My years teaching piano privately have taught me many interesting and surprising things, none more than the unique perspective on being a manager in a business setting.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that anyone can learn music. While you probably won’t be the next Mozart if you’re in your thirties and have never tried to play an instrument before, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn to play for your own enjoyment, and maybe even for the pleasure of your family and friends. Similarly, I believe everyone can succeed in various roles in their career if they are willing to put in the effort.
There is often a debate about whether strengths can be learnt or if talent and natural ability is what actually matters. While I believe there is a large contribution to success from personality and natural strengths, I also firmly believe that effort combined with the right method and manager/teacher can result in improving existing skills or adding new ones.
Desire to Improve
My number one requirement for taking on a new student was whether the child or adult actually wanted to learn the piano. For this reason, I rarely accepted young students, because so often it was the desire of the parent that generally dominates their children’s musical pursuits. When a new student brings enthusiasm to their lessons and thus has the motivation and interest to achieve as much as possible, it was also both easier and more enjoyable to teach.
In business, there will always be people who have little desire to be in their current role, or to improve themselves at that role, or have no ambitions to progress further. That is absolutely fine. But in the case of helping to coach an employee to take a step forward, the potential for success is mostly determined by the desire of the employee to put forth the effort to get there.
The responsibility of the manager here is to find what motivates each employee, because it will be very different. The easiest situations are those where the employee is seeking a promotion, because you have a clear goal and can map out what they need to improve, practice, and benchmarks that need to be reached to achieve this. Often, stability is more of a motivating factor; sometimes it is internal recognition or financial rewards that an employee responds to. In every case, it pays to take the time to work with the employee to understand what they want to achieve - sometimes in life more than work - and why.
The second most influential factor over a budding pianist’s potential is their attitude towards practice. You simply cannot learn an instrument without putting in the daily practice hours required.
Translating practice into the business world is more challenging, but it is important for an employee to have the willingness to participate in deliberate activities designed to improve their performance. For the manager, the challenge is helping the employee find opportunities to use whatever skill needs work. If presentations need to improve, organise meetings with presentations within the team, or to a different department, or by monitoring client presentations. Negotiations within sales are another classic opportunity to role-play, as is studying call recordings.
The last critical part of improving a skill is constructive feedback from an expert. In music, this is clear, you have a teacher who has much more experience at both playing and teaching, and he or she is able to provide specific, actionable feedback on the student’s performance on a regular basis. This is also the situation that is the hardest to recreate in business. There has to be a level of trust that is not as automatic as one between the teacher-child or professor-university student; a manager usually needs to earn the right to give feedback, and create an environment in the team where this is welcomed. However, once that is established, the challenge then shifts to knowing how to give constructive feedback - which, ironically, is a skill that most managers need to practice! Being able to critique performance - whether it is public speaking, communication with clients, or preparing a slide deck - takes time and commitment to the craft of being a helpful instructor. It also requires balance, it is as important to be able to recognise opportunities for instruction as it is to know when employees need to have freedom so they feel empowered to do their job, rather than micro-managed.
Value of investing in your team
Making the deliberate choice to adopt the role of teacher or coach is something not many people are willing to do in a managerial role. But if you do put in the effort yourself, you will see the investment pay off through having an engaged, thriving, improving team that work individually to achieve their goals and collectively to achieve the departmental goals.