Archive for communication

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 I’m Talking, But You Aren’t Listening!Have you ever been in this situation? You’re in a meeting where a decision is on the table. Unfortunately, there is a conflict standing between certain members of the team (perhaps you are one of them) and a truly solid decision. The issue has been discussed for some time, but no resolution seems forthcoming. The talking seems to be going nowhere. Or perhaps this variation: You and your intimate partner — or perhaps your child — are embroiled in a conflict. You’re doing your best to explain how you feel about it — and it’s very important to you that they understand your point of view. But no matter how carefully you choose your words, the other person seems to get more and more committed to their point of view and less and less interested in yours.

No matter what the situation, it’s extremely frustrating when we don’t feel heard. Particularly when we take great care to choose our words carefully, manage the conflict skillfully, and manage our emotions with maturity and sensitivity. What more can we possibly do to turn the situation around? Why in the world is the other person or parties involved not responding to our efforts?!

Words are Often Overrated

We live in a primarily verbal society. We rely on words to communicate almost entirely — whether those words be spoken or written (which includes texting). You’re reading this newsletter. You likely email dozens of times in the course of a day. You speak and speak. And it is very important that we learn to communicate effectively when it comes to words. Without the ability to communicate our ideas clearly and passionately — so that others get excited about them — we lose the ability to connect with others and gain support for our plans.

However, there are times when we need to stop talking and choose something else. And there are two something elses I would like you to try this month:

  1. Active listening.
  2. Physically changing your position while remaining silent.

Active Listening

If you’ve taken any management, coaching, counseling, or parenting courses, you’ve likely been exposed to the skill of active listening. The question is, do you choose to utilize your knowledge when it counts? It’s easy to engage in active listening when we like what we’re hearing, or when we’re in a “coaching mindset.” It’s not so easy to do this when we’re smack in the middle of our very own personal or professional conflict. But that is just the time when this skill will be the most valuable. To review, active listening is the ability to step into the other person’s shoes and not just hear the words, but also really understand what they are saying from their perspective. Then, using that understanding, we reflect back what we’re hearing and ask for clarification to make sure we’ve received the message accurately. To take this skill to the next level, we can add comments that reflect our understanding of their emotional experience, such as “that must be very frustrating” or “anyone in that situation would feel angry — no wonder you’ve taken no action on this (if that is the case).” If they correct us, there is no need to take it personally; we are gaining greater clarity as to what their experience really is. Simply thank them for clarifying and continue to reflect back. You can prompt with questions such as “what else is happening?” or “is there more?”. You may be surprised to discover that there is, in fact, more that has built up over time.

The value of active listening is that once the other person feels truly heard, you will likely have some new information about the situation to consider for yourself. Perhaps you didn’t have the whole picture before. You may even choose to alter your original plan due to the additional information you now have. In addition, it is much easier to motivate and inspire others when they feel heard. It is almost impossible to do so by talking alone because until we have heard them, we don’t really know what their concerns and issues are, so how can we motivate and inspire them anyway?

If you would like to increase your skills in active listening, contact us. Coaching can help you build your listening skills for any situation.

Physically changing your position can change everything

When we are stuck emotionally and mentally, we are almost always stuck physically in some way as well. We hold our breath. We stop moving. This is part of the fight or flight response that is built into our physiology. No matter how much we try to get unstuck in our thinking or our feelings, there are times when what we really need to do is get unstuck in our bodies first. So, stop talking and start moving! Get up and take a short walk. Stretch. Take several deep breaths. If you’re in a meeting, just get up and walk around the room. Change your seat at the table if you can. Invite everyone to get up and move around the room and then come back to the table. If you’re at home, go outside for a few minutes. Ask your partner or child to table the conversation for a few minutes (set a time limit) and take a “body break” — meaning that you both go do something physical. Run up and down the stairs a few times. Do a downward facing dog or a few jumping jacks.

You will be very surprised by how shifting your body can shift your thinking and feeling. It can sometimes feel to me as if I literally was stuck in a certain way of thinking or feeling because my body was stuck in a certain posture or position. Once I change that, my brain releases itself to try on something new. Remember, we are not our brains. We are whole body beings. So, make use of that whole body intelligence and see what new things start to happen for you.

