Killing me softly – An interview with Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words - Miss Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words – Miss Roberta Flack – Photo by Adam Coxon, The Lowdown Magazine

It was an unexpected delight to be invited to interview Roberta Flack recently, still performing at 75 years of age with a beautiful singing voice, wit charm and experience well beyond X-Factor and American Idol wannabes.  Let’s begin with a brief reminder of that beautiful singing, writing, playing and performing talent:


Here’s some insights from our dialogue which went on well past the TV interview:

Roberta on Teaching and Learning

Flack started her career teaching music at schools and privately in Washington D.C.  Reflecting on this she said she had some wonderful opportunities compared with the other students.  Teachers would leave the room and say “Carry on Roberta”.  Asked about what qualities they thought she possessed to get this request, Roberta said in a typically self-effacing manner that she had a fairly big mouth!  This ignores all her other qualities: an articulate style; a passion for her subject (in her case all forms of music) and an ability to reach other people’s heads, hearts and souls.  These are all transferable qualities for great leaders in any field. Asked what she had learned through her life she learned to appreciate everything that came her way, even those songs that she knew she could not or would not sing.  At one point she accompanied aspiring opera singers on piano in Georgetown and she got to meet and meet John F Kennedy, who attended the club.  In the course of working there, Flack had to learn to play songs that she had never played.  Reflecting on this she said:

“As a musician, when you get an opportunity to learn something that you don’t know, and to really learn and play it and execute it well, is such a thrill”

There is a direct parallel here for leaders in any field.  As Tom Peters says, execution is everything.  That relies on deep learning, the so-called 10 000 hours effect as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell. Musicians are used to the idea of deep practice as are great leaders.  Check out the full interview here:


Transferable Lesson : To become a great learner, learn to teach and teach people to learn

Roberta on Creativity and Reinterpretation

Flack took on the awesome task of reinterpreting a selection of songs by The Beatles in 2012 – Let It Be Roberta, having lived nearby to and also become good friends with John Lennon many years before. Reinterpreting a canon of work of such magnificence presents the artist with an enormous challenge as to how faithful you remain to the original or whether to do something quite different with the songs, which are almost untouchable. Flack wisely chose to do something different with the material to stunning effect. Reflecting on this, Roberta said that, it helped to be a classically trained musician. She was taught by Hazel Harrison, a music teacher from Howard University who excelled in Bach and music of the Baroque period. Roberta said:

“If you can hold on to your love for playing the piano and play Bach this way, rather than playing it like Chopin or Mozart, you will have accomplished something”

So, Flack learned to sight read all the pieces that the opera singers wanted her to play and make the music come to life rather than just to read the notes on the paper.  She was also stretched all the time by people who asked her to modify the pieces at will.  This level of adaptive behaviour provided her will the skill to get inside the heart of the musician and interpret the piece for the singers she had before her.  Undoubtedly this learning was formative in terms of her ability to reinterpret The Beatles material whilst staying true to the heart of the music.

Transferable Lesson : Act from your heart to find your soul

Roberta on new Business models

We held a fascinating after interview chat about Prince and his recent decision to work again with Warner Brothers after 20 years of producing his music independently. Roberta acknowledged the difficulty of gaining funding for your work in the modern age. Off camera we had a long chat about money and artistry. In her own case she set up The Real Artist Symposium, a gathering creative artists who own their own work and have worked with her to help give them a platform for their work.  This is just one of a number of new funding models that have emerged. We recently commented on Bernie Torme’s Crowdfunding Experiment as another exemplar of innovation.  These models are also apparent in other fields, such as publishing, where downloading has democratised the creative process but also made it much harder for artists to earn a living from their art. Business people would do well to learn that if what you are doing isn’t working, do something different.

Transferable Lesson : If your business model is broken, find a new one rather than banging your head against the same wall

And finally, a beautiful rendition of “Killing Me Softly”:


The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack


About the Writer:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

From Cages to Playgrounds – Scott McGill on excellence in music and life

I was privileged to interview Scott Mc Gill, a progressive rock and jazz fusion guitarist recently.  Scott has played with Percy Jones of Brand X and worked with Michael Manring, a well-respected fretless bass player.  He divides his time between teaching, composing, performing and researching music, which would be something of an idyllic lifestyle for me.  Before we get started, let’s see the man in action:

Tell me about your influences in terms of innovative music and improvisation?

