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Team Training Needs to be like Music Lessons

My humble set up. Love my Taylor guitar and the discipline of practice and working toward mastery.

My humble set up. Love my Taylor guitar and the discipline of practice and working toward mastery.

Team Training as Music Lessons

If you really want your team training to make a difference . . . fashion them after music lessons . . . not school.

Remember music lessons? You go, have a 30 minute “lesson,” get your assignment, and go home to practice, hopefully daily, some exercise, technique or mastering a piece of music. Similar, but critically different, than the experience of school—at least as I experienced it—where much of the time the focus was on imparting information—through a lecture for example—where the goal was to master content and demonstrate that through regurgitating it on a test. (BTW: I realize that modern didactic approaches are trying to address this singular approach . . . through recognizing different learning styles and more comprehensive teaching processes . . . but let’s allow the simple duality for the same of drawing, what I think is, an important distinction.)

Two Distinct Approaches

Think about the differences in these two approaches . . .

Music Lessons Classroom

Focus is on skill acquisition. Focus on imparting information.

Short, repetitive instruction and daily practice. Lectures, homework and testing.

Narrow focus: scale, song, technique. Broad focus: history, terminology, theory

Emphasis on practice. Emphasis on teaching.

Outcome: improved skills. Outcome: content mastery.

Moving from “School” to “Lessons”

To often, team training is modeled more on a “school” platform instead of a “music lesson” style. I worked for a time for an organization that had an internal “university” for training. Once a month, the managers would get together for training and typically it was some form of “telling us” about something that would help us do our jobs. At best, it was a way to get a break from the daily grind, conduct business during breaks with our colleagues, and impart some . . . some . . . useful information. Many saw it as a “requirement” and generally a waste of time. Did we walk away with new skills? Rarely.

Supervisors and managers are in their positions precisely because they have skills. But that does not mean they have reached mastery. Like a musician or artisan, the skill building process is on-going because every new situation requires the application of skills in a new way. Just like each piece of music is different and the student has to learn how to apply their talent to performing that particular composition.

Practice . . . and Mastery . . . and Superior Performance

Yo-Yo Ma, the world renown cellist, said, “The goal of practicing is to achieve a freedom of the mind that enables one to physically do whatever they want to do. Careful practicing eventually allows one the freedom to be spontaneous, to react onstage to the moment.” I also heard this virtuoso in a live interview once comment that if he missed a day of practice, he would notice. If he missed two days, his teacher would notice. If he missed three days, the audience would notice.

Yo-Yo Ma, Wikipedia

Yo-Yo Ma, Wikipedia

How many leaders dedicate themselves to continuous skill development? How many organizations allow for, or prioritize skill development, as a goal for leaders? In my experience, not many.

Two stand out in my experience. One provided their “point person” to take several weeks each summer for continuous training. Another limited the role of their leader to one primary task in order to have them continue to develop a high degree of skill in that task. In both cases, the results were spectacular. Those two leaders excelled in their roles and it was clear why. The organizational support for their practicing and mastering their talks was remarkable.

Organizations have come to understand the need. They provide coaches, they allow time for continuing education, they promote leadership development. But few, really have a clear focus on creating a “music lesson” mentality and a consistent focus on specific skill development. The well-documented decline in interpersonal skills in the age of social media and virtual relationships among younger cohorts of leaders makes this need an urgent focus for the future of leadership in organizations.

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Work to live . . . or work and live?

Unsplash Photo: Credit to Laura Lafurgey-Smith

Unsplash Photo: Credit to Laura Lafurgey-Smith


A recent Gallup publication identified a number of "changing traits" of today's employees; including:

  • They want their work to have meaning and purpose.
  • They want to use their talents and strengths to do what they do best every day.
  • They want to learn and develop.
  • They want their job to fit their life.
  • And they're willing to look for a company whose mission and culture reflect and reinforce their values. (Gallup: State of the American Workplace preview)

For some of us from earlier cohorts--the Baby Boomer generation in my case--most of these items are familiar, motivations that we would have embraced as young people. In fact, it is only the last two that seem to represent a real change. There does seem to be a shift in focus that could be characterized as a move from an attitude of "work to live" toward a construct of "live and work." The choices--and demands--that younger workers are making, combined with the changing skill-set needed in the workplace today, is definitely revolutionizing many corporate policies and practices.

Yet, I can't help wondering if these younger workers have "jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire." Yes, they are getting a "Pixar--Google" work culture, unlimited vacation, remote work . . . and lots of other perks to help fit work into their lives. Corporations continue efforts of "going green," becoming "For Benefit Corporations," and embracing a corporate activism unheard of in the past. But many of these "youngsters" are, never-the-less, still dependent upon a corporate culture which will effect their experiences with all the bullet items above.

So . . . What happens when their particular market sector turns down? What happens when the demand for their skill-set falls? What if the political winds change? Who really controls the satiation of their needs and wants?

It may be "old fashioned" but it seems that the surest way to have control of these factors is to embrace the idea of being your own boss. It be sure, being your own boss, especially in the early days may mean that the job "controls your life" instead of fitting into your life. Many entrepreneurs report working 90 or more hours a week in the critical early days of a start up. Stress management, anxiety, and security can be big challenges. The job at this early stage may not fit at all into the life that a young person dreams of having. But, in the long run, it may still be the most reliable means of providing a level of freedom and life-fit unattainable when working for someone else.

But, this is not easy for many people. Accepting responsibility for your own "fate" requires a willingness to face one's own demons. No longer can you blame a lack of work-life balance on the capitalist system, corporate self-interest, or a boss's lack of understanding or empathy. For now you are the boss, the corporation, the capitalist.

This quickly brings you to deal with another level of personal "demons."

Do you like to avoid issues? You may be forced to face them. Do you face issues but react with anger or feeling overwhelmed or defeated? You may have to find more adaptive ways to cope. It is a journey that will test you, challenging your real values, your personal integrity, your tolerance for risk, your prioritizing your responsibilities, as well as your need for meaning and creating something of value. It can be quite a ride.

In some ways, being your own boss is like a taking a canoe trip down the "rapids" . . . where at times you feel like everything but you is in control. But being your own boss is a trip in which, at least, you get to choose the river you travel, the companions you invite along, and the benefits of sharing the experience.

If you are a leader, check out our free eBook: Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.