Did you play in your school’s band or orchestra? Maybe you sang in the chorus? I did all of those as well as in the school’s jazz band. If you did, you came face to face with a conductor. For those of you unfamiliar with how a conductor operates, I’ll spend a few words on the topic. For those of you already familiar, please keep reading because those hours spent under their baton can tell you a lot about business.
Whether you played in an ensemble or just listened, you’ve seen a conductor at work. Their right hand, usually the one holding the baton, keeps time. Their left hand, the far more expressive one, serves many purposes; among them cueing various instruments, helping the musicians understand the dynamic you want to project or the phrasing you’re after.
One of my childhood memories is of seeing Leonard Bernstein conducting the NY Philharmonic. He conducted the orchestra in a way that was a cross between dancing as a listener and working hard as a musician. There is no doubt, if you watch old videos of him, what he is trying the get from his musicians. That’s not true of all conductors.
What you probably never thought of is how anticipatory conducting really is. It begins in rehearsal, where the conductor will often stop and explain what he or she is after. The musicians are learning what each gesture means and they get a sense of the speed and phrasing the conductor wants. It’s assumed the musicians already know the notes and heaven help the musician who causes the conductor to stop and demand the musician play a phrase the conductor heard as wrong. It also means the conductor is a few beats ahead of his musicians so he can cue them, hopefully in a way that also tells them how he wants the upcoming music played.
What does this have to do with business? A lot. I always looked at my role as being similar to an orchestra leader. My job was to bring coherence to a large, diverse group of executives who played very different roles. I kept time with one hand, meaning that I set goals for the entire group and established how we’d get there. With the other hand, I let individual elements within the group know when to speak up. Most importantly, we rehearsed. No, I didn’t have my group do things just for the sake of doing them. I did, however, ask them a lot of questions to make sure they knew the music and that when it came time for them to be front and center they would shine. I was careful to be clear about what I wanted and about what I meant when I asked for something. I was also a few beats ahead at all times.
Watch some of the great conductors. Bernstein, Loren Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, and others. There are some great business lessons there, don’t you think?