Axe Victims

Recently I organised an amazing project to bring 6 perfect strangers together from all over the UK to Bernie Torme’s Studio in the garden of England, with the sole ambition of honouring my friend Bill Nelson, leader of English pop art groups Be-Bop Deluxe and Red Noise. Bill has given us over 40 years of pleasure through his continuous creativity. United only by a shared purpose and passion for Bill’s music we set about recording three songs by Bill’s first group Be-Bop Deluxe, ending up in recording four in just under 6 hours. The background story as to how we managed to achieve so much from a cold start is worth exploring. In just 22 hours, the band formed, stormed, normed, performed and reformed from perfect strangers to permanent flames.

Lazing Apostles

The Lazing Apostles L-R: Robert Craven, Tim Hands, Neil Turnbull (seated), Graham Burgess (seated), Bernie Torme, moi et Bryn Bardsley

This experience teaches us important transferable lessons about how to develop a high performance team in record time from an extremely unpromising start point.

Get Great Raw Materials

The “Lazing Apostles” (a spoof on one of Bill’s songs entitled Blazing Apostles) were selected using the internet after I placed an online “advert” for band members on Facebook. There were no auditions, interviews or psychometric tests. Nobody knew each other before we met with the exception of the drummer, who I worked with during my time at The Wellcome Foundation. It seemed that everyone intuitively understood the “job spec” and the level of capabilities required. All I did prior to meeting face to face was to arrange a brief meeting on Skype for an initial social chat.

The band we ended up with were a motley crew:

  1. Tim Hands – Lead Vocals – Acoustic Guitar – Tim works on film productions for Handsome Sound Ltd – Lives in Market Harborough
  2. Neil Turnbull – Drums and Percussion – Neil is a worldwide pharmaceutical troubleshooter for Pfizer – also a drummer with heavy metal band Sacrilege. A resident of Whitstable in Kent
  3. Robert Craven – Electric rhythm guitar – Robert is an author of 10 books on marketing and small business leadership. MD at The Directors’ Centre – Based in Bristol
  4. Bryn Bardsley – Bass supremo – Bryn is a professional musician having worked in corporate life for many years – Lives in the frozen north and works as an odd job man
  5. Graham Burgess – Keyboards – Graham performs in a number of Progressive Rock bands – I know little else about him – From Hastings – is a senior member of the local council
  6. Moi – Lead guitar and backing vocals – enough said – A man of Kent

Two management consultants, a film producer, an odd job man, a council officer, a druggist – not quite the usual rock’n’roll credentials!!

Bill Nelson Duane Eddy

Bill Nelson with one of his early heroes, Duane Eddy. Check Bill’s latest work out at Bill Nelson.com

Combine Passion with Purpose

We had agreed to attempt three songs on the day, possibly two if things went less well. I converged our song choices to three using a Delphi type process using a secret ballot on a list of songs chosen by the group. This meant there was a razor sharp focus to deliver these songs on the day and no divergence to try other songs. This is essential under limited time conditions. We also agreed the structures of each song through e-mails and sharing definitive template versions of the songs from Youtube. Each member then set about learning their parts individually – there were no joint practices and fairly little discussion prior to meeting in person.

Getting the Chemistry right

Given our complete lack of playing together, we sensibly agreed to meet at Bernie’s studio the night before, with the ambition of running through the songs once or twice and having a few beers to develop the essential “psychological contract”. We needed just over an hour of physical practice before we retired to the pub to let our work incubate over night …

Chemistry matters – gelling diverse talents and drinking chemicals (beer)

Rules of engagement

Without the use of a flip chart or holding hands in a circle, everyone in the band got the rules of engagement.  In hindsight, I think they were:

  1. Take no prisoners – We delegated authority over musical direction to Bernie Torme who simply told us when we had done enough etc.
  2. No pussyfooting – at various times we needed to substitute someone in the band to play a part. For example I simply wasn’t “feeling the love” when playing acoustic guitar on Crying To The Sky. Unlike some bands, this was done without fuss or damaging egos.
  3. Playfulness – although we were under some time pressure, it was a true joy to play with the other band members and we all enjoyed various mistakes we made, supporting each other etc.