I spent 10 years working with Dennis Sandole who was John Coltrane’s teacher.   It does not get much better than that.  I’ve played with some of the best people on the planet in Casinos on the East Coast and Broadway etc.  I also find that one of the best ways to extend yourself is to teach and research music.  For example, I was interested in your explorations of the concept of flow in your writing.  I’ve spent 20 years teaching, writing, playing freelance and improvising.  That amounts to more than 10 000 hours of immersion in music.

So you are the ultimate adaptive musician?  Front of stage, in the studio, teaching others?  I meet people who are good at one of these but rarely all three.  I’d guess that this requires some loss of ego and the ability to focus intensely on what you are doing at any one time?

Yes. It’s enthusiasm and focus really. I like learning and engaging deeply in many areas of music enables me to learn a great deal. The discipline of progressing in all of these areas is something I am interested in as it makes me feel as though I am working towards something meaningful. I also find that progression in one area usually facilitates progression in the others.

Take me back to the beginning to help me look for clues as to how you learned to improvise.  How did you begin?

I started learning both reading and playing music.  They were always married.  I did not start out as many people do, by either learning formally and then starting to improvise 7 years later or vice versa.  I began by picking up a few chords but very soon after took lessons from someone who did both reading and improvising.  The ear is the instrument.  Even if you are reading, you should always be able to hear it and vice versa.   I learned music in a combined way from its inception.

Is this like starting out speaking two languages?  If you start that way, it is much easier than learning them separately and sequentially?

I guess it could be.

Does formal learning have to drive out the possibility of improvising?

Not at all for me.  The more I learn about theory, the better I get at improvising.  I don’t partition it.  For me, rules are a release and not a barrier.  That said, for some musicians, it is apparent that learning musical theory does hinder them from improvising and vice versa.  I guess it’s a question of mindset and it also depends on the training.  Some of the best improvisers were formally trained, e.g. John Coltrane and Liszt.

Does that relate to the idea of mastery – once you reach a certain level, the technique vs. attitude debate does not matter and you transcend that?

Fundamentally yes.

Improvising a dialogue with Scott McGill

When you are in the moment of creativity, what happens?

I find that I lose all sense of time (not timing! :-).  I recall a very special moment working with some friends.  We played for 90 minutes but it seemed like minutes.  It was fantastic.  I felt a real sense of euphoria.  When I am creating I also become hyperfocused, like you can hear everything that is coming next and you have the ability to successfully predict what the other people in the band are about to do.  I think that my senses are very acute in those moments.

Can you teach people that?

Not really.  It has to be learned.

What then is teachable?

The vernacular – the notes, the chords.  How sounds relate to one another.  How things sound against one another.  There’s a lot of syntax and the ability to hear something new.  My teaching is individualised and improvised and a lot rests on the student – which makes teaching music one of the hardest things to industrialise.

What about when people get stuck in improvisation?  Are there things you do to help unblock them?

Listening to the same thing with fresh ears is one approach.  Getting them to listen to new things another.  Sometimes changing the instrument or even the approach to the instrument is effective.  For example by looking at the guitar up and down the neck instead of along the neck may make someone approach the instrument more like a piano or saxophone.

Talking to Bernie Torme and Bill Nelson, I’ve been told that switching instruments is a great idea for creativity e.g. in Bernie’s case to the Sitar.  Bill Nelson says that different instruments force a different attitude from the player.  Do you subscribe to these views?

Absolutely.  The nuances of an instrument matter a great deal.  I’d add the ideas of learning about concepts and then trying that out on an instrument.  So theory for me is a practical tool.

What about the idea that the untrained ear is everything with respect to musical creativity?

An intuitive approach does not exclude formalism and I’ve known and worked with great players in both categories.   The argument “don’t read music or your creativity will be shut off” does not stand up to scrutiny.  I can give you examples on each side of that argument in every case.  I always wanted to read music so that I could grab some sheet music and use the notes in a different way.  It was all about grabbing licks for me.