Next newsletter, I’ll follow up with this article. I wonder what new things you will have tried by then? I wonder what you will discover if you try BOTH techniques in one situation? Write to me and let me know about your results. I love hearing from you.

Life Strategies

What I’m reading now

Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters (Phillip C. Mcgraw, Ph.D.): You probably know him as Dr. Phil, and many people I speak with aren’t fond of his TV persona. While I would have to agree with that opinion, I have to confess that his no-nonsense approach to addressing common excuses for NOT taking action is very effective. Even coaches have excuses, and, just like you, we don’t like looking at them. If you’re ready to get down and dirty with yourself, this might be the book for you!


Michelle Kunz: Life Coach, Career Coach, Executive Coach

About Michelle Kunz

Michelle earned her Certified Professional Coach (CPC) certification from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), an International Coach Federation (ICF) – accredited coach training program. She has also earned the ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) credential and is qualified to administer, interpret and debrief the Myers-Briggs, FIRO-B, and Energy Leadership assessments. She is currently accepting a limited number of new clients interested in life coaching, career coaching, executive coaching, or leadership training and development.


Follow Up

What Juicy Vision Did You Create? Last month we talked about creating juicy new visions so you could take new actions and produce new results. Something you could commit to taking action on, that you could already get excited about, and where you could create an enticing vision of success that inspires and delights you. How did you do?


Living Fearlessly!

Free Webinar May 30 at 8 pm EDT: Register now for this fun, interactive webinar! Learn how to move past the fear that stops you dead in your tracks or keeps you repeating undesirable patterns of behavior. Live the life you REALLY want and deserve. To register now click here. Seats are limited!



From the PEL Blog

Both cooperation and competition are vital to success: “The ability to be simultaneously cooperative and competitive is an art form that requires practice and engages distinctive parts of your brain.” To read more about this interesting article from Psychology Today, check out the blog!

Copyright ©2012 PEL Coaching, LLC, All rights reserved.

Learning from Other’s Mistakes by Michelle Kunz

The story of Zoe Cruz and her demise at Morgan Stanley is a great example of how we can learn from the mistakes of others. Although the story has been all over the news, Ms. Cruz and those closest to the actual events undoubtedly have their own version of events which we will never know. However, what we do know is filled with invaluable information on what leadership is NOT.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Ms. Cruz appeared at first to have survived the challenges that hit Wall Street with the recent credit crisis. But her responses to her company’s $3.7 billion in losses helped to speed her from survival to ultimate failure.

Personal Responsibility

A powerful leader knows that she is ultimately responsible for anything and everything that happens on her watch. In other posts I have addressed the relationship between fear and taking risks, and the importance of each. Powerful leaders are unafraid to take risks, knowing that even if they encounter failure, these failures offer opportunities for learning and growth, for them individually and for their teams. In the event that a mistake happens, or that we encounter failure, the most powerful thing we can do for our leadership is take full responsibility. This fosters trust in us — confidence that we back up our words with real content instead of empty fluff. It also reassures our team that they can takes risks knowing that we have their backs. This gives them permission to think out of the box — to explore their most creative ideas and solutions with abandon. With this kind of permission there is a greater chance that something truly great can be created.

According to the WSJ, Ms. Cruz did not take personal responsibility for the losses at Morgan Stanley, choosing instead to lash out at fellow employees.

When we lash out at our peers or our direct reports, we encourage suspicion and defensiveness. Our trust is eroded, people no longer have confidence in their ability to freely speak their minds or explore their ideas with us. They never know when they might be at the receiving end of our anger and frustration. Anger and frustration, as we know, are frequently the result of our trying to control situations which are out of control, based on our fear of failure and embarrassment. The more successfully we can recognize when anger and frustration are building within us and express those feelings in more appropriate ways, the more likely we are to avoid lashing out and destroying the important qualities of trust and confidence necessary to maintain powerful leadership.

