated, then expanded on to build the knowledge base. Great ideas are less often a leap from a fragile cliff ledge than a small hop from a comfortable perch.
We expect our top team to come to the C-suite with deep functional knowledge, much of which is by now second nature, automatic. How they interact in the conference room, however, is enhanced by having a foundation of familiarity that can blessedly be taken for granted. While it may be counterintuitive, only with that comfort level is there a platform from which novelty, or improvisation, can spring.
What an improvisational leader is not
Let’s consider a number of familiar types that fail as improvisational team leaders:
- The visionary: Sees his/her role as part mystic, part clairvoyant, but definitely all guru. A little of this can be useful at times, but this leader usually lacks the grounding necessary to be effective.
- The workout manager: This least popular of leaders is so riveted on ending the month in the black that creativity and individuality get tamped down, leaving members to retreat to their departmental caves to share their grievances.
- The gadfly: Sees him or herself as the challenger to all things familiar and sacred. Almost as popular as the Workout Manager.
- The consensus-builder: Too often a colossal time-waster who produces mediocre results. Nuff said.
- Solomon: Having failed to effectively recruit and develop a team of adults, spends his/her time adjudicating territorial disputes and salving bruised egos.
The Maestro: Improvisational leader and leader of improvisers
What type of leader, then, creates a team that has mastered sufficient automaticity, or comfort, in working together, yet isn’t stale? If we borrow from what it means to be a jazz orchestra leader, we might name this new type “The Maestro.”
So how would a C-suite Maestro lead a team?
First, this leader would understand that to create a cohesive team, he/she must recognize that the C-suite is not, by nature, the primary “we” for the members. Rather, this spot is taken by the executive’s own department – all the way from right hand man to minion. These are the people who execute brilliant ideas and make the leader look good. This fact makes creating a sense of “we” within the C-suite team tough, but The Maestro meets the challenge by continually focusing the team on a strong, clear and pervasive mission and the broadest bird’s-eye view of the business plan – one that the team members together “own.”
To our jazz analogy, The Maestro orchestra leader makes sure that the trumpeters and the saxophonists alike become enthused about the selections, know who their audience is and share the same performance expectations. (The Maestro also gives recognition to each section, regularly, and in front of the peer group.)
Drilling down to the last and perhaps most crucial level, this leader recognizes the “me” in team (no “me” in “team”? – this is jazz, look again!). We are so conditioned to think in terms of “we” and “team players” that we ignore this most fundamental fact of life: the “me” must have its due!
When a team leader is a Maestro, staff members have well-stocked toolboxes and their basic functions practiced to automaticity. Each person’s role as a C-suite team member is continually solidified by shared mission. THEN, like a jazz maestro, he challenges and draws out the best in soloist after soloist, each in their turn, before inviting a hearty applause!
To summarize, a maestro leader:
- Creates basic operational effectiveness through an environment of comfort, predictability and automaticity of staff interactions.
- Keeps departmental fealty from trumping C-suite membership by maintaining a focus on the big picture, which the team, together, forges and executes.
- Lets each soloist shine and bask in the kudos from peers.
Comfort in the C-suite is not the enemy of productivity. The best leaders build on a foundation of familiar interaction, nurture the common mission that unites these superstars and assure that each one gets his or her day in the sun.
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