Memo to Leaders: Get a licence to orchestrate

Speaking with renowned Australian conductor, Richard Gill, Cognizant Digital Partner Steve Lennon found that the subtle skills he uses with a group of musicians to create exquisite music have relevance for modern-day business leaders.

In large enterprises today, we have a lot going on. At multiple levels, across many domains, we need to simultaneously design and execute an evolving change agenda in a coordinated way, without disrupting existing customer service and operations –like undergoing a heart-lung transplant while running a marathon.

Over the past three decades, management gurus, leading academics and best-selling authors have offered us a range of tools and methods to help us master the challenge of change. The list is too long to repeat in full here, but they include ‘big ideas’ like Total Quality Management, Business Reengineering and Lean/Six Sigma, followed by their more recent counterparts Design Thinking, Lean Start-up and Enterprise Agile.

Yet, as we chart our digital transformation journey ahead – aiming to expand our business ecosystem, network our systems of record, engagement and intelligence, choreograph personalised customer experiences, lead amorphous, agile teams and continually reinvent ourselves to stay relevant – our change survival toolkit remains sadly incomplete.

The other day my wife was listening to one of her most favourite pieces of music – Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach Cello Suite No.1 in G Major. This got me thinking about how one such sublime player can coordinate with hundreds of others in an orchestral performance. The answer is the conductor. Luckily for me, I was able to pursue this train of thought by arranging a conversation with Richard Gill, one of Australia’s pre-eminent conductors, who has worked with every major Australian orchestra.

Conducting ain’t what it used to be

The first thing Richard points out is that conducting is actually fairly new. From the year 800 onwards, through the Baroque period for example, a musician led the players in an orchestra or ensemble (if anyone did) – often the lead violinist.

From around the time of Beethoven (1812), the first conductors as we know them began to appear. As orchestras started to become more stable teams from the 1850s onwards, resident in a city or a cultural institution, a truly scary breed of conductor ‘tyrants’ emerged. Among them were George Szell (1897 – 1970), the Hungarian-born Jewish-American conductor and composer, Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957), the Italian maestro and Herbert von Karajan (1908 – 1989), the German top-selling classical music recording artist.

Some of these conductors were musical virtuosos in their own right; others from a more managerial background as music directors. Either way, they created an environment of palpable fear, ruling their players with an iron fist and a sharp tongue, often belittling them for the smallest of musical faux pas.

This part of Richard’s story immediately resonated with me. We have had many unashamedly autocratic business leaders over the years, even though some might contest such categorization. More famous ones such as ‘Neutron Jack’ Welch (in his earlier years), Leona ‘Queen of Mean’ Helmsley of Helmsley Hotels fame, Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap, Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, Rupert Murdoch – and many I have encountered in my long consulting career, who shall remain nameless for the moment.

The conductor’s art began to evolve from the 1960s, when a new generation of more ‘humanist’ professionals took on the baton:

  • Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014), a much admired Italian who players were eager to gather around in orchestral solidarity
  • Sir Simon Denis Rattle OM CBE (b. 1955), the English conductor who likes to make musicians and audiences feel that he and they are all in it together
  • Riccardo Muti (b. 1941), a famous disciplinarian with a wicked sense of humour, constantly making orchestras laugh
  • Riccardo Chailly (b. 1953), mentored by Claudio Abbado, who says that “the orchestra is a human instrument that needs a great deal of care daily. Try to contain their own artistic views and qualities into your interpretation.”
  • Simone Young AM (b. 1961) an Australian who believes in building “an intimate level of communication and trust … but you cannot waste emotional energy on worrying about being liked: you have to focus on the music”

While Richard is reticent to place himself among them, his own style has been informed by these more modern greats, rather than the tyrants.

Likewise, in business we have seen an evolution towards more of a Captain/Coach archetype, who has chosen to lead through influence and inspiration, rather than mere instruction. Michael Chaney, Gail Kelly, Atlassian’s founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, Ann Sherry and David Gonski come to mind. They recognise the profound impact of creating an over-arching purpose, strategic context and constructive culture, rather than exercising their position of power alone.

More to it than meets the eye (and ear)

Richard happily admits that many of the players may be brighter or better musicians than he. His approach is to retain a discrete professional distance from his players – most often being their Music Director – listening to the views of individuals, pooling that knowledge for everyone’s benefit and creating a space in which everyone can be inspired to be their best. He aims to build mutual respect with his players as humans, and on the strength of their professional competence, caring for them while not needing to be loved.

While the audience might see somewhat of a ‘mad scientist’ on a podium, gesturing gracefully and at times furiously with a slender baton, Richard explained that during a performance it is the conductor’s task to:

  1. Sustain the appropriate tempo
  2. Flag upcoming changes in the musical direction
  3. Create marks of expression to emphasise key musical phrases
  4. Connect the players to each other and the whole team

He says the conductor must know the musical score inside-out, by heart. In fact, if a conductor or player is looking at the score, he believes it is not possible they can be listening deeply enough. Richard firmly believes listening is in fact the most fundamental ingredient to making beautiful music.