Alternative ways to expressing anger and frustration might be:

  • Engage in intense physical activity
  • Talk with a trusted confidante about our feelings
  • Express our feelings to our team rationally but honestly, particularly our feelings of fear
  • Engage in creatively expressive activities, such as art or music
  • Work with a coach or therapist (depending on the intensity and depth of the feelings) to strategize other ways of dealing with the feelings

Understanding team activities

It is absolutely essential that a leader understand what every person on their team is doing and why. This is not about micro-managing. This is about having a clear picture of what your organization is about. Without that clear picture, people on your team can be very busy doing very important things which have very little to do with organizational goals. It is your job to communicate clearly exactly the nature of your team’s work, including how each individual fits into the overall plan. Each person on the team should understand what every other person does and why. This will allow team accountability to take place without you constantly having to hold the reins as tightly.

Likewise, even though we want to encourage team members to take appropriate risks, we also want to be absolutely aware of what those risks are and how they might impact the organization. We want clear and ongoing communication from every team member, not so we can check up on them, but so we know what’s going on and can keep our eyes open for additional resources, extenuating circumstances or anything else that the team cannot see from their vantage point. We have the advantage of having a broader view, so we can have their backs in this way when they do take risks — giving them additional information or making suggestions or offering guidance as needed.

Ms. Cruz did not have a clear picture of the risks her company took in one division — a division which she herself had helped to build over the years, according to WSJ reports.

This kind of ignorance is hurtful in several ways. First off, the team assumes the leader knows. That’s why they are the leader. So when it comes out later that the leader didn’t know, there is a great sense of betrayal. The leader didn’t care enough to find out. It’s not that it’s not information that is available, after all. The leader only needs to ask. When the leader stops knowing, they stop caring and then the team is indeed abandoned. Anything that happens goes on without the guidance of the leader, and the team may be doing their best, but they need a leader to give them the bigger picture that they lack. They also need that backing that gives them ultimate confidence in what they are doing.

Treating team members respectfully

No matter how frustrated we become with our team, we must commit to leadership values which do not change. Those values may differ depending on the team and the leader, but some values are common sense people values which are non-negotiable. Among them are:

  • Never berate an employee or peer publicly. This humiliates the employee and makes you look like a jerk. Nothing you have to say in a moment like this is worth saying in this venue. Save it for a private meeting where you can make it meaningful. If you are trying to make a point to the team, schedule a meeting and generalize your message so no one is identified as a target.
  • Never use inappropriate language when speaking to an employee. This includes swearing, name calling, belittling and anything else that constitutes rudeness. Again, this makes you look like someone who has no self control. Learn to channel your frustration and anger into other areas (see above) and keep your message clean and to the point. Inappropriate language does not enhance your message in any way.
  • Never treat an employee as if you are better than they are. You may have the title, but they may be more intelligent, more experienced and may actually be better at leading than you are. Stay in touch with your humility. No one is impervious to a fatal career flaw, and if you suffer from a lot of pride, you may find yourself falling further than you’d like one day. Every person is both teacher and student, and this includes your lowliest employee. Try to figure out what you have to learn from them and your interpersonal skills and dynamics may improve dramatically.

Ms. Cruz frequently clashed with one of her peers, publicly correcting him at employee presentations (WSJ). This creates resentment not only in the employee, but in everyone who likes him. You create many enemies you don’t even realize you have when you take this route.

You have a team — use it!

Your team can be a huge resource for you when you are faced with big decisions. Rather than going it alone and then trying to get everyone on board with your big idea, powerful leaders go to their teams and solicit ideas. They engage in passionate debate over the possibilities. They listen, they let everyone weigh in, and when everyone has had a chance to say what they think, they thank everyone for their input and THEN make their decision, taking everyone’s ideas into consideration. This is not leading by consensus (which is when everyone agrees), but rather leading by getting all the ideas on the table in case yours isn’t actually the best one. Your people have insights into the picture that you may not have since you have the BIG view and they are deeply involved in the smaller pieces. Without their input, you might miss something crucial in making your decision. Then in trying to get everyone to fit your plan, you’ll create resentment and additional work, if it is even possible to implement your plan at all.

The WSJ reports that Ms. Cruz tried to implement changes that some of her executives thought were ill-informed. If she had sought everyone’s input, she would have been extremely well informed, and perhaps would have chosen a different set of changes to implement. We don’t have the complete story on how she went about planning for and designing these changes.

