Learning from the orchestra

The conductor of an orchestra manages the musicians, hones their skills, and gets them to work in perfect harmony. There are many management lessons here for farmers, says Peter Hughes.

Learning from the orchestra
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My wife and I were privileged to see the stage version of Disney’s The Lion King in London’s West End, and what an experience it was! Sitting in the heart of London, we felt as if we were back home in the African bushveld.

I had a good view of the orchestra, with its host of musicians, working together in complete harmony and producing the most beautiful sounds. You could sense the power of the conductor’s leadership as he set the pace, his body language signalling the changing moods of the show.

“Just imagine if I were able to get our guys back on the farm motivated and working together like that,” I thought. “With this sort of teamwork, what a business we could build!”

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Of course, there’s much more to being a conductor than directing the performance at the show. To begin with, a conductor has to select the musicians based on their technical skills, their ability to be team players and how, at the same time, they can bring their own passion and brand of artistry to the production.

The conductor then has to spend hour upon hour in rehearsal, fine-tuning everyone’s personal contribution and honing the performance as a whole.

And finally, there’s the unpleasant task of having to dress down and, if need be, dismiss any incompetent or disruptive team member.

The job of a manager in any business is much the same. With the goals of the organisation defined, each manager has to mobilise his or her team around this common vision and purpose.

And just as no conductor can be an expert at all the instruments, yet needs to know the skills required for each one, so every manager should be able to select the best talent available for each job and motivate each employee to perform at peak levels.

Give out the sheet music
Apart from the lessons I learnt from watching the remarkable teamwork of The Lion King orchestra, there was another lesson that I’ve never forgotten.

All the musicians in an orchestra have their sheet music in front of them, indicating precisely when they have to come in and what notes to play. This provides not only the detail of their own jobs, but an appreciation of how each fits into the wider picture.

Now imagine the same orchestra without sheet music. Each member, being a professional, might be able to muddle along, but will never perform at the same level. And yet this is what so many managers do with their teams; they expect them to perform without ‘sheet music’.

How on earth can employees perform their jobs to the best of their abilities if the tasks and standards expected of them have never been agreed upon and documented?

The common term for performance standards these days is key performance indicator (KPIs). If you don’t have a couple of KPIs set for every member of your staff, other than your unskilled employees, you’re missing a golden opportunity to improve the overall performance of your business.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant. 

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