Conducting Your Company: Playing to the Strengths—and Weaknesses—of Your People

Conducting Your Company: Playing to the Strengths—and Weaknesses—of Your People

CEO as Conductor - Mark McClain

My favorite metaphor for leadership is that of an orchestra conductor. Quite often, the conductor is someone who used to play a particular instrument in the orchestra, but now his or her job is to get the most beautiful sound out of the entire group. They do this by understanding the function of each section and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual member of the orchestra. When it comes to leading a business, you must be the conductor whose sole job is to get the best performance out of your people.

People do their best work when they are clear on where their strengths and, just as importantly, their weaknesses lie. Unfortunately, many companies actually contribute to, if not downright create, their struggling employees’ lack of self-awareness about what they are and are not good at. How? Through a ritual that is de rigueur at most organizations: the performance review.

An employee sits down in her boss’s office and is told, “Here’s what you’re doing well, and here’s what you’re not doing well.” Often, she is given examples of both. The praise is nice, but human nature ensures that hearing about one’s shortcomings really stings. Then her boss encourages her to focus her time and energy on fixing them.

And so, she does, even though the areas in which she is found lacking are things that, although potentially useful, could easily be handled by others while she could (and should) stay focused on leveraging her strengths. It all happens in the name of “employee development.”

Now, of course, it’s always good to ensure your folks don’t have glaring weaknesses that would limit their ability to do their best work in their area of strength. But in general, we all know that it just doesn’t make sense for most of us to spend a lot of time striving to get good at things at which we’re not naturally gifted. It’s why not everyone works on their own car, why cellists rarely excel at playing the oboe, and why most software developers aren’t typically interested in selling stuff.

So why would we ask employees to get more comfortable—let alone excel—at things they are not interested in and weren’t hired to do? Stop trying to turn accountants into salespeople and everyone into managers. Hire accountants and let them do their jobs. Hire salespeople and let them do theirs. Same for engineers, production people—everyone. Sure, some folks may choose to move around in the orchestra, but most of our employees already have an area of interest and focus. When people play to their strengths, everyone wins.

It’s important to remember that conductors don’t actually produce music; they draw the most from each section—from a collection of people—without ever producing a note. And they do it with their backs to the audience. Their focus is on the musicians and what they need them to do, not on the adulation of the crowd. As a leader, you should have this same level of focus on your people as you encourage them to perform their best, leveraging their strengths. When you’ve focused on conducting and ensured that your “musicians” have played their best “music”, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be plenty of applause at the end.

While getting the best out of your people might be a large part of your role as a leader, I believe there are many other skills and tactics you’ll likely need to lead your company well. You can find these and other business tips in my book Joy and Success at Work. Check it out to find other ways to help your team make beautiful music together.

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