By ADRIAN YAP CHENG KHIN
“Bands, those funny little plans, that never work quite right” – Mercury Rev Holes (from the album Deserter’s Songs, 1999)
Buried within this whimsical song by New York-based psychedelic rockers Mercury Rev is this succinct but incredibly accurate description of the concept of musical bands and just how illogical they are as entities at times.
The idea of putting four or five unique individuals in a room and expecting them to work harmoniously towards a common goal, while certainly expected in contemporary society, is probably one that won’t seem “quite right” at the start.
I think the point the band was alluding to was that bands, because of the nature of the concept, is really not something that you can get to work absolutely right.
After all, it’s not a machine you can tweak to perfection, nor is it a science you can trunk down to a number simply because you adjusted some calculations.
It’s a living, breathing organism that has a mind of its own, and is more than likely unpredictable in nature.
Yet these days, a band is probably formed every day, somewhere around the world. They’ve become almost synonymous with popular and youth culture.
As difficult, complex and troublesome as they may be, the magic that happens in a rehearsal room, and the romanticism attached to that, is enough to draw droves of people into starting bands.
Bands = Organisational Teams?
As much as Mercury Rev probably intended for those lyrics to be just about the concept of bands, it has to be said that the same truths in that sentence probably hold for the idea of organisational teams in a working environment.
Much like a band, a team within an organisation is also made up of unique individuals who are trying to work harmoniously (where possible) towards a common goal.
In much the same way, the concept does defy some form of logic and is not really science that you can get absolutely right even if you brought in the best people in your field, or design the most fantastic company policies or inculcate an exciting and modern culture.
This is simply because you are dealing with people, and people can sometimes be unpredictable.
Even if you as a leader feel that you’ve done a reasonable job in your capacity to create and foster an environment that should excite people and bring out the best in them, there is likely going to be some detractors.
So I’ve established the conceptual similarities between musical bands and organisational teams. As a leader, what do you think we can all learn from these parallels?
Here are three things I’d like to share:
1. Being a good musician alone is not enough
Just because a person can produce good work, it doesn’t mean that the person is automatically an indispensable employee.
The music business is filled with cautionary tales of musicians who were absolute musical geniuses but never realised their potential simply because they could not do the other things required to become a successful musician.
The ability to work with others and to be disciplined in your art (for example, showing up on time at shows, doing interviews professionally, delivering records to schedule, etc) are just as crucial as your ability to nail a guitar riff.
In that same way, just because someone in your team can deliver exceptional work, it doesn’t excuse them from the other aspects that are crucial to making the team successful.
2. You don’t have to be close to make good music, but you have to be close to become a strong band
There’s a misconception that for a band to be great, it has to be “family”. Well, it’s not exactly a disservice if it is, but the truth is, it’s not the “be all and end all” for a band.
To make great music doesn’t require you to be great friends. It just requires you to be great musicians.
One of the bands I was in worked incredibly well from a musical perspective, in that we had fantastic musical chemistry.
However, because the four of us came from very diverse backgrounds, we never hung out, and we hardly spoke much beyond the rehearsal space. Before long, we broke up.
It is true that whether Mick Jagger makes it to Keith Richards’ kids’ birthday party is far secondary, in the grand scheme of The Rolling Stones, to whether Jagger knows what to do when Richards bursts out one of his legendary licks.
But, what has kept them together for the last 52 years is probably the fact that they’re all great friends.
For a team to be strong and work together effectively, leaders have to be able to move the team beyond just the work before them. They have to foster an almost family-like atmosphere for them to grow in.
With an influx of Gen-Ys and beyond into the workplace, collaborative work environments have become almost non-negotiable.
The concept of a manager born out of the industrial revolution, who orders and “bosses” people around from the comfort of his/her office, absolutely does not work anymore.
You have to get down to the floor, get to know people and bring them together as a “family”. That’s how you build strong and committed organisational teams.
3. You can’t have a band full of lead singers
Some of the best bands in the world are not made out of the best individual musicians. There are times when what a band needs is for one or two of the members to be comfortable playing a supporting role to the bigger stars in the band.
It is through this willingness to support that they also become stars themselves.
Bands such as The Arcade Fire and The Beatles are prime examples of incredible bands that consist of members who may not be the best in their respective fields but have been able to come together to create “musical magic” together.
A leader in an organisation must be able to recognise the various roles within the team and work to foster and inspire them to be the best they can be in their various functions.
Just because someone is playing a less “glamorous” role within the team, it doesn’t mean that they’re not doing a good job in making the team function well.
Notice the “underdogs” in the team; the ones who may not always front presentations and throw out the best ideas, but are always willing to be dependable support for their team members.
Recognise them today for their good work. They are crucial to your team as well.
Don’t set out to build your team from only people you perceive to be stars. That’s the fallacy of building teams – that if you put a bunch of insanely talented people in a room, you automatically have a fantastic team.
It may be true sometimes, but it’s not always the case. Always look at the needs of your team and the goal it is trying to achieve, and build a team that can best help you reach that goal.
Sometimes that means not packing it out with people who want to be stars.
Can you imagine what would happen if Ringo Starr constantly wanted to be John Lennon? A team cannot function if everyone wants to be the ‘lead singer’.
Bands are not a waste of time
I have been playing in various bands for about 17 years of my life.
During a portion of those years, I also played the role of a manager in my workplace, managing teams and departments of various sizes from 15 to 66 people, from editorial people to customer service executives.
I can safely say that in my personal experience, there are a lot of similarities between a band and an organisational team, namely because they both trade fundamentally in the business of “people”.
Being in a band (contrary to what most parents’ impressions may be) did not make me worse at my job; it actually helped me be a better manager.
The truth is, there is hardly any social environment you can experience in your youth, which prepares you better for dealing with conflict, human personalities and inspiring others, than being in a band.
I leave you with this quote from Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s backing band, the E Street Band, one that adequately encapsulates what being a good band, and a good organisational team, is all about:
“Band members have a special bond. A great band is more than just some people working together. It’s like a highly specialised army unit, or a winning sports team. A unique combination of elements that becomes stronger together than apart.”
Adrian used to be the bassist for bands such as Furniture, Ferns and Azmyl Yunor and the Sigarettes. To engage with Adrian, email us at email@example.com. For more leadership content, visit www.leaderonomics.com
When he is not rummaging through CD bargain bins, Adrian divides his time between managing talent for organisations, observing and commenting on human behaviour on his blog, building nonsensical music playlists and being a “kaiju” connoisseur.