The real boss - Bernie Torme - click to find his tour dates and studio

The real boss – Bernie Torme – click the image to check his tour dates out

Start with the end in mind

Given the huge geographical separation of the band members (I estimate we travelled some 1500 miles between us to attend the recording session), the most important thing we did was to lock in the recording date at the beginning. Creativity and genius counts for nothing if you are not all in the same room at the same time!

80 percent of success is showing up”

Woody Allen

Here are the four songs we produced on the day, plus the ‘re-enactment’ of the cover of “Sunburst Finish” shown above, sans nudity and perspex cage, otherwise completely accurate in all respects! 🙂 We are planning a return project at some point.

Bill and Peter

“Sign your name with a star”

Bill Nelson at the awards ceremony for his “Wakefield Star” award

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Peter Cook offers keynotes that blend World Class Thinking with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock and better Business and Organisation Development via Human Dynamics.

Read more about Bill Nelson in the book “The Music of Business

Take That – Teams vs. Individual Talent

HR Lessons from Take That

Introducing Chris Glennie, publisher and marketer, who stumbled over Take That (unwillingly ! 🙂 ) at a concert at Wembley Stadium and found himself contemplating the business issues associated with what the HR profession call ‘teamwork and talent management’ – I’ll let Chris take up the story, but not before we have seen the group in action:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KII1ruAfvsg

Is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, or does individual talent trump the creativity and productivity of a team?  That is the question.  It is also the nub of a debate that recently raged on the Harvard Business Review blog.

In the blue corner is William Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, taking issue with a comment of Mark Zuckerberg’s that ‘Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good … they are a hundred times better.’

In the red corner is Jeff Stibel, chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp., putting the opposite case.  His argument rests on the assertion that ‘great individuals are not only more valuable than legions of mediocrity, they are often more valuable than groups that include great individuals.’

Chris tells me that he is instinctively in the blue corner, through prejudice, education and experience.  But his life was changed when he went to see Take That at Wembley Stadium. As the evening progressed, he was struck by how this particular event perfectly encapsulated both sides of the HBR argument:

“Take That’s performance opened with the four members of the original five who re- formed a few years back: Gary, Jason, Howard and Mark.  They’re good, really good.  They don’t exactly dance anymore, not like they used to, but they move together well, interact, play off each other.  And I thought: Well, that’s about as good as it gets, isn’t it?”

“But then, the four disappeared and the manic, charismatic and frankly already too-sweaty figure of Robbie Williams appeared on stage.  The crowd went wild.  It’s what they all came for, and Williams did not disappoint. Let him entertain us – yes, we did and I couldn’t help thinking that it had a level of energy, excitement, engagement that made it much better than what came before.  It was worth the money on its own.  I was left thinking that what was inevitably coming – all five back on stage – would be a disappointment.”

“But it wasn’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, at times Robbie Williams threatened to break ranks, and when he did the cohesion nearly broke down, but by and large he worked as one of the team, and the whole event just soared beyond my expectations as an agnostic Take That consumer.”

I too as the editor of this blog would probably not go willingly to see Take That due to misplaced predjudices about boy bands but I can appreciate their talent and Chris’s story.  It reminds me of a quote from Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, who said that when you play with good people, it raises your own performance.  This concurs with Chris’ experience, Check back to the post on Deep Purple to see great people making each other greater.  The same is true of Led Zeppelin and Prince, who is renowned as a great musical mentor who improves other people’s performances when they work with him.  I’m in the camp that says if you want to get better, work with great people AND have the humility and suss to play in the team rather than as a soloist when required.

So, what are the ‘Takeways’ from Take That?

Take That on teamwork

Individual star talents are as valuable as a cohesive team.  When it works, the result can far exceed the separate component parts working alone.

Take That on professionalism

A true professional knows how to play in a team and be an individual solo performer.   True professionals are emotionally literate.  They know when to push forward and when to hold back and so on.

Take That on talent management

The job of a manager is to harness precocious talents so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There’s no doubt that a star talent can be a challenge to integrate into a team, and others have to work hard on teamwork with such people around.  The manager’s job is to bring these elements into harmony.

For more like this read the book “The Music of Business”, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith:

About the guest on this blog:  After a 20 year career in educational publishing working for blue chip companies and SMEs, Chris Glennie now thinks and writes about the leadership lessons he has learnt along the way. He can be contacted on twitter via @chrisglennie, or via his blog.