So, you see a music score as a playground rather than a cage?

Precisely.  I listen to a score and think ‘What could I do with that?”  For example, I’m doing a couple of pieces that have borrowed ideas from Ravel at the moment.

Editor’s note:  For me this is the ‘curiosity’ principle of creative people – see the diagram below.  It also illustrates the skill of what Tom Peters called ‘Creative Swiping’.

Scott Mc Gill with his fretless Vigier guitar

I often discuss the parallel that great musicians and great leaders are what the text books say are emotionally intelligent.  i.e.  That they are masters of their own competence whilst they pay attention to what is going on outside them?

I would tend to agree and that’s why I spend a lot of time getting musicians to listen.   It’s especially important to be able to hear ahead of time what you are doing in an anticipatory way if you are going to master improvisation.

In business, we’d call that a complex adaptive system where there is a great deal of variation going on in an interactive way

It’s exactly the same thing on the bandstand.  I feel you can learn a lot about complexity and improvisation in other fields from music.

What about ‘rules for improvisation’?  I made a programme for The BBC’s In Business series with a comedy improvisation expert who suggested that he uses 3 simple rules for improvisation in comedy.  Do you rely on shared codes when working with others?

Really good improvisation sounds like it isn’t.   It’s a lot like writing where you are developing a character, but you are doing it on the fly, in real time.  I don’t tend to use signals although there are a few of them such as banging your head to signal the need for the band to come back to the motif and using fingers to signal key changes and so on.

You have talked a lot about anticipatory skills and that relates to the idea of leaning into the future in business.  Can you say more on this?

I’m reading a lot about anticipation at the moment – especially the work of K. Anders Erickson.  Erickson discusses how the fastest and most accurate typists are the ones who can quickly anticipate the next move.  His theory of Deliberate Practice has influenced me greatly and I have been lucky enough to have corresponded with him recently.  He’s very brilliant and what he says about focused deliberate practice appeals to me.

Where does innovation come from in music, given that we’re all working with the same 12 intervals? – maybe more in your case as I know you specialize in playing fretless guitars?

I don’t know really. From what I know there are many millions of combinations of the twelve pitches not to mention the inclusion of rhythm, form, timbre, tempo/time, etc. There are always microtones for those who want a different sound other than the twelve standard pitches as well. I do play a Vigier fretless guitar and enjoy it thoroughly. I like the different vibrato and glissando possibilities and the fact that you can shape a note a bit more after striking it that you can with a fretted guitar. It is difficult to play in tune though.

Where can people find out more about you and get hold of your music?

Find me at MYSPACE and Soundcloud for audio examples of my work with my bands Jones McGill DeCarlo and Freakzoid.   For more biographical information go to FLAVOURS ME and Scott McGill. I am reachable on Facebook, Twitter, and have a blog as well.  Here’s another piece:

As the Editor, for me the transferable lessons about excellence are:

  • Use structures AND creativity to achieve mastery in any field.
  • Use anticipatory approaches to stay ahead.  This may involve deep listening to your own performance and that of those around you, whether we are talking about music, business or other fields of endeavour.
  • Adopt an emotionally intelligent approach to working with others, sensing and responding to minimal signals to help change course along the way.

Innovation Excellence – Calling all firestarters

This week, I have a great opportunity for writers, musicians and business leaders.  I have just been appointed “Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor” for a US based Global Innovation Company called Innovation Excellence.  The company is run by Julie Anixter, who worked with Tom Peters and Seth Godin amongst other leading business thinkers around the world.  Innovation Excellence is the most popular innovation website in the world with over 10 000 readers per day and counting.  As part of my job there, I am planning interviews with people in the coming year such as Ahmet Ertegun’s biographer, CEO of Atlantic Records, Bill Nelson, Professor Adrian Furnham, Bernie Torme, Sir Richard Branson and Sir Paul McCartney.  We’re starting shortly with a piece about the enigma that is Richard Strange, leader of proto-punk pop-art group The Doctors of Madness and perhaps punk’s godfather,