Reportedly Ms. Cruz was asked to leave quite suddenly. She initially had the backing of Chief Executive John Mack, but after she exhibited poor leadership choices, including those outlined above, among others, he withdrew his support. Leaders, this is the story of an individual who would not rely on her team, would not encourage controversy, dissent and debate, would not respect her peers and employees, and would not take personal responsibility for failure. Powerful leadership stories do not end the way Ms. Cruz’s story ends. My hope is that she has learned some important leadership lessons from her experiences at Morgan Stanley and can still become the powerful leader she has the potential to be.

Death by Waiting by Michelle Kunz

In the October 9, 2007 print edition of the “Wall Street Journal” Jared Sandberg’s “Cubicle Culture” column addressed an issue we can all relate to: the fatal effects of waiting on creativity, motivation, morale and productivity. Sandberg observes that no matter how many technological advances we develop to eliminate waiting, there are always built in enforcers of the status quo. Email, for example, can send our messages immediately, but we have no control over whether the person receiving will actually respond.

Managing up is a hot topic right now. Everyone would like to get their supervisor, or better yet, the C Suite, on the same page as they are. There is the perception that if upper management would change, everything would improve. There are many assumptions buried in those perceptions, and whether they are accurate or not is not the topic for this particular post. Waiting for management to change, however, is. That falls under the topic of trying to control the outcome of someone else’s behavior, overtly or covertly, and we can just let that go and move on to areas where we have more direct control.

As leaders we do have a great deal of control over how smoothly things flow within our direct spheres of influence. Most of this control lies in setting good examples, laying down clear operating guidelines, communicating expectations and following up with direct feedback which delivers specific information to the recipient on how they can adjust their actions to better serve the team. Let’s look at each of these areas in greater detail as they relate to waiting.

Good examples

Time management is one of those terms often used and seldom understood. It might be helpful to review the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of effects comes from 20% of causes. Think about that. What that is saying is that 80% of your causes (or efforts) are practically wasted (producing only 20% of your effects, or outcomes). The purpose of a time management system ideally is to maximize your efforts so that you are in peak performance more often than 20% of the time. Before you can implement a calendar or task list, however, you first need to identify which activities actually produce your greatest results (the 80% of effects) and devise a strategy for maximizing your time spent in those activities. This may require delegating, saying no to or redefining other activities so you can maximize your efforts.

If you can’t get your arms around this as a leader, it will be difficult to make the case for your team to do it. Here are some common areas where leaders lay down weak examples for teams to follow, wasting time and causing undue delays in the process:

  • Failing to stick to action-producing agendas for meetings
  • Attempting to get consensus on a topic when a clear decision is called for
  • Resisting setting up clear accountability guidelines so action is well supported
  • Allowing deadlines to slip without asking for accountability in ways that produce action
  • Overlooking the importance of clarity in all aspects of communication, inviting misunderstandings, mistakes and delays
  • Miscalculating the importance of accurate and timely cascading communication systems

Clear operating guidelines

Some of the bullet points above fall under this heading. One of the best ways a leader can help a team avoid playing the waiting game is to lay down clear operating procedures from the very beginning. This requires a clear construct of all aspects of the team’s activities and responsibilities, both internally and interdepartmentally. The best way to get this picture will be to ask for input from your team. They know better than you what they do, how they do it and how long it takes. You probably know the why better than they do. And you can push back on the how and how long, perhaps even the what if something seems out of place. With this kind of dialogue and open debate, a very clear picture of overall team activity and responsibilities will begin to take shape. Everyone on the team needs to have this clear picture — each member should clearly understand what everyone else does and why and have a good sense of the how and how long. This understanding eliminates unreasonable requests from one member to another, and sets reasonable expectations between team members.

Once you have the picture, continuing the dialogue to include what core procedures must be in place to keep the team at peak performance will elicit ideas you may not think of if you do this exercise alone. You’ll have an organizational view, which is essential, but they will have priorities and preferences which will be no less vital to keeping the team motivated and happy. Working through these issues early on will ensure that everyone is on the same page and has buy-in. Clearly laying this out for your team will ensure that later on no time is wasted waiting for someone else to decide what should be happening at this point in the project.

