A Return to the Opera

In a recent post we were exploring what business leaders can learn from an opera conductor (The CEO and the Opera). Today let’s explore the second business leadership principle, courtesy of Conductor Ed Garner and the English National Opera as they rehearse for the upcoming Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.

Business Leadership Principle Number Two:  Feedback, Feedback and more Feedback

One of the biggest challenges facing the CEO of any sized business is getting accurate and timely feedback on the state of the business.  Financial information is usually the most easily obtainable, but tends to be a lagging indicator and not that useful for making forward-looking decisions.  More useful, but more difficult to come by is feedback from customers and clients, employees actually delivering the work. Equally difficult is feedback about how the various functions are performing (Engineering, Manufacturing, Sales, HR, Quality, Marketing) in relation to the overall strategic objectives.

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. -Ken Blanchard

Let’s watch an opera rehearsal and see what we can learn. During a normal 3 hour rehearsal the conductor calls for frequent breaks, some short, only five minutes, some longer.  While it may look like it’s to give the cast and orchestra a breather, it’ really for the conductor to get feedback.

Sitting in the stalls, upper boxes and on the sides of the stage are several production assistants who, with score in hand, watch everything.  At the first sign of a break, they all rush down and que up to speak with the conductor.  In this quick exchange of one after another the conductor is getting feedback about every aspect of the production and using this feedback to help him guide the musicians, singers and cast.

He gets feedback on where someone should be standing so the audience can both see and hear fully. Feedback as to when the orchestra interferes with the action on stage or drowns out the lead soprano.  Dozens of bits of “nearly” real-time feedback are used by the conductor and evaluated against his intimate knowledge of the performance and the score.  As a result, over a relatively short few days of rehearsal, the conductor is able to fine tune the performance for excellence.

Now, let’s go to a typical senior staff meeting. Most are monthly, some conducted weekly for an hour with everyone dialing in. In most cases these staff interactions are very inefficient (and boring – just ask most senior executives, not just those who have to get up at 3am to be on the call). The meeting rarely gets  through the entire agenda and most of the time is taken up with one or two cost or customer issues that seem to hijack the overall agenda. In this format the CEO has very little visibility as to how the functions are performing or working together and almost no real-time feedback on how the individuals and the company are performing.  And most of the metrics that are available are at least 4-6 weeks old by the time they get up to the corner office.

The opera conductor has created a version of Line-of-Sight feedback using key staff at key positions in the concert hall.  It is also possible for a CEO to get nearly “real-time” Line-of-Sight feedback on various aspects of the company, but it requires a change in how frequently and what types of data the senior staff and functions report.  As an example, Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford Motor Company receives metrics and performance data from all parts of the Ford global organisation in a 2 1/2-hour period every week.  That’s right,  every week.  That’s definitely closer to “real-time” than the monthly reports of most companies.  As a result, like Ed Gardner of the ENO, Alan Mulally and his leadership team are able to make quicker, better informed decisions as they work to bring Ford Motor Company back from the brink of near bankruptcy.

How often and what type of business feedback does your senior team use to run their business and make decisions?  Next time you are amazed at the flawless performance of an opera, think about frequent, nearly real-time feedback as one of the key reasons.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E | john@johnrchildress.com      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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