So, what then does the Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor do?  Good question!  You don’t see many RNR Innovation Editors on the staff at the Financial Times or the New York Herald Tribune!  My job is to interview, write or commission articles with any of the following types of people:

  • Innovative musicians – Names that spring to mind include Robert Fripp, Lady Gaga, Brian Eno, Madonna – people who have either innovated within music or are gamechangers in the music industry.
  • Innovation leaders – Especially those who get the idea that innovative leadership requires both discipline and improvisation – Virgin, Toyota, First Direct, Google, 3M, The Eden Project spring immediately to mind.
  • Innovation authors and academics – Again those who have a ‘Rock’n’Roll outlook’ on the subject – Brian Clegg, Tom Peters, Adrian Furnham et al are on my list of suspects here.

Innovation Excellence is also open to sponsors who wish to help build the best educational resource in the world for innovation.  Contact me via e-mail at to see what’s on offer.

So, in the warped words of the hymn “Come all ye faithful … and also a healthy dose of firestarters …”  Drop me a line and let’s see if we can create a guest article or interview.

Speaking of firestarters, time to finish with a bit of that…

Innovation Excellence and all that jazz

This week, I’m offering you a business parable about jazz and innovation excellence.  As a generalisation, it probably works, although jazz is an enormous genre, so feel free to agree / disagree / extend the story as you wish.  It was written about 13 years ago for my 1st book Best Practice Creativity, and has resurfaced recently, since a University academic published an article on jazz and business in The Guardian.  If you enjoy this post you may also enjoy related posts on Innovation and The Flow and Jazz.

Let’s warm up with a bit of Herbie Hancock:

The Jazz Band – a metaphor for more innovative organisations

The Jazz band is a loose association of individuals that need no sheet music, since they share a common love for the music, achieved by careful selection of musicians, based on ability and empathy within and on the edge of the band’s style. There is scope for musicians to ‘blow their own trumpets’, whilst recognising the need for the ‘solos’ to be consistent with the overall musical direction.

The informal band leader helps band members reach new heights of musicianship and encourages the swapping of instruments to broaden skills. The band is paid on the quality of the group performance although random bonuses are allocated by group consent for outstanding individual performance from a ‘slush fund.’

The band’s repertoire is wide and both well rehearsed and unstructured, for the performance has both elements of formal musical structure and improvised chaos. Some performances are unremarkable, yet there are indefinable moments when the band seems to know exactly what to do to take the music in a new direction that has never been rehearsed formally in a state of ‘flow’.

Although the band get great enjoyment out of playing the music when practising or performing, off stage the members often disagree vigorously about many issues concerned with the music. In some cases, individual members are not great personal friends, yet this is subsumed to the greater ‘task’ of the music itself. For example, the guitarist tends to be simultaneously gregarious yet aloof, whilst the bass player will often be the one to arrange social events. The drummer is always late for rehearsals as he has to get a lift from the piano player since he is never organized enough to buy a car.

Competitiveness manifests itself in a positive way, in so far as individual soloists attempt to outdo each other with the aim of moving the general level of performance upwards. Although each person could probably play a very impressive piece on their own, the results that the band achieve somehow add up to more than the individual players could achieve on their own. The band also has to compete with other bands for gigs and one of the members carries out the job of getting the band gigs through advocating the band to club owners and using any tricks to make them more visible than other jazz bands.

The jazz band occasionally get asked to play requests. These are done in a dutiful way but often fail to reach the heights of performance achieved when they are in free flow. They claim to be unaware of anything around them including the audience when they are in this state, and they could be said to be creating music in a highly selfish way at these times.

The jazz band parable highlights the need for businesses and organisations to:

  • Balance structure and chaos according to the needs of the various stakeholders.
  • Learn continuously and adapt to change through the use of signposts which are understood by all.
  • Let creativity happen rather than trying to force it.  Technique and training helps, but no amount of engineering will necessarily produce the intended result.
  • Make personality differences irrelevant by a consuming mania with a shared purpose.