He believes that every rehearsal must have a singular purpose, focusing on a particular phrase or player(s), aiming to iron out specific wrinkles, rather than simply doing a piece over again.

In providing feedback he recognises that, most often, a talented player will already be aware of their error. Richard will deliver the feedback without fear or favour, directly to the player(s) concerned, and often with a touch of humour. He may jokingly reproach an off note as being a bit “comment va votre père”, his French version of the Australian chip “a bit how’s your father”. He avoids nit-picking about small errors of little consequence; he focuses on how to help the players be the best they can collectively be.

What does the art of conducting mean for the job of leadership?

For the ‘meaning-making’ style of modern-day CEOs, the four key tasks Richard describes will be instantly recognisable. Sustaining the pace and momentum for change, clear articulation of evolving strategic direction rather than a series of sudden upheavals, celebration of defining moments in the transformation journey and building a cohesive team that stands for each other’s success. They’d also agree with getting the purpose and strategy so clear that people across the company have taken it to heart, and act in accordance with it in every interaction with customers and one another.

Yet too often in business we resort to openly criticizing one another, frequently focusing on the likeability of personalities rather than the possibility of ideas, and playing the game of one-upmanship. Rarely do we conduct focused rehearsals, where we take the time to listen to a wide range of views in a safe environment where they can be fearlessly expressed for the good of all. The truth is that building a culture of deep listening and constructive feedback remains on the ‘to do’ list for many in corporate leadership roles.

Richard also points out that conductors must not get too complacent or sure of themselves in their role. Frequently, an orchestra will invite a guest conductor to take up the baton, giving the team a fresh perspective and an opportunity to be stretched and tested in new ways. Imagine if we as leaders could achieve a level of leadership where a qualified yet unfamiliar guest could step into our shoes and still enable the team to deliver a sublime performance.

Ready to take up the baton?

My suggestion for business leaders is to set about securing a ‘licence to orchestrate’. This requires mastery of a set of soft skills, recognising that leaders need to stop taking up space at the centre of conversation, and start creating spaces in which talented people can do great work together. These subtle skills include:

  • Strategic storytelling, that enables strategy to be translated from the language of the Board, analysts and CFO into a compelling, meaningful narrative that guides decision-making and action across the enterprise
  • Building an authentic sense of possibility and achievement, where people feel inspired to invest their full energies in pursuit of the organisation’s purpose, sustaining pace and momentum for change
  • Culture building and alignment skills, to create a safe workspace where high performance is inspired, and constructive mindsets and attitudes carefully nurtured, to consistently produce the behaviours our chosen strategy calls for
  • Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce, where feedback can be given and received without fear or favour, and fresh perspectives given a fair hearing, to enable to organisation to sense and respond to the changing word in which we operate
  • Good governance and change management disciplines, focused on creating context and processes to orchestrate our evolving change agenda in a coordinated way, enabling teams to anticipate key integration points and cross-dependencies, rather than rely on survival of the fittest (or loudest)

Your licence to orchestrate will need to be gifted to you by your teams at large, and your bosses above. They’ll need to be confident that by letting go of the reins you can create the loose/tight environment in which peak performance can be sustained. It will take some practice, and a bit of trial and error along the way. Nonetheless, I’m sure you will find orchestration of your transformation journey way more successful with a conductor’s baton in mind, than doggedly hanging on to your organisation’s steering wheel and hoping for the best.


Richard Gill – Biography

Richard Gill (b. 1941) is an Australian conductor of choral, orchestral and operatic works. In 1994 Richard was honoured for his services to music with an Order of Australia medal and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Western Australia. He received the Bernard Heinze Award for ‘Services to Music in Australia’ in 1999, a Classical Music Award for ‘Distinguished Contribution to the Advancement of Australian Music in Education’ in 2004 and the Don Banks Music Award in 2006.

Richard is the founding Music Director and Conductor Emeritus of Victorian Opera, and Artistic Director of the Education Program for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He has been Artistic Director of OzOpera, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, and Adviser for the Musica Viva In Schools program.


About the Author

Steve Lennon is Digital Partner for Manufacturing, Logistics, Energy & Utilities, leading strategic engagement with Cognizant’s Australian clients in these sectors. Through a holistic approach that addresses strategy, people, process, data and systems, he helps harness the power of technology to drive business innovation. His  unique skillset, acquired through investment banking, technology, management consulting, creative agency and executive leadership roles in Australia, the US and Europe, allows him to see multiple ways to create value for Cognizant’s clients. Steve is also an accomplished author and public speaker.