What orchestral music can teach you about leadership

A CEO is much like a conductor, says software boss and composer Adam Greenwood-Byrne.

by Adam Greenwood-Byrne
Last Updated: 19 Jun 2019

Composing for an orchestra is, first and foremost, about bringing a variety of wildly different sounds together in one cohesive work. That work will tell a story, taking the listener on a journey, with the individual instruments working together in harmony as metaphorical actors, narrators, props, backdrop and lighting for the scene.

Only by making use of the specific characteristics and strengths of each instrument is the story told to great effect. In a similar vein, a strong business leader must seek to unite the potentially factional and divided entities within their firm into a single, cohesive unit.

Much like an orchestra, good business works in harmony, with teams using their specific characteristics and strengths to great effect on a shared journey. While many departments can default to working in silos, it was an important step for me to position myself centrally as the conductor, bringing the ensemble together to the rhythm of my beat – especially as our business transitioned to subscription/service business model from a perpetual/product one.

This change involved and affected every single member of staff, and good communication and shared purpose were imperative to success. With such dramatic cross-functional cooperation, came the need for strong leadership.

I have had the good fortune to work with a number of exceptional conductors in my music career, and taken great inspiration from them. A good conductor must be able to simultaneously follow both the micro and the macro - to be able to identify and pinpoint a singular problem amongst the myriad instruments, noises and melodies whilst simultaneously monitoring the orchestra as a whole, ensuring that the tempo and timbre are appropriately consistent across the board.

The ability to identify and understand each individual cog within the machine, whilst not losing focus of the machine as a whole, is an important balancing act that a CEO must master, whether it be an instinctive or learned trait.

This musical metaphor can also be applied to individual team hierarchies. Again, each team must operate with clearly designated roles within it, each member playing their part and in synchronisation with the others. In an orchestra we see this, with an instrumental section’s ‘first desk’ providing the top-line melody, but supported by the second and third desks etc, who very often play a different part, but in harmony, resulting in a greater contribution from the section.

When all the section’s parts are performed together, they produce a unified and harmonious sound that acts as an important part of the overall orchestral texture. In the same way, each division or business line in a company brings a wealth of varied skill and experience, and this balance of knowledge means that we can operate much like an orchestra, working together to achieve our joint goals, with each team member having an important and distinct role to play.

Drawing inspiration from this metaphor has enabled me to prioritise unity, visibility and cooperation across departments. I am seeking to create a culture of transparency that helps employees to recognise their value in the wider picture, which ultimately means the business can operate with greater efficiency, motivation and sense of shared purpose.

Of course, finding a rhythm that works takes time, and it is our life’s work as leaders. It will clearly depend on the organisation’s priorities, but once the orchestra is working in sync, it’s incredible what beautiful music can be made.

Adam Greenwood-Byrne is CEO of RealVNC, and a composer.

Image credit: Gabriel Santos fotographia/Pexels

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