The Jazz of Business – Penelope Tobin

Introducing Penelope Tobin of Barrier Breakers.  Penelope is a jazz pianist, vocalist and composer with a pedigree working with Class A musicians, such as Nico, Nick Lowe, The Eurythmics and The Slits.  She has just launched her second book “The Jazz of Business – Leadership in a new groove”.  Here’s what Lady Penelope had to say about it.

Lady Penelope breaks barriers

What is the jazz of business?

We’re going through turbulent times, and we need a new kind of leadership and followership, if we’re going to navigate it successfully.  We need leaders who can set up structures to hold uncertainty, who can adapt to change in real time, who co-create their vision, who learn continuously, who understand innovation.  This isn’t the old style autocratic leader.  If the old paradigm looked like the orchestral conductor, working to a fixed plan from a detached, elevated position of control, the new one can be seen as the leader of a jazz group, or jazz leadership. This way of leading is derived from jazz, at the heart of which is the ability to work successfully with improvisation, or things not seen ahead of time.

Editor’s note – see also the post by Scott McGill on preconception in improvisation.

Where is this stuff being done well and who by?

In a recent poll of 1500 CEOs “creativity” topped the list of the most essential leadership competencies.  But still there’s plenty of evidence that business leaders are responding to the turbulence by reverting to command and control, so it’s far easier to find the places where this stuff isn’t being done well.  However, there are forward thinking companies, such as Zappos, IBM, and Innocent—and Google, whose New York offices I visited recently, and what a great environment and you can see why it’s the number one place graduates want to work.

Let’s see a bit of jazz in action:

I’ve said in my own work that jazz as a business model is mainly for those enterprises that want to innovate continuously and it can therefore be wasteful for companies that are operating in a more steady state way.  Richard Branson also says that many business cannot do complex things, which brings me back to 4/4 and rock music of course ! 🙂  What do you say to this?

Using jazz as a business model is more about how organisations can respond effectively to change, about having the best organisational structures for today’s environment. Business needs structure, but the structures must be at the service of what’s going on within the business, rather than being the master and they must be adaptable enough to respond to change.  The jazz-leader establishes clearly defined boundaries, roles and responsibilities, plus the overall vision, which everyone then works within as individuals, speaking with their own voice. This fully engages everyone, as not only are they being heard and shaping the outcome, but they have to listen keenly to others in order to respond – that’s improvisation. They’re not following a pre-written score, or playing pre-rehearsed licks. It’s uncomfortable, certainly…as is the seismic change we’re going through. But it’s also exhilarating, and it’s possible when the structures are supportive.

Editor’s note : As someone that plays jazzy improvisations sometimes and rock music at other times,  I guess we must agree to disagree on this – I find most businesses want to keep it simple, particularly in markets that are fast, unsophisticated etc.  It’s only the most innovative that want to pursue improvisation as a core skill.   We should set up a joint conference with 500 people and debate the issue out with your piano and my guitar 🙂

You discuss 5 barriers in the book. What are they and why are they important?

My work at Barrier Breakers is all about soft skills development, and soft skills are innate human competencies.  We all have soft skills like creativity, communication, leadership, self-motivation, and teamworking to some degree already.  Unlike hard skills, which have to be learnt, or input, the soft skills have to be accessed.  If we’re not using them it’s because there are barriers in the way.  Sometimes the barriers are ones we’ve set up ourselves; sometimes they’re ones we encounter.  So to develop soft skills you need to identify where the barriers are, and then remove them.  The five Barrier Profiles are the “lenses” we use at Barrier Breakers to do this, which is the mechanism that underpins all our training and consultancy work with individuals and organisations.

Have you taken this out to companies? What happened?

Barrier Breakers been used widely within organisations, initially in the 3rd sector, winning the national Performance Hub prize for this work in 2007, and recently we’ve been rolling it out to public and private sector organisations.

What’s your platform for this?

At the turn of the century I was a jazz composer, pianist and vocalist, living and working between London and New York, leading a sextet in each city, composing for these groups and for a 17-piece jazz orchestra, recording regularly, performing in clubs most nights – from Birdland to Ronnie Scotts – often teaching and running workshops by day, as well as touring in Europe and Japan. I’d been a professional musician since leaving school, working with a wide array of pop and rock bands as a keyboard player (from Nico to Nick Lowe, Eurythmics to The Slits), composing for commercials, and touring…but this was always fuelled by a love of jazz, so my transatlantic life was the realisation of a dream.

And your work in charity?

Barrier Breakers began life as a charity, working with disadvantaged young people and those within the criminal justice system – either at risk of offending or needing support in re-settlement. Soft skills are powerful enablers for anyone, but particularly for those who’ve been battered by life and are looking for new ways of living. We’ve had some incredible results over the years. We’ve now got the main “for-more-than-profit” arm, and the intention is that the training and consultancy will eventually fund all our charitable work, allowing us to be independent of external funding, and therefore to be sustainable.

For more on jazz and business, see Scott Mc Gill and The Flow.  Finally a bit of Jeff Beck and Tal Wikenfield – red hot improvisation around a score.  Reminds me I must catch the man at a jam soon – allegedly he goes out to play near where I live from time to time.  How cool is that?


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via  His latest book “The Music of Business” is available direct or in the usual places by clicking the relevant link in the slideshare presentation below:

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