Vail Daily column: Running a business is like playing a harmonica
Like many of us that live in the Vail Valley, we welcomed a steady stream of friends and family members into our home during the holidays. With great snow and an unbelievable choice of mountain activities, our house was a magnet for renewing new and old relationships. This year, we invited an old college buddy of mine, Gary, to spend a few days with our family. While Gary and I are the same age, his life 30-plus years post-college is the complete opposite of everything I’ve pursued since we graduated. Having never been married, Gary remains single, lives in LA and plays harmonica is his own band. I often wonder if the stark contrast in our life paths is what makes us great friends.
Learning To Play
As Gary shared with us, an important part of his life includes bringing the gift of music to emotionally or physically disadvantaged children around the world. Through Harmonikids, an organization he founded 20 years ago, Gary estimates he’s taught 60,000 kids to play the harmonica. Being a skilled music teacher, Gary decided to take on the dubious challenge of teaching our family how to play a few Christmas carols on the harmonica. Handing out bright, shiny, new harmonicas to each of us, Gary explained how the harmonica works, where to place your hands, fingers and mouth. Given a piece of sheet music with numbers instead of notes, we overachievers immediately began “playing” our harmonicas. Sounding nothing like music, several times Gary asked us to stop and listen until he was finished giving us direction.
Once he had our attention (and silence), we spent time understanding how to read and play the notes to “Silent Night.” After a few minutes and a bit of patience, we were now ready to take a stab at playing the song together. “On my count, I want all of us to begin playing together,” Gary instructed. Of course, even though we all waited for the count of three, our playing pace and ability to find each note was wildly out of sync so even though we started at the same time, it still sounded like a bunch of noise. Ever patient and experienced with thousands of kids, Gary confidently took us through it three or four more times until we seemed to have it down and the song sounded remotely like the Christmas carol we were attempting to play. Throughout the course of the next few days, my youngest daughter, inspired by Gary, continued to practice and soon could play the tune from memory.
Parallels with Business
This experience with Gary got me thinking about the parallels between leading an organization or running a business and teaching people, as Gary does, to play the harmonica. A few things stood out for me.
• Training: How much time do we spend training people how to do their job well? When was the last time we provided training? People’s memories are short (and I’m realizing mine is shorter now that I’m over 50!). Have we provided training to keep their skills sharp? If they aren’t performing well (which we initially weren’t with Gary), then I’d argue they still need more training.
• Direction: How clear are we about the specifics of what we want to accomplish and how we want to accomplish it? If we asked, then could someone repeat it back to us clearly and concisely?
• Goals and planning: Are we playing the same song? Do people know the notes? Do we have a business plan to help us all play off the same sheet of music? If you’re not sure, then the answer is probably “no”.
• Practice: How often do we practice to improve? By practice, I don’t mean on “live” customers or clients. By practice I mean as a team or organization. Do we regularly help each other improve our skills?
• Feedback: If we want to change behavior or improve performance, then giving feedback positively and constructively will be critical to changing behavior. Changing behavior is the first step to improving results. How often are we catching people doing things right and reinforcing the positive behavior?
The new year is only a few weeks old. If we want the end of 2015 to be different than the end of 2014, then we have to start doing some things differently now in order to get better results. Begin asking yourself and your organization the questions I’ve listed above to identify any critical lapses and develop a strategy to close the gaps. If you want your firm or team to be playing sweet music together, then identify, plan and start working together today.
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and president-distribution for Think2Perform, a consulting firm designed to help businesses and individuals achieve sustained optimal performance. He can be reached at 970-926-0841 or email@example.com.