Speaking of improvisation and innovation, I have just been appointed Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor for New York based Global Innovation Website Innovation Excellence.  Run by Julie Anixter,  who has written with Seth Godin and worked with Tom Peters.   I have been asked to write a number of prestigious articles and interviews – for example, the CEO of Atlantic Records, Sir Paul Mc Cartney, CEO’s who play music and more.   Innovation Excellence is the world’s most popular innovation blog with over 10 000 reads per day.  I am therefore offering guest interviews and articles to:

  • Innovation authors
  • Innovative musicians
  • Innovative businesses
  • Innovation leaders
  • Innovation academics

If you wish to publish an article or interview, let me know via this blog or mail me at

Do check out the website All About Jazz for much more on Jazz.  To finish, the master of improvisation and innovation, Wes Montgomery:

The Flow – Personal Mastery in business and all that jazz

Mastery, unconscious competence, effortless genius.  These are all ways to describe what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the state of ‘flow’.  What can we learn about ‘flow’ from music that we can transfer to the world of business and personal development?

Let’s begin, not by talking about the state of flow but by experiencing it through looking at masters of their craft operating at a state of effortless genius.  Let’s start with jazz master Joe Pass:

What then is flow?  Are there any ways to learn how to be in this state and what can we learn from professional musicians?   Here’s a great quote to open up the debate from Richard Thompson:

“Focus for performance is extremely important. I start quite early in the day of a performance, just very slowly focusing in on performing later that day with the whole idea that you are going to be as present as possible. You can play music for yourself, and that’s one thing, but to communicate with an audience is really something very special. When it happens, it’s a beautiful thing, an extraordinary thing, a wonderful feeling for the performer – this idea that you play something and people get it.

The way that you’re able to get stuff across to an audience is by getting inside the music as much as possible, reaching that really still place in the center of the music where you are totally present, almost unconscious, and totally engaged in the musical process and the storytelling process. When you get to that point, you’ve really achieved just about everything you can achieve as a musician.”

John Howitt is a professional session musician, who has performed with Celine Dion, Anastasia and Shirley Bassey.  He also works with us in our business and music masterclasses.  As a session musician, John must be at peak performance with every engagement.  I asked him to reveal some of his tips for staying in the flow:

Flow master – John Howitt with Peter – Picture by Jason Dodd – master photographer

Peter :  Can you tell us something about your career and the role of practice as a spur to personal mastery?

John : “Mastery comes out of preparation.  In business circles, people talk of the need for 10 000 hours disciplined practice to master an art or discipline.   Contrary to what amateur musicians might think, to do what I do, it’s all about practice and preparation.  I have probably exceeded the 10 000 hours in my career as a session musician and still spend 5 hours a day playing an instrument if I am not actually engaged in a piece of client work”

Peter :  Many so-called ‘creatives’ say that they feel they would lose their creativity / mojo if they overprepared. What do you say to that?

John : “Practice gives you ease AND versatility.  Playing routine pieces of music almost goes on auto pilot allowing you to concentrate on what is needed to add that extra piece of sparkle.  I feel this is just as applicable to business and personal excellence as it is to performing music”

Peter : As well as your stage and session work, I know you also record soundtrack music for films.  In your experience, how do you move from a performance role to one that is perhaps more introverted?

John :  In one way, there is no difference.  When performing, you still need to keep your focus both internally on the mastery of what you are doing, whilst keeping your antennae open to hear those around you.  It’s what the business gurus called ’emotional intelligence’ – living inside your own head AND paying attention to your co-performers.  Good musicians and leader do both.  Bad musicians and leaders just listen to themselves.

That said, when I’m recording soundtracks, I can focus completely in on the point of detail that I’m working with, PLUS keep in mind the overall piece.  The big picture AND the small detail are essential if you are to achieve what Peter Senge calls personal mastery.  As a musician or leader, I find it essential to be both gregarious AND solitary.

Peter : On innovation excellence, can you share one important insight for us?

