I interviewed Dave Wakely who works for ASK Europe – a premier HR and coaching consultancy on music, business, life etc. Dave had kindly given the thumbs up to my books ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ and the new one – Punk Rock People Management – available for FREE by clicking on the cover below:
Firstly Dave, tell me something of what you do for a living?
I manage and edit the ASK blog, providing food for thought for people in a range of HR, L&D and management/leadership roles. My role at ASK is mostly about language and organisational culture: finding and using a public voice for the company that reflects its values and style, but also exploring themes, topics and ideas and posing questions where conventional wisdom seems heavier on the first of those words than the second. (My role here also includes a whole range of other ways in which we put words in front of the wider world. As an occasional sailor, a non-musical metaphor springs to mind: I may not be steering the vessel, but I’m adjusting the cut of the jib and how closely to the wind we sail.)
The remainder of the week I work in web development, scoping and defining website projects, evolving email campaigns, advising on or helping to create content – much of which involves subtly reminding organisations that whoever operates the mouse calls the shots: the web isn’t just broadcasting. Those who don’t work in a similar role would probably be surprised how much of that role consists of asking people about different aspects of their business, including its culture, values and ethics – but I’d counter by saying that you can’t build an effective web presence for a company if you don’t understand that company in the first place. That’s the difference between ‘being present’ and ‘presenting an advert’.
Along the way, I’ve been a poetry librarian, a learning resources database manager, an information officer in many a setting, an author and editor of open learning materials, a senior university administrator, an events organiser: a very 21st century ‘portfolio worker’ CV, although ‘patchwork’ is perhaps closer to the mark than ‘portfolio’. My life is an abstract quilting concept in motion!
What do you gain from music as a metaphor for thinking about business and organisational life
Apart from solo performers (which I shall therefore just duck entirely as an issue!), music is something that requires multiple inputs and some kind of organising principle. (I see even something as general as ‘everyone improvise simultaneously’ as a principle, although I’m aware that I’m the kind of person that starts from a ‘how shall we behave’ point of view – something MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) recently reminded me.
Sometimes music starts with a closely scripted score where everyone’s part is prescribed for them to play, sometimes there’s a general theme and the arrangement at any given point is a matter of interpersonal interaction and negotiation: either way, there are many contributions and at some level an approach to deploying them. If it weren’t for the word ‘music’ at the start of that description, that could easily be a description of work.
Having played in a wide range of musical combinations (including jazz quartets, big bands, orchestras – and working as a session musician), there’s another important element that is about making music rather than about music in the abstract: the relationships between the players. Each group, band or orchestra needs the right mixture of people, just as it needs the right combination of talents; likewise, each musician has situations that either do or don’t inspire, satisfy and so on. (This is the ‘engagement’ issue: if the music, relationships or people don’t inspire, you probably won’t play your best.) Editors note – too true!
Sticking to popular music, most bands have a culture, a defining spirit, which has arisen from the combination of individuals and their shared values. Although most organisations are perhaps more like backing bands: an entrepreneur (read songwriter/singer/front-person) who develops a repertoire and a style, and builds their outfit around them. How much of their total potential contribution their band members get the opportunity to make might make a good metaphorical question to ask of organisational managers? (In other words, are you giving your staff the opportunity to show what they can really do or add, or are you just directing them? Being a supplier feels rather different to being a colleague, even if – in the context of the relationship – your role is pretty much just to supply. I’d brave a rash conjecture that most people want to give more at work rather than less, as being able to give more makes them feel they have a voice and a contribution to offer.)
How do you use these ideas in your professional life? Any favourite examples?
