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The Philharmonic, And Lessons In Team Management

When young, philharmonic outings used to be a favourite. At the twist of a wrist, the wand is cast, and magically a symphony fills the hall. The conductor, who all this while is standing with his back to the audience, faceless, is fascinating. Performance over, he turns briefly to take a bow, before directing the applause to the orchestra musicians.

“How cool a job that is…”

How cool it is to be at the helm of things and driving it. Just like when we were rookies in the corporate world and thought being a team manager was such a cool job; you wave your wand, order people, and voila – work gets done, and you take a bow.

The realisation of the enormity of the job of a manager, and that of a philharmonic conductor, sunk in much later. Over the years, lessons in team management have been learnt from the job of a philharmonic conductor. Just like a conductor needs to understand the pulse of each instrument, and its players, to be able to string together a harmony, managers must also read the nuances of each team member, for the harmonious functioning of a team. A manager’s part is simply to keep the team working in unison, no matter the project at hand. Each team member has a skill set. They know their job well. They have read the music sheet thoroughly. They turn up for practice diligently and can put up a great show, so long as they know when to come in and play the part.

It’s not easy. But breaking down a team to understand each member on an individual level, can potentially transform a team into a living and thriving organism that can sense and absorb transitions on cue. It’s not difficult to draw comparisons with an orchestra manager. Each note is communicated and received with facial expressions or gestures. Every gentle flick of a finger, clenched fist, shifting of eyebrows, or simply the direction of gaze conveys a message to the musicians – all of them masters of their instruments, and all of them in sync. Each stakeholder is in control of their area of expertise, but no one is controlling them. It’s a medium of crisp and covert instructions.

Isn’t that what a good manager does? People management is all about continual feedback, to enable performers to self-organise when called upon. Managing people resources also requires a certain amount of restraint. Ever seen a philharmonic conductor jump onto the stage to dismiss a musician and place themselves in lieu? Of course not.

Experience tells me that as a manager too, fighting every instinct to rather do a task yourself than delegating, is important. Conductors are typically placed at a vantage point, objectively distanced from the musicians. There’s a good reason for it. If playing an instrument and conducting are to be managed together, things will quickly fall apart. The perfectionist in you could very well accomplish a better outcome of tasks, but when a manager, delegate and manage.

The fact of the matter also stands that a manager isn’t necessarily an expert in all aspects of the team’s job, just like one cannot expect a conductor to be a master at all instruments they are directing. There are things a manager may have no clue about how to execute. Well, that’s ok. Thankfully, being a jack-of-all-trades is not one of the qualifications required to be a people manager. If truth be told, you are acing it as a manager if your team’s collective expertise exceeds yours.

As in an orchestra, building a good team requires both skilled professionals and clear, discrete & discreet leadership. The intersection point of these two notes will create a symphony if both are in sync. If the professional doesn’t accept the manager’s direction, or if the manager is unsure of the professional’s expertise, the symphony will break into a cacophony.

Trust, communication, and cooperation are what will create great philharmonic conductors of the corporate world. So, let the show begin.

This blog was first published by Business World