Clear expectations

“Expectations” is not about levels of perfection. It’s about goals and objectives and deadlines and accountability. What do you expect people to do, by when, and how will they let you know it has been accomplished? How should they let you know it is NOT going to be accomplished or that a problem has developed — and by when? How much do you want to be kept in the loop along the way? Who is accountable to whom else on the team? How will that happen? How do they handle an accountability issue between teammates? If you have not laid out a very clear set of expectations around objectives, deadlines and accountability, you are asking your team to wait while you figure it out along the way. Furthermore, you are asking for a lot of wasted time while people deal with misunderstandings and ambiguity around the essential questions of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Do not ever be afraid to be too clear when answering those questions. And always ask people to tell you what they heard you say just in case you weren’t as clear as you thought you were.

Direct feedback

So many people struggle with feedback. They take it personally. They fear the other person will take it personally. If the other person does take it personally, they take that personally. No wonder supervisors frequently dread the annual review process. Wouldn’t we all rather just give out gold stars and call it a day?

Feedback in its simplest form is information about where you are in relation to where you said you wanted to be. You set an objective: A, and you set a deadline: B. On date B you look to see if you’ve accomplished A. If you have, great! You can talk about what happened, how you felt about it, what you learned, what happened that you expected, and what happened that you didn’t. That’s all part of extended feedback — how you felt and what you learned. What gets difficult for most of us is when date B comes along and we didn’t accomplish A.

So here are two cases: Case 1: we are close to getting A, but we’re just not there yet. In this case, we assess the original goal and see if our date was unrealistic. Or perhaps something else happened — Time management issues? Extenuating circumstances? It’s all feedback. Case 2: We didn’t accomplish A, but we did accomplish C. In this case, we can really get out of the box and ask some interesting questions. Was A necessary after all? Is C more useful in some way than A? Were we just goofing off and C is a complete waste of time? What kept us from doing A and what drew us to doing C? All of this is also feedback. And, of course, there are many other questions that the exact situation will ignite that will shed additional light on the subject.

The point is, without feedback, there will be no forward movement. The goal can be large or small, no matter. Along the way, we all need feedback so we can adjust course. That might mean carry on, or it might mean abandon ship. Either course is valid and important, but we won’t know until we get feedback.

Waiting is a part of life. We will wait in traffic. We will be put on hold while making a doctor’s appointment. And we will probably wait for a request from another department or from the powers that be above us. But within our own teams waiting can be minimized or at least be made meaningful by adopting principles and creating systems which support movement — creating the freedom to move, supporting the ability to move, enforcing accountability for movement and always, always making sure we have solicited input from the beginning so we have clarity, understanding and most importantly — ownership.

Integrity vs. Convenience by Michelle Kunz

Carmine Coyote’s blog entry for September 21 asks a very important question: Can you display integrity only when it suits you? Inspired by Peter Vajda’s article “Integrity at work – how do you stack up?” Carmine argues that striving for absolute integrity adds undue stress and guilt to already overwhelmed individuals who may find that under certain circumstances it makes sense to simply compromise their integrity in favor of simplifying a tense or demanding situation.

Peter Vajda states that integrity is “a lot like being pregnant. Either you’re pregnant, or you aren’t. There’s no middle ground.” Either we act with integrity or we don’t. This is a tough position to take, and his quiz asks some very hard questions. I cannot pass with 100% perfection. The perfection word has tripped us up again. That and a lack of clarity around what is integrity.

What is integrity?

Integrity, according to Encarta, is “the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards.” The second and third definitions are also helpful in extending our understanding: “the state of being complete or undivided” and “the state of being sound or undamaged.” Taken together, one who acts with integrity not only possesses and steadfastly adheres to high moral principles or standards, but is also complete, undivided and undamaged. This state of being complete, undivided and undamaged is due to the fact that such an individual does not act in a way that divides them against themselves. They hold themselves in a state of deep respect and honor.

Whose standards?