An interesting question – especially having recently completed a series of psychometric questionnaires, which confirmed or underlined my impression of myself as someone who’s more interested in the potential of collaboration than competition. Amusingly, when I interviewed you in 2009, I referred to Brian Eno’s published diaries and the band James. Another idea I remember from the same book is James’ realisation that “an arrangement is when some of the band stop playing some of the time”. Editor’s note – only the tiniest prompt needed to play some of Eno’s music:
To me, in any given working situation, there’s probably one approach that will be more appropriate than others: to me, that’s not so different to the idea of identifying which instruments, arranging in which way, would make the most effective soundtrack to the moment. It’s a matter of understanding the particular contribution that different individuals can make and deploying your combined human resources to maximum effect. It also goes back to the point about ‘making music’ rather than music in the abstract: the masterful conductor knows how to work not just with music but with the musicians. If you want a great example of how someone helped (you could even say ‘lead’) a group of people to realise and actualise their potential, I think George Martin’s work with The Beatles is a classic case. ‘Produced’ is a very broad adjective, that doesn’t convey the other roles – adviser, arranger, and motivator are just some. He could have simply adopted a managerial line, but he chose to adopt more of a coach’s role. Some of the methods may have stretched a few envelopes, but not as far as they were stretched by the money that subsequently rolled in: there can’t have been too much arguing about the bottom line. If he had been more interested in efficiency and control, Sir George could, of course, just have typed up some sheet music and ordered them to play it …
Kant said that music is the language of the emotions. How does music affect our emotional lives and what implications does that have for people in business and organisational life?
I had to pause and read around on Kant before replying, but found a reference to him classifying instrumental music as “more pleasure than culture” – without words, it can appeal to our senses but not to reason. My understanding is that he was awed by its ability to convey or evoke emotion, but had no role as a conduit for ideas. (Kant lived, of course, many years before Late Junction on Radio 3 or the John Peel Show, so perhaps we can forgive him?)
Within minutes of arriving home in the evening, two things will happen: I will put on the kettle, and I will put on music. There are a few thousand CDs in the house, but I’ll spend a few minutes while my tea brews to select something that gives voice to a feeling that has been suppressed throughout the day, or that has been invoked by the day, or to a feeling the day has generated that needs something to counter-act it. My partner has little interest in music, but gets an instant emotional update as he crosses the threshold from whatever is coming out of the speakers in the kitchen. I think of it as akin to hydration: you have water when you’re thirsty, you play fado when you’re rueful or wistful, and you play kora music when you’re optimistic and thoughtful (or you aren’t but you’d like to be). It’s a restoration of emotional balance, or a purging of an imbalance of one emotion.
My musical choices are overwhelmingly instrumental, which might either offend Kant or lead him to dismiss me as tasteless or shallow. That’s fine: he could still stay for a cup of tea, but we’d have to agree to differ. I have nothing against vocal music per se, but I’m too interested in language to accept perfunctory twaddle: I demand a decent lyric.
As individuals, identifying something that we can use to help us to maintain our personal emotional poise has obvious value; this is harder to think through in an organisational context – one person’s ideal background music is another’s fingernails down the blackboard moment. (I’ve promised not to play that John Surman CD in the office again: the finance team are still recovering.) I cringe a little at the idea of the utility of music, but I can’t deny that I do it.
In terms of implications for organisational life, anything that can encourage us to recognise our impact on others – and help us to deal with their impact on us – has merit in itself. (A couple of organisations I’ve worked with have had no problem with people who rarely have to answer phones working with headphones, choosing their own soundtrack. Others would sternly ban this as inappropriate, but if it helps personal productivity and improves people’s mood I’m not sure I can see the harm.)
More broadly, the example of the impact and importance of something as hard-to-define and non-verbal as ‘atmosphere’ is probably a neglected aspect of working life: it was interesting to note that The Work Foundation highlighted a sense of team atmosphere as a common attribute of those leaders most admired by those who work for them.
Music is one of those things that remind us that human beings cannot be boiled down to process manuals, spreadsheets, job definitions and bottom lines: there are ineffable aspects to us that we should not ignore. Even at the broadest level, if the existence of music can remind us that our moods and emotional tone affect others, then that’s a valuable lesson. And very few valuable lessons come with the bonus of a beautiful tune.
What can we learn from the music business about business in general? More importantly, what should we NOT learn from the music business about business in general?
A hard question, having kept my distance from the music business for many years, although I can’t help but feel that mainstream business could probably draw more and better lessons from the art form than from the industry that has evolved around it. I think we can safely learn that management and creativity are distinct skills, and that the music business requires a balance of both. I’d like to think we can learn that authentic branding trounces manufactured branding every day of the week, but I very much doubt that we can. And the more shameless examples of amateurism or lack of skill – and ethics – in the music business are something we’d do well to avoid importing into other sectors.
