Five Talent Management Lessons from a High School Music Program

The local music program in our High School is exceptionally good.  It is recognized as one of the best programs in the state of Wisconsin.  The wind symphony has traveled broadly and won regional, national and international competitions.

Every June for the last six years, as my kids made their way through the music program, I’d see another large group of extremely talented seniors graduate and leave the music program.  Every year my wife and I wondered aloud, “How will Mr. K [the music director] ever fill those shoes?  Next year’s wind symphony will never be as good as this year’s.”

And every following year at the senior honors concert in May, my wife and I say, “these kids are incredible; this might be the best wind symphony ever.”

This June after I watched my son’s last concert I had an “a-ha” moment…

Mr. K is a great band director not just because of his musical and teaching ability; he is a brilliant talent manager as well.  The more I thought about it, the clearer it became.  He MUST be exceptionally good at this in order to put a quality product out year after year.  It’s as critical to his success as his functional (musical & teaching) knowledge and skill.

I thought about it for a few days, and eventually had a conversation with Mr. K about this.  I came up with a few lessons that I believe everyone can understand:

Lesson 1: Have a sense of urgency

“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”  – Gen. George C. Patton

Despite the long history of success, Mr. K knows,” All glory is fleeting.”  His continued success, his reputation, perhaps even his job depend on him keeping the pipeline full of talent.  This is not a nice-to-do, for him, this is a MUST do!

Realize that your continued success and perhaps your job depend on how well you manage talent.  All glory is fleeting.  Make talent management the priority it should be.

Lesson 2: Know your team’s current strengths

Mr. K knows what the strengths of each musical unit is and who the top talent is.  He understands what they bring to the whole, i.e., the pieces that the wind symphony would not be able to play without them.  For example, a piece with a challenging percussion part that they would not attempt unless the talent was there to execute.

Do you know who your top talent is?  I.e., who are the key players who enable you to fulfill your mission?  Try to imagine what would be different if they were not there.  How would this change your team’s ability to deliver?

Lesson 3: Know your future talent needs

Mr. K is always looking 2 and 3 years ahead considering who will play which instruments when his top talent moves on.  He knows now that he will lose an English horn player in two years and is grooming 2-3 people to fill that slot.

Are you thinking that your top talent will stay with you forever?  Imagine that they will leave in a year?  How would that impact your ability to deliver?  Who will step into their places? What are you doing about it?

Lesson 4: Know your talent pipeline

Mr. K does not wait to assess incoming freshmen when they arrive at the high school.  He works closely with the music faculty in the whole district, looking into talent at the middle school and even at the elementary schools.  He is not only tracking musical ability, but attitude – dedication, flexibility and motivation.

Do you know where your talent comes from?  Where will it come from?  Are you talking to other managers in your own organization about growth opportunities for your people?  Are you partnered with human resources?  I’ll bet the better managers in your organization have an eye on your talent.  I’ll bet outside recruiters in the area do too.  It’s time to get in the game.

Lesson 5: Nurture your talent

Mr. K sets the bar high. He’s very demanding.  It takes an adjustment that some kids can’t make.  But he is also completely dedicated to their success and demonstrates every day that he cares deeply about his students.

Do you know what makes someone on your team succeed and others fall short?  Do you set high expectations, and enable your team to achieve them?  Do you show your team that you genuinely care about their success?

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric used to say that he allocated a third of his time to developing talent.  To many, that seems like an unrealistically high percentage of his time, but that’s what people who are serious about talent management really do.   They pass the calendar audit – they actually spend the time on the things that they say are important to them.

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