The problems we experience with integrity begin when we fail to stop and ask ourselves whose standards we possess and expect ourselves to adhere to. It makes sense that whenever those standards are externally imposed we will at some point find ourselves in conflict with them and probably choose to ignore them. There may or may not be an external consequence for that choice, but most people will experience some sense of guilt or shame for going against principles they claim to honor but fail to actually follow in their real life actions.

A better choice is to take the time to define our own values and standards. When we narrow down our most important values to no more than five (it is almost impossible to focus on any more than about five) what we have left is a set of core defining principles around which all of our actions and attitudes can be compared. When we align our actions, attitudes and beliefs with these core principles, we are living in integrity. Because they are prinicples we defined, we see the direct correlation between living these values and an improvement in some area of our life, depending on what values we defined. Making choices becomes easier, saying no becomes easier, and guilt is manageable because when we say no to something external, we say yes to something internal.


A mid-level manager is working 60 hour weeks. His wife complains frequently that he is missing his son’s soccer games and isn’t home to engage with her. She questions his values around family. He experiences a great deal of shame and guilt because he thinks he ought to be a better husband and father, but he doesn’t know how to balance the demands of his job with the demands of his family.

During a coaching session, we define his core values as Family, Financial Freedom, Authenticity, Integrity and Honesty. As we explore what these values mean to him, we uncover that he has deep concerns regarding paying his mortgage and a strong desire to earn a promotion which may be available to him in the next year so he can provide some additional discretionary income to his family. He has a strong commitment to providing for his family’s financial future, and a desire to fulfill his wife’s desire for nice things in their home.

On closer inspection, it turns out that his working long hours serves two of his five core values: Family and Financial Freedom. By working long and hard he has a better chance at getting that promotion, and therefore providing for his family’s financial future and filling their immediate desires. He has not seen it in these terms before because on the surface it looks like his values have been in conflict. But the long hours are less about his career and more about his family. Where he is out of alignment most is in Authenticity and Honesty. He needs to have a discussion with his wife to express with authenticity and honesty how his working long hours serves those other two core values. This will put him into better integrity over all. With her feedback he can make adjustments if necessary as he gains a better understanding of his family’s financial needs and desires.

At first glance, it may have looked as if the answer was “work fewer hours and spend more time with your family”. Perhaps after receiving feedback from his wife the answer will be more along the lines of “work 55 hours and spend one hour per weekday playing with your son”. The point here is that until you define your core values, you don’t really know what the answer is. What appears to be the answer might be a lousy compromise that will make you feel guilty about something else. You end up trading guilt for guilt.

Relationships – Integrity = Lack of Trust

When people choose convenience based integrity, which means they adhere to high principles only when it is convenient, no one knows what to expect. Who defines when it is convenient? When is that definition made public? Typically that decision is made on the spur of the moment and under duress. Or in rebellion. Or in any number of other situations which are purely self serving. How can anyone count on you when your integrity changes without warning? Trust simply cannot exist under such conditions, and this is a requirement for powerful, engaging, dynamic leadership.

Trust requires reliability — people have to know what to expect from you. Your commitment to your self-defined set of values makes you reliable. Your actions align themselves in a way that makes sense because they are defined by your values. Even if people do not agree with your values, they at least know what to expect, and this increases their ability to trust you.

What many people dislike about absolute integrity is that it requires absolute responsibility for our actions. When we find ourselves out of alignment, we cannot affix blame to outside circumstances or other people. We have only ourselves to look to for accountability. And this is a key difference.

Blame vs. Accountability

When you practice convenience integrity, you get an easy way out any time you need an excuse as to why you choose an action which does not align itself with your values. You simply blame it on the extenuating circumstances. “The boss required it.” “I needed a break.” The assumption is that you’ve done something wrong and you need to provide a reason why. When you practice absolute integrity, there is a better choice: accountability.

Accountability and responsibility are interchangeable. Blame, however, is not. Blame is always negative. Accountability and responsibility are neutral. This difference is crucial. When we look within to examine our behavior in a situation where our actions did not align with our values, we can give ourselves permission to be neutral. We can simply be in discovery mode. What were the circumstances? What were we thinking and feeling? What other values came into play? What other choices might we have made instead which would have better served our core values? What kept us from making those choices? What can we do differently next time?