It’s very difficult to generalise about a business that embraces everything from The Saturdays to Radiohead, Leonard Cohen to Justin Bieber, indie-labels to global corporations and many other dichotomies. But I’m not too sure it generally provides a healthy model in its treatment of its ‘talent’: “build ‘em up, milk ‘em, drop ‘em” and an urgent sense of churn aren’t characteristics that bode well. Each golden goose is expected to lay all its eggs as quickly as possible and then surrender to the stockpot, to be replaced by the next goose: any development on the goose’s part seems to be coincidental, accidental or self-motivated – at least in the mainstream.
The cricketer Ed Smith has said some very interesting things about striking a balance between the passionate amateur and the schooled, consistent but less inspiring professional, and about the dangers of putting academies on some kind of pedestal. I’m more concerned by the business people within the music industry than the performers, too many of whom seem to be treated shoddily. As an industry, it’s parasitic: the business depends on the performers, without whom there’s no product.
The story of the music business in response to the rise of the net and the iPod is also a powerful lesson in the importance of keeping an eye on the longer-term and being as interested in that as in maintaining an urgent sense of churn in the present. (I was going to say something about the potency of adolescent dreams of glory, but even if it’s harsh it’s fair to say that those are just as prevalent in many other sectors.) It’ll be interesting to see how musicians use the net and structure their careers in future – I think there’s an unexplored parallel there with knowledge workers and their relationship with employing organisations.
It is thought that attention spans have shortened in a world bombarded by media of all sorts. Perhaps that plays itself out in a nation of people that prefer to consume ‘The X-Factor’ over progressive rock that requires longer and more detailed attention. What do you think to this? What might be the implications for people working in the field of human development?
I think you have a good point, and I think we see its effects in many ways – the familiar death by PowerPoint syndrome, the number of times any writer/editor is encouraged to use bullet lists (‘people won’t read this stuff …’), the tickertape nature of rolling news. Lots of pans with lots of flashes in them, and a comparative lack of metaphorical hearty slow-cooked stews. I do see a contemporary world more fascinated by – and expectant of – the ‘instant’ than 20 years ago: I suspect a lot of this is down to technology and the abundance (of ‘information’, to flatter some of it) that it’s enabled us to generate. Waiting more than a few minutes for something now feels not just like an eternity, but an affront. (One of the many points made in Michael Bywater’s excellent and very funny Big Babies, and a point explored more fully in Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity.)
As someone primarily concerned with communication, I can understand the pressures that have produced a culture that’s more heavily slanted to the soundbite, the headline, the nugget, although it’s hard not to be concerned that all this haste might be coming at the price of not just more in-depth understanding, but more especially of nuance and of perspective. We seem more interested in the idea of having news 24 hours a day than in the content of that continuous news (often the same handful of 3 minute clips circulating on a playlist that shifts slowly as the day goes by). While I wonder if I’m turning into a Grumpy Old Man, the questioning approach of such tech-literate commentators as Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier makes me feel less alone. And I haven’t forgotten a very ahead-of-the- curve book by Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric, Electric Language, that was first published back in 1998 – and mentioned in an earlier blog – that now feels like a topic in need of a significant update.
(The two things that have struck me most about ‘The X-Factor’ have been the umbrage taken at that cover version of ‘Hallelujah’ – and seeing a performance as fine as Jeff Buckley’s version in the singles chart was an uplifting communal response – but also the lack of longevity of most of the winners. The programme has always struck me as a firework display: buckets of wow, whizz and bang, but precious little left the following morning beyond a lingering bad smell. There’s an immense urgency and drama about something that really doesn’t matter that much, except to the contestants and the programme owners, which seems emblematic of rather too much of our times. )
From the work we do at ASK, in terms of implications for human development, we’re conscious that it’s the transfer of learning that ultimately delivers value and improved performance – both for the individual and the organisation – but that this (and the techniques used to enhance it) takes time. Organisational impatience for instant results means that outcomes are measured at the earliest opportunity (Kirkpatrick’s Level 1 – the proverbial ‘happy sheet’), and therefore don’t measure appropriately. What organisations want is the long-term impact of the learning event, but what they measure is the degree of satisfaction with the event itself. Misleading data feeds back into the process, and allowing time for transfer – or factoring in its importance – take a backseat. I’m not sure how we can counter this tendency – which impacts on more than our approach to learning and training: perhaps the answer is a new series of motivational posters. (“There is no F in magic bullet” springs to mind.) Suggesting an organisational equivalent to the Slow Food movement sounds both fatuous and pretentious – and implies there’s a merit in taking your time for its own sake – but I think most of us would benefit from more frequent reminders that there are multiple timescales in life and that something we might give more attention to is the signal to noise ratio in the ‘messages’ we receive.