John : I’ll offer two.   In music, the innovation challenge lies in breaking away from habits. Practice can force you into habit but it need not.  It’s what companies like Toyota, Nokia and First Direct have achieved, rather than just repeating themselves.  Furthermore, it’s like Miles Davis says “There are no mistakes”

Please share your thoughts on what gets you in the high performance zone.  A recent interview with Tom Peters on the related topic of personal excellence can be found at Innovation Excellence.  I found flow is vital when writing perhaps the shortest business book known to man or woman – Punk Rock People Management – get your copy via the link.

If you enjoy this blog, you may also enjoy related blogs at Prince, Deep Purple, Hendrix and Bill Nelson.  To finish, let’s see some more masters of music immersed in the art of effortless genius.  None other than Jeff Beck giving a tribute to Les Paul, plus a tribute to Les Paul by Bill Nelson:


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  Check our latest book reviews out:

Knowing me, Knowing you aha – In praise of Slough

Whilst my life as a keynote speaker, mixing music with business concepts, is considered to be more exciting than the usual speaker fare by some of my colleagues, I often forget to mention that I spend about 50% of my time doing quite ordinary business consultancy without rock music.  Such was the occasion a few weeks ago, when Slough Community Leisure called upon my services to help them rethink their 5-year strategy in the wake of changes in their market, customer and stakeholder base.

If you run a leisure centre, never mind all the HR boll …cks about “People are our greatest asset”.  It really IS all about your people – there’s nothing else to separate you from the rest.  Customer service separates the sheep from the goats in terms of whether you get customers, keep them, or get them to become fans of your product / service and become active referrers.  This requires an emotionally literate workforce.  We only have to look at the comic emotional bankruptcy of Alan Partridge to see the polar opposite of the way Slough Community Leisure operates:

So, what do I like about Slough Community Leisure.   Well, the clue is in the title of this post, otherwise known as Emotional Intelligence.  Thick books have been written about EI by Daniel Goleman and many others, but it comes down to the issue of internal and external mastery, or as Abba put it ‘Knowing me, Knowing you’:

Emotional Intelligence unplugged

In Slough Community Leisure’s case, they think carefully about the customer experience – this includes offering services specifically targeted to particular groups e.g. late night go karting.  It is also modelled down to the last detail in everything they do both face to face and online.  It’s the same critical competence that first direct use to rise above other players in the banking industry.

To finish, let’s see another take on Abba’s genius – The Abba section starts at around 5 minutes 37 although the rest of the video is yet another masterclass in emotional (un) intelligence:

Please share your thoughts on innovation customer excellence here.  A recent interview on the topic with Tom Peters can be found at Innovation Excellence.

Oops I did it again – Britney Spears and learning companies

I commented on the concept of a learning company in my posts on Lady Gaga and David Bowie recently.  The idea of a learning company is a company which learns faster than its competitors and speed of new product / service delivery is vital in today’s business world.  Many academics, such as Peter Senge, Chris Argyris and Peter Senge have commented on this idea, which Britney Spears unwittingly stumbled upon in her classic hit “Oops, I did it again”.  Let’s see Ms Spears in action:

In the context of business, “oops I did it again” refers to the tendency of businesses to repeat themselves, sometimes in the face of compelling evidence telling them to change course.  Organisational learning can mean several things:

Single loop learning – Where we keep existing values and introduce new behaviours – this is often dubbed ‘continuous improvement’, where we look for better ways to do existing things.

Double loop learning – A fundamental reassessment of the way we operate – often more radical and therefore even more difficult.

Companies find it intensely difficult to institute learning at an organisation wide level, be it single or double loop learning.  Marks and Spencer nearly went out of business through having such a strong culture that it did not learn from its customers.  Manifestations of this included a refusal to accept credit card payments for many years and their disastrous initial expansion into Europe.  On the other hand, Toyota have based much of their growth in recent years on behaving as an organisation that learns, alongside other approaches such as lean thinking.  This has given them an incredible edge compared with their competitors.  I have just come back from giving a keynote on this very topic at the 7th International HR Leadership Conference in Athens on this topic, which is central to a turnaround in the way in which businesses operate in the new world order.  I also met Evan Davis from the BBC programme Dragons’ Den last week, where we discussed the need for some new thinking if we are to create a sustainable turnaround in the economy and I shall post separately on this topic soon.

Lessons from Britney:  Don’t repeat yourself.  Learn and adapt.

I have scoured Britney Spears back catalogue for other songs that have a business leadership lesson in them and, frankly, I have failed.  “My perogative”, “Everytime”, “Toxic” – not one transferable business lesson, unless someone can spot something I have missed.  So, I have no particular reason for including the video of “Baby one more time”, except for its own value!

p.s. My new book ‘Punk Rock People Management – A no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff’ is available FREE via the Punk Rock People Management webpage.   A print and e-book version are also available at PUNK PM.  Britney Spears gets a mention as an honorary punk rocker in the book, even though she is not one.

HR without all the boll...cks - Photo courtesy of Lindsay Wakelin Photography

Finally, let’s hear a Louis Armstrong mashup of Britney’s masterpiece:

This town ain’t big enough for the both of us – Strategy unplugged

Glam rock duo Sparks unwittingly stumbled upon a critical business strategy issue in their 1974 anthem ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’.  Lest we forget:

Sustainable competitive advantage arises from:

1. Differences between firms, not similarities.  Thus, if you are in close proximity to a competitor in terms of products, services, geography and so on, one strategic option is to create a difference that creates space between you.  This may of course mean that you compete better. It may simply open up the market in ways that means everyone can gain share.

2. Foresight is better than hindsight.  In order to know before the competition is going to head you off at the pass, we need dynamic approaches to strategy, rather than static use of models, which tell you ‘what happened’, rather like driving a car using the rear view mirror.  One such approach is ‘Scenario modelling’ which we have used to help companies pre-empt decisions by competitors with impacts measured in millions.  Read more about how this can be done at Strategy.

3. What do you do when your competition is too close for comfort?  Well, you could collaborate – This can take many forms, from joint ventures, partnerships etc.  In extremis, buy your competitor if the market is big enough to sustain the result.

What else can music teach us about business strategy?  Share your thoughts here.  I’ll leave you with a little teaser in the form of Queen’s ‘One Vision, One Mission’ clearly a song about focus or, as Tom Peters puts it ‘Sticking to the knitting’:

Born this way: 5 MBA lessons from Lady Gaga

Extracted from the book “The Music of Business

Lady Gaga is a music and business phenomenon.  Simply fabulous electro pop and dance music.  Strategy, marketing, finance, HR, operations, social media and so on, all rolled into one.  Setting aside all the controversy over her music, fashion and so on, what might an MBA graduate learn from Lady Gaga about her approach to business?  Before we start, in case you have not caught up with Lady Gaga, take a look at her ‘Edge of Glory’ video, with lyrics inspired by the death of her grandfather:

Share your thoughts on your favourite Lady Gaga song / performance by making a comment on this blog.  Since she is a controversial figure, if you cannot stand her, it would also be interesting to know why.

Here are five MBA lessons that you can learn from Lady Gaga:

1. I personally love Lady Gaga’s music but it is not completely new.  Her music springs from 80’s and 90’s electro-pop and dance music, drawing upon a range of influences, such as Bowie, Queen, Elton John, Madonna, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.  I’d add Prince to the list as I’m sure she has been influenced by the Purple Genius.  Many people are creatures of habit in terms of their musical tastes (see my post on AC/DC for more on this) and this makes Lady Gaga’s music a very acceptable diet for consumers, young and old.

MBA lesson # 1.   Innovate within the familiar range of the customer’s expectation for maximum early impact.  Build on that for long term sustainability.

2. If Lady Gaga’s music is in the familiar range, the presentation certainly is not.  Or is it?  Sure, people are shocked to see Lady Gaga attacked during her performance and then die in a pool of fake blood.  But, remember Alice Cooper’s electric chair executions and Madonna’s on stage masturbation scenes for ‘Like a Virgin’ on her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour?  We have been here before.  The difference that Lady Gaga brings is that she has learned from all of these people and improved the packaging and presentation of the theatrical elements that accompany her music.  Top business thinkers such as Tom Peters have written about becoming a learning organisation, which, broadly speaking is an organisation that learns from its customers, staff, partners and so on. That learning can be simple, such as “How can we do what we do better?” It can also be more fundamental, such as ” How can we start over?”  Unlike some businesses, Lady Gaga has actually taken notice of Tom’s wisdom on learning organisations.

