Abbott: How Music Informs Leadership For HR Exec

Abbott's Executive Vice President of Human Resources Steve Fussell provides insights on the parallels between music and leadership.

Steve Fussell

(Originally published on LinkedIn)

Abbott is No. 10 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list

Music is a unifying language. No matter where you’re from, what you do or how acoustically adept you may be – everyone can feel a beat or be moved by a song.

In addition to running corporate human resources at a global healthcare company, I’m a musician. I’ve played the piano since I was 6 years old and performed in a rock band for a number of years. Although between travel schedules and personal commitments, it can be hard to find time to play some days, it is my forever respite. But it’s more than that – it’s a skill through which I’ve also learned many other things, applicable to life. But perhaps most interestingly, applicable to good leadership.

Here are the parallels I see between music and quality leadership:

A Good Ear

The most important quality in a musician is the ability to play notes in tune.

There are two scenarios for musicians with “good ears:” They either have perfect pitch (they can sing an E-flat without a reference point) – or they have relative pitch (they can sing an E-flat if they first hear another note, like a C).

One is a talent you’re born with and the other, one you acquire through hard work. Either works.

As a leader, I’ve learned that having a good ear is also about listening.

In an orchestra or band, you have to tune with instruments that are very different from you. Depending on whether you’re playing a string or wind instrument, you’re literally calibrated in different keys. Despite this, you still have to make music together.

You also have to have a good “ear” for balance in your teams. Pianists, for example, are all born with a greater natural ability in one hand over another. They must train their brains to strengthen the weaker hand; otherwise they never realize full mastery (and their songs would come across clumsily). The same applies to teams. A good leader recognizes the strengths and weaknesses, and must work diligently to create a better balance, whether through training or hiring.

A good leader knows how to listen to the various members of a team, tune with them and create a great product. A really good leader can add unique harmony – innovation if you will – to the sound because of his or her deep understanding of how the various sounds – different perspectives – are best blended together.

A Sense of Timing

Songs, like markets and business cycles, are somewhat predictable. There’s the introduction, a gradual build-up, an exciting climax and a final act. Musicians know this and they plan for it – with what bow strokes they choose to take (how long or short, fast or slow), when to breathe and how quickly to let that breath out – and even how quickly to pick their instruments back up after a period of strategic rest.

Similarly, leaders must anticipate and plan for business cycles or market events. You can bet that over a long period of time, the markets will swing down and up. Over time, a business cycle will go from debt to profit to extreme growth to a lull. A good business can reinvent itself and start a new movement in its song. Abbott has reinvented itself successfully for 128 years. Under the direction of Miles White (nine straight years onBarron’s World’s Best CEOs list), in just the last few years, we’ve successfully spun off our U.S. proprietary pharma business into a separate company and made our largest acquisition ever with St. Jude Medical.

The bottom line is, both music and business are anticipatory. A good leader knows this and plans for each phase.

The Ability to Improvise

You know someone is good at improvising when you don’t realize at first that’s what they’re doing.

Jazz musicians and rappers are known and lauded for their ability to write music in their minds, composing in real time. Their words rhyme and fit the syllabic space allotted to them.

Improvisation is not about filling space or convincing the listener that you were prepared, when in fact, you were not. It’s about coming up with genius material to satisfy a need.

Skilled musicians who improvise in a group or band are well versed at listening and communicating, although in a language most of us don’t use every day. Despite being a motor skill, musicians riffing in a call-and-response style are actually communicating with each other, listening and talking to each other at the same time. Ask yourself how many times you’ve felt this in sync with your team and imagine how productive you’d be if you were.

Authentic Connections 

We all have a radar for authenticity – we know when people are being genuine and when they’re not. Similarly in music, you can hear passion from a musician as clearly as you might hear ambivalence. If someone were to pluck out “Moonlight Sonata” without feeling, it wouldn’t even sound like the same song. If they were to play different notes or rhythms, too, the song would change – so in a way, the first step toward authenticity is mastery.

People don’t buy albums they don’t find genuine. Similarly, people don’t follow leaders they don’t find authentic.

If your team members can feel that you authentically care about their lives and their needs – both at work and at home – they’re going to want to work hard for you. And you will go far as a leader.

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