Finally, tell me about your personal music tastes. What do you gain from music, both personally and professionally?
My own musical tastes are free-ranging, as colleagues would probably agree. (I often get Amazon to deliver CDs to the ASK Office to save all those cards through the door, and most weeks 3 or 4 albums will arrive. They tend to fall into the jazz or world music categories more than pop and rock, and I have some particular loves (30s/40s jazz songs, fado, Nuevo flamenco, modern tango, gypsy jazz, ambient electronics, a good torch song) and total blindspots (reggae, ‘African desert blues’, klezmer and Celtic folk – the last of which makes me cringe on impact). This week’s stack includes Lokkhi Terra (who describe themselves as ‘Banglafrolatinjazz’), Argentine composer Guillermo Klein, Portuguese guitar maestro Carlos Paredes, Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier who’s heavily influenced by Turkish folk music, and a Lebanese oud trio, Le Trio Joubran. I’m as obsessive about the guitar as about music, so everything has a plucked stringed instrument of some kind involved, but the styles range very broadly – musically and geographically. Two of these are performers I saw at this year’s WOMAD Festival, where I remember a conversation with an old friend – a singer – about what drew us to different musicians. For her, possibly as one who loves to dance, it’s often a rhythmic pulse, while for me it’s almost always a captivating melody or an interesting way with harmony. (I dance like an Englishman – badly and rarely – so a beat is not enough.) She wants to be moved, while I want to be captivated and entranced.
If I could put fully into words what I get personally from music, I’d have linguistic powers of such astonishing prowess I might be tempted to abandon music – but its music’s ability to go beyond words and to evoke emotions, situations or places that is so compelling. It’s almost like our sense of smell – the way fresh bread can bring back the corner baker’s shop from your childhood, or a particular flower’s scent can recall a grandmother. There are pieces of music that made such an impact the first time I heard them, I could describe exactly where I was when I first heard them – even the stranger stood in front of me in the crowd and the temperature of the room. If we could do that so powerfully with words, music might become redundant!
Professionally, I think I’ve gained at two levels. Given the chance, there will be background music where and while I work, and the soundtrack can really influence the mood: I can enhance – or undermine – my own performance depending on my choices on the day. Less superficially, I think music has taught me about team-work and collaboration, about knowing that there are times to play to the gallery and times to provide thoughtful unobtrusive accompaniment. And that not playing, or providing an unconventional counterpoint, or combining instruments in different are all available options. And, of course, that even the most exquisite harp and flute duet is a waste if your audience want Status Quo, burgers and a knees-up. (No problem, but can the harpist blag it on a Telecaster or how adept is the flautist with a pair of BarBQ tongs?) It’s that point about making music again, but it’s about using your ears as well as your instrument: musicians don’t just play together, they listen very closely to each other too. Might this be their biggest lesson to humanity?
Well, I don’t think I can follow that Dave – thanks everso for your time and we’ll finish with one of the artists you have mentioned here. In the spirit of what Dave has said re premature evaluation, let’s give this piece its proper time and space:
Finally, on the subject of the pace of business life and the need to balance this with life experiences that require more gradual and careful attention, here’s a plug for a one-off concert taking place on October 01 by the musical genius Bill Nelson. Bill produces beautiful soundscapes mixing electronica with his virtuoso guitar work. Just a few tickets left. Here is the master at work at the ‘Sensoria’ art festival in Sheffield earlier this year: