Engage Your Team with Questions, Not Answers

This article was originally published on Echelon Front’s Platoon Hut website.

For the last year I’ve been leading a weekly planning meeting of key staff who work to produce concerts at the Nashville Symphony.  Each concert or event has many details requiring coordination from several departments, and so the weekly meeting is valuable time together. Ever since I started leading the meeting, I struggled to find ways to engage staff more in discussion. I tried modifying the agenda, preparing more thoroughly and keeping myself informed of what was happening on the frontlines as much as possible so I could drive conversation.  Nothing I did was getting the full results I wanted from the group, which was to empower more effective discussion and maximize our valuable time together.

Recently, I was away at a week long conference, and missed a week’s worth of concerts.  I came to the weekly meeting feeling a bit concerned how disconnected I was from the office but curious how the concerts went.  Instead of me reporting out and driving the conversation like I always did, I asked lots of questions of the group: how did they feel it went? What worked? What should we remember for next time?   I didn’t have any of the answers and relied on them to fill in the blanks.

After the meeting was over, I was impressed with how the group really stepped up and engaged more fully in the conversation.  They offered up insightful feedback and the meeting was very helpful. What made the difference? And then it hit me – perhaps they didn’t speak up as much in the past because they didn’t need to – I did all the talking.  By being so concerned with staying connected to the details, I probably stifled the conversation because I thought I needed to have all the answers. Instead, I took a chance, let go and got out of the way. I used curiosity and inquiry to find out from them what really happened.  It worked, and I realized my team was ready to take ownership, I just needed give them the room to do so.

Interview about Leadership and Music

I, Sonja Winkler, was guest on a podcast recently where I was able to talk a lot about my career with orchestras.  If you are interested, take a listen!

Libsyn Link to Trooper Project Podcast Episode 11 – Sonja Winkler

iTunes Link to Trooper Project Podcast Episode 11 – Sonja Winkler

A Summary of How to “Lead and Win”

Ten years into my career, I came across a book entitled Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.  The authors are former Navy Seals that worked together in the most violent city in Iraq during 2006. They met many challenges during that deployment but the team was successful in drastically reducing the violence from insurgents towards the civilian population.  With the lessons they learned about leadership in combat, they started a company called Echelon Front in order to help businesses through leadership challenges.  

The title “Extreme Ownership” refers to a level of commitment each member of a team should have in ensuring the success of a mission. Challenges can be overcome when team members exhibit extreme ownership over their parts of the mission and work together to find solutions to get plans back on track.  When the mission succeeds, the team succeeds; when the mission fails, the leader has failed.  The book identifies two kinds of leaders: effective and ineffective.  The most important quality for a leader to possess in order to be effective is humility, which is the ability to accept that there are no bad teams, only bad leaders.

The book describes four principles that will help leaders and teams navigate challenges:

#1 Simple has to do with the mission of the team and communication.  The mission should be simple.  Communication of plans should be concise and clear.  The role of the leader to is ensure that the information is shared in a meaningful way. The responsibility of the team receiving information is to ask questions until they understand the end goal.

#2 Cover and Move is a tactical term for when one person is shooting while another person is moving to the next position.  For this maneuver to succeed, each person is active in their own role, aware of what the other person is doing and communicates as needed in order to take the next step. In Orchestra Operations, we can’t move onto our next position until we receive accurate information from other departments.  Likewise, other departments can’t move forward in some cases until we meet their needs.  

#3 Prioritize and Execute can be a method for working through the every day to do lists. In order to prioritize, we need to identify what is most critical and in order to execute we need to be active but aware of our surroundings in case we need to adjust.  This can also be an effective method to simplify tasks when there is overwhelming stress: relax, look around, make a call.

#4 Decentralized Command is a term that describes how everyone on the team is a leader in their own right and encourages leading up as well as down the chain of command. Leading up is reporting to your supervisor and asking clarifying questions, being your own best advocate for what you need.  Leading down is sharing clear and concise information to those relying on you for instructions, so that they fully understand the mission. Decentralized Command empowers leaders to take ownership over the problems and solutions in their realm, making complicated missions possible.  Each of us has the ability to lead up and down the chain of command.

After reading the book, I finally have a framework to work through challenges at work and home.  The core concepts are simple to remember but implementation is not always easy. I have found that as I push to excel as a leader, there are deeper nuances to each concept.   I will continue to make mistakes along the way but I believe each experience will only refine my definition of an effective leader.  

I would encourage every student and professional to read or listen to this book.  The stories are exciting to read, application is universal and there is an opportunity for life-long learning!

The Pursuit of World-Class Management Skills

When I started working full-time in Orchestra Operations at the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was an oboist fresh out of music school whom had worked a few basic office jobs.  I dreamed about being an orchestral oboist for much of my life, so it was thrilling to be part of a living, breathing orchestra.  My new office was at the concert hall where the orchestra performed and I was surrounded by music: Mahler, Debussy, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms.  It seemed I had found the next best career option for a young musician.  

The pace of a concert season is quick and ambitious: new programs every week rehearsed in one, two or three days.  As Operations Coordinator, I learned how to identify production needs of each program, discuss solutions with staff or musicians and communicate confirmed details to the stage crew.  It had been a long time since I started learning something new but weekly repetition of the concert production process helped me to improve quickly. A year’s worth of weekly concerts gave me confidence in day to day work and I was promoted to Operations Manager.  

After the promotion, it wasn’t long before I began struggling with the nuances of being a manager: communication was expected to be accurate and appropriate, solutions to problems were to be anticipated well in advance, creativity was necessary in making on the spot decisions.  I said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person in the wrong way.  I held the line in situations that needed flexibility and did not deal with new conflicts effortlessly.  Failure is humbling, especially in an environment that demands world-class excellence.  I wanted to quit but instead decided to combat the overwhelming stress with a few simple rules: don’t make the same mistake twice, ask lots of questions and listen to the answers.  

Month by month, I started to build a broader knowledge base and was thankful for the grace I was given by my colleagues.  I started to envision a new and ambitious goal: to become a world-class manager, inspired by the world-class musicians around me.  The standard that musicians hold for themselves is very high.  Their job requires them each to perform at the highest level every day.  Perfection in artistry is accomplished over decades of commitment and maintained through rigorous practice. I was decades behind them in expertise but I became devoted to an accelerated and meaningful training in Orchestra Operations.

I am proud to say I have progressed in many ways as a manager and leader over the last several years through my pursuit of excellence.  There are days where the road to my goal seems longer than before, but those few simple rules keep me teachable and devoted.  If you are a well accomplished musician considering a position in orchestra management, remember to approach the new skills required to be an effective manager with the same commitment and inspiration you do with your musical studies.  Orchestras need managers that are excellent leaders pursuing perfection in the artistry of management.  I can assure you the rewards of working for an orchestra are many and supporting music making is honorable.  Together we can ensure the music making continues for generations to come.