Symphonies of Talent – A musical metaphor for business

Here’s a wonderful article that was written by one of my adult students, Michelle Shail.  She sees music as a metaphor for the business consulting she does and has some amazing insights!  Enjoy!!!



by Michelle Shail


Did you play an instrument as a child?

If you’re like me, childhood memories of recitals can be pretty rough. Sterile venues with a stage, a lone instrument and metal chairs filled with adoring but bored family members? I took up piano again after 30 years away from it. My daughter was taking lessons from her elementary school teacher and I noticed how different his approach was to music.  She was learning sounds before note names, and the feel of music before the theory. This teacher — Paul — was teaching her music as a language, and she was enjoying the conversation.



In the 80’s my childhood teacher taught classical music with a rigid and rote approach. It was pretty stressful — and not very fun. Absent from the process was an acknowledgement of the style and interest of the student.

Fast-forward to today, and the experience is very different. Paul is a facilitator of learning, a conduit for musical self-expression through the understanding of patterns in music. We are learning the foundations and applying them through practice, but then the conversation moves off the page and into our interpretation of the music. This is the power of both music and learning.

My daughter’s recital was last weekend. Sure we were nervous — especially about the expectations from family, friends and her teacher. What if we make a mistake or forget our piece? But Paul’s approach was celebratory and engaging. He did not sit and critique. He grabbed his bass guitar, brought in a percussionist and transformed us for three to five minutes into the rock stars we dreamt we could be. In this space, not injecting our own flare wasbreaking the rules. In that moment we understood the possibilities. My daughter sang all the way home and I started on a new song.  Thirty years ago I would not have touched the piano for at least a week after the recital was over.

I thought about this experience as it relates to organizational learning today. Companies have experienced bottom line growth over the last three years, but it’s mostly due to cost cutting and downsizing. Now organizations need to expand their products and services, they need to think and learn outside the box, but their cultures may resist the very thing it needs most. Just think about the industries and companies that have been turned upside down because of the explosion of technology and the implosion of the global markets: music, publishing, banking, retail, legal, Sony, GM, RIM (Blackberry), Best Buy, Dewey & LeBoeuf, just to name a few. In the past decade, 46% of the Fortune 500 dropped off the list and today growth in the US is stalled at around two percent.

Many organizations have command and control cultures driven by markets, which worked for a long time. Employees and stakeholders that “play only the notes written on the page” and that follow the carefully constructed processes have been preferred. Wandering off the page is risky to necessary outcomes — so goes the thought. Today unplanned change happening mostly at the task level is the norm, instead of the exception. Business processes, while necessary, cannot keep pace with complexity. Hiring, training and evaluating people on their ability to stay on the page severely limits an organization’s ability to grow.

What does your rock band look like today? And what does it need to look like in order to jam in today’s environment of complexity and change? What instruments can members play or learn to play? What kind of lead singer will you be?

Here are four questions to consider:

  1. What assumptions about your talent acquisition strategies can you challenge?
  2. What norms in your training and development strategies are limiting learning opportunities?
  3. Are you looking for talent to move the organization forward, or to simply maintain equilibrium?
  4. What does talent for growth look like, and how does it work into your present environment?

Twentieth century talent strategies and mindsets will ensure everyone is playing only what is written on the page… but you will be missing the great symphony of possibilities and sealing your organization’s fate in mediocrity — and perhaps extinction. Twenty-first century strategies recognize the individual, promote and reward creative thinking and embrace the process of learning.

Can your organization play more than what is written on the page?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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