MBA lesson # 2.   Stand on the shoulders of giants if you want to innovate.  Be a genuine learning organisation if you want to stay in business for the long term.

3. Lady Gaga has succeeded in an age where society is questioning the profit imperative of corporations and celebrities.  How has she done this?  By cleverly combining the profit and purpose ambition as Daniel Pink, author of ‘A Whole New Mind’ points out.  Gaga combines exceedingly clever cross branding (music, fashion, headphones and so on) with a number of social and humanitarian causes such as the Haiti earthquake, the Japanese Tsunami and various AIDS / HIV causes.  This has enabled her to withstand a number of public relations crises when others would have crumbled.

MBA lesson # 3.   Combine your social responsibility agenda with your business plan in a seamless way.  Execute your plans with meticulous detail.

4. Lady Gaga has a shrewd approach to HR Strategy – partnering with evergreen stars such as Madonna, Elton John and Cher.   This gives her access to a much wider market for her music and legitimises her brand across generations.

MBA lesson # 4.   Use partnerships and joint ventures to enlarge your market share in ways that benefit all the stakeholders.  Choose your partners wisely and in ways that provide genuine win-win benefits.

5. Lady Gaga has captured the hearts, minds, souls and bank balances of several generations through the clever use of social media, in ways that major corporations can only dream of.   She has given her fans control of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so on.  They have a shared identity (little monsters) and Gaga has allowed her fanbase to operate a ‘market pull’ approach to affiliation instead of using traditional ‘push’ approaches to marketing.

MBA lesson # 5.   Understand that social media is social and the powerful imperative of the word YOU in social media.   People like social media to interact with their own lives and values.

I’m sure there are many more MBA lessons to be drawn from Lady Gaga.  Please send your thoughts in as contributions to this blog, which will be included in a sequel.  In the meanwhile, here is Lady Gaga’s fantastic piece of post-modern pop music ‘Poker Face’.

Our new book ‘The Music of Business” has an expanded article on Lady Gaga, plus much much more – acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith.  Sample it here – available worldwide on Amazon and as a Kindle download.


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

One day in heaven – One small step for children

Peter Cook leads the after dinner keynote musical experience: Sex, Customer Service and Rock'n'Roll

I had the privilege of sharing the stage recently with Heather Small, lead singer of M-People, as the before and after dinner speakers / performers at the Customer Service Training Network (CSTN) Awards.   As well as being a mighty fine singer, Heather works for Barnardo’s and a number of charities.  She gave an impassioned speech about the work of the charity, encapsulated in the words of her song ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud?’

This also provided us with the challenge of ‘follow that’, since we had the slot afterwards to fill.  Just as well that I took our ‘secret ingredient’ in the form of Sam Laming.  Sam has two great passions, extreme sports and playing original music from Ukraine on his 32 stringed Bandura.   Here is Sam pictured up Ben Nevis, having hauled the heavy instrument to the top of the peak.  Imagine the reaction of 600 corporate executives when we arrived with the instrument at the Sofitel Hotel in Heathrow.

Sam Laming on Ben Nevis with Bandura

During the keynote, I discussed service excellence from several perspectives, dwelling on the work of Tom Peters and First Direct’s approach to banking which puts the p word (personal) back into personal banking.  We then turned to the question of personal mastery and unleashed Sam’s Ukrainian folk songs on the unsuspecting audience of 600 people.   Watch Sam’s live rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, played on a ukelele.

So, in their completely different ways, Heather Small and Sam demonstrated personal excellence at the awards ceremony.  I was indeed proud to have been there alongside them. Creativity, a willingness to exceed personal boundaries and not being afraid to surprise others are all qualities of excellence and the event was an exemplar of this.  All thanks to Don Hales for inviting us to speak and perform at the awards.  We are delivering another event for the CSTN soon entitled ‘Myths and Riffs of Leadership’.

'Like a virgin' - A delegate experiencing stage fright during the 'Customer Service Blues'