This mode of discovery allows growth to occur. Convenience integrity does not allow for growth because of the convenience factor. It’s like eating fast food: no work, little nutrition. The blame game encourages excuses rather than discovery, and we go nowhere. But we still feel guilt, even while we feel relief. Because we know that we have divided ourselves and we are now unreliable.
Powerful leaders know it requires courage and inner strength to live with integrity. They do not fool themselves into thinking it requires perfection. They realize the values they define are there as a guide for their actions, and they seek to choose those actions mindfully. When they make a mistake, they freely admit it, learn from their experience and adapt. This adaptive ability strengthens their alignment with their core values. As a result, they become more reliable and trustworthy, which encourages others to have greater confidence in their ability to lead.

Making Business Sing by Michelle Kunz

I am by formal education a professionally trained opera singer, with a hard earned doctorate’s initials after my name when I choose to add them. Transitioning to coaching was a natural extension of having spent many years teaching in studio, masterclass and classroom situations, but it wasn’t until recently that I noticed a very powerful similarity between how an organization and an opera performance work (or not).

There are obvious metaphors to be drawn, and they are certainly worthy of discussion, but one I’d like to focus on in this first post is the primary relationship between conductor and principal artist (management and staff). Typically in a high level opera house, both conductor and artist are hired several years in advance of the actual performance, and often do not actually meet until the rehearsal period has commenced. In the interim, both have studied hard to know the score, the plot, the intricacies of musical phrasing, articulation, tempi and dynamics, and have developed ideas about how this opera is going to be sung.

These ideas, of course, are based on their point of view. The conductor is looking at the opera as a whole — orchestra, chorus, small roles, secondary roles and principal roles. Solo arias as well as ensembles and even possibly ballets. The entire musical idea in its gestalt lies with the conductor, and with a well known opera, whether the performance will be stale or fresh depends on how well he or she can differentiate his ideas from others who have come before. At first rehearsals with both orchestra and singers (individuals and chorus), the conductor must establish an essential balance of authority and likability as well as possess the ability to communicate her unique ideas with utmost clarity to the musicians.

The singer, meanwhile, is looking at the opera as a whole as well, but is focusing more closely on his or her specific role in the overall picture. She must take into consideration her technical abilities, her temperament, her physical stamina, her musical preferences and abilities, her previous experiences with the piece, her understanding and development of the character and her relationship to the others in the opera, and any other physical, emotional, mental or intellectual limitations or strengths which will help or hinder a fantastic performance.

If the opera in question is popular, it is highly likely that both conductor and singer have performed this piece before, perhaps many times, with success (or failure) before meeting each other for the first time. They may have strongly held opinions about how it should go. And these opinions may not match at all.

So far do we see any similarities at all between management and staff?

Now comes the tricky part. On first meeting if the conductor does not manage to establish some truly great rapport with the singer, the likelihood of any new and fresh musical ideas coming out of the relationship between the two is pretty close to doomed. A singer has a lot to manage in the moment of a performance. To ask them to change anything they have already done with success in the past is asking a lot. It’s risky. To ask that to happen when you don’t like the conductor, or when you don’t trust their judgment or their values, or their ability to hold it together when the going gets tough — or just be there for you if you get a little shaky — is asking too much.

I have personally witnessed conductors who totally abandon the stage during a performance. They don’t know the opera, don’t know the music, have no idea what the needs of the stage are, and are focused primarily on the pit. Is a train wreck in that situation such a shock?

On the other hand, I have also personally witnessed the will — or carelessness — of a singer ruin the hard work of rehearsal during a performance. They either forget to watch the conductor and get out of sync with everyone else, or they decide they want to change things without warning, and suddenly everything is a little off for a while. There is a moment of panic while the entire attention of the conductor is not so much on making music as on preventing disaster.

Any other similarities coming to mind?

And we haven’t even brought in the effect this has on the ticket buying audience and long term subscribers — the bottom line.

Establishing those foundations of trust and open and healthy communication are essential from the very beginning of any working relationship, and they must be nurtured and maintained until the fat lady sings to ensure ongoing success. Without this foundation, any performance is on very shaky ground. Whether you’re on the stage or in the pit, this is not a good place to be.