There is an old “music” joke that goes:
Who is that guy standing around with the musicians?
The bass player.
I know this joke because I am a bass player; or rather I try to be a bass player. I took many years of lessons. I have studied, understand and appreciate much of music theory. I practice. I am committed. I have worked to try and turn myself into a serviceable bass player. I enjoy all of it. There is only one thing holding me back from being a truly outstanding bass player.
I have only a modicum of musical talent. I understand this, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I love to play. It just makes me want to work at it that much harder. I take what I have and try to get the most I can out of it. Whether it is rehearsing with the band or playing on stage at the last jazz festival, I really like doing what I am doing. The challenge to perform is always there.
I have seen real musicians. Those with real talent. Their ability to learn, play and adapt to the music is amazing. The ease with which they play and perform is amazing. If at all possible, I always try to be in organizations (bands) where I am challenged to play and perform with those that are more talented than I am. Playing with musicians that are more talented than I am has made me in turn a better musician as well.
I once asked the leader of one of those bands that I played in why he selected me as the bassist when there were other bassists with more talent available to him. His response has stuck with me.
He said that sometimes it wasn’t all about talent. There also had to be a commitment and that sometimes the level of commitment could outweigh the level of talent. He said not to get him wrong and that there had to be a reasonable level of talent and ability, but those that work hard and are committed can also perform to very high levels in the right environment. He was looking at the overall sound, arrangement and structure of the band, not just the talent level of each of the members.
I was very pleased to hear this as it gave me additional impetus to continue to work hard, and practice in the effort to improve.
So what does this story about my musical aspirations and talent level have to do with business? I think it points out that there are multiple dimensions to the structure of a business team, just as there are to a musical combo. While talent and aptitude are key components of each team member’s makeup, there are others, such as commitment, that come into play when assessing the team.
This band leader had recognized that there was both a minimum acceptable talent level he was looking for and a commitment level that he wanted. Once we had all demonstrated that we all had the requisite skill levels, with some having more than others, it became a question of other less definable considerations to be associated with the selection process. When you think about it, business operates in much the same way.
A while ago I noted how many of the military leaders throughout our history were not necessarily identified as the most talented or smartest members of their respective military training academies. Yet somehow they advanced to the highest levels of their selected disciplines ahead of those that were at least initially more highly regarded and supposedly more talented. Again all of them obviously had the requisite skill levels, but it was something else that enabled those with supposedly less talent to advance.
I am also a professional hockey fan. I was not particularly a hockey fan when I was younger, but have become much more so a fan as I have grown to understand the game. I now regard the game as an elegant combination of speed and skill where those that may not be genetically selected specifically because of their height or size (as in some other professional sports) can compete.
I just recently read an article written by a hockey scout on what they look for when they are scouting young hockey players as potential draft choices or future professional hockey players. Again some level of talent is always a minimum required baseline, but what they said they looked for in a hockey prospect was what they called the “compete level”. How hard did the skate? How hard did they work? How hard did they battle in competitive situations? Did they take it easy sometimes or did they play hard all the time?
This again sounded suspiciously like assessing their commitment level. They wanted to know if the prospect was getting by on just their talent level or did they also try to outwork the competition? Having the talent and ability to succeed does not necessarily mean you have the desire to compete at such a level in order to succeed. When the time comes and you face a competitor with a similar talent level it will be some other factor, such as commitment that will decide the outcome.
Business, sports and even music are all competitive structures. As you progress through each of them there is a continual selection process that goes on. The further you go, the higher the talent level of all participants, and it becomes something else that separates the participants.
In music you start out at the very lowest levels as a beginner. You take lessons and work at it and practice. If you have talent, stay with it and play well enough you can get to play at amateur and even professional levels. It can be a lot of fun. It is for me at least. It is the rare talent that gets combined with the proper level of high commitment that makes music that is played on the radio, or gets to play for the large paying audiences.
In hockey you start out in the minor leagues or in schools, and again it is the rare combination of talent and “compete level” that get combined that enable the player to progress through the various levels of minor leagues and make it to the highest levels of professional hockey. It is interesting in that there are players in the league that are recognized for their talent levels, and there are players that are recognized for their compete level, and there are very, very few that are recognized for both.
In business the progression from entry level to business leader also has several different levels of responsibility that you must pass through. At each level there is an almost requisite talent level that all participants must have, otherwise they would not be there. It is here that their commitment or “compete level” will begin to differentiate them. Can they get the job done? Do they get the job done? Why or why not?
It has been my experience that much of this commitment level manifests itself in the level of preparation that an individual brings to their assignment. Have they done the preparatory work? Can they anticipate and prepare an answer to the questions that they will invariably be asked?
As I have noted in the past, I see several parallels between music and business. In music my commitment level drives me to practice rehearse and prepare so that when the time comes to step on the stage in front of an audience, I can be confident in my performance. In business it is the preparation and ground work that are the manifestation of this type of commitment. Anyone can step to the front of the room and present slides to the audience, but it is those that are committed that have taken the time to understand and anticipate the questions and the next steps that are confident in their performance.
Despite all the practice and preparation, I still get a little nervous every time I go up in front of an audience. I don’t suspect that I will ever lose that.