It was entirely accidental that late Friday night we ended up watching a substantial part of a four hour documentary about US rock musician, Tom Petty, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
It was all long hair, smoky clubs and fringe venues until the story moved into the late 70s and 80s when Petty achieved wider commercial success with a more mainstream sound – with the help of the man who at one point was known as Mr Third Album, renowned musical engineer, Jimmy Iovine.
Turns out he was responsible for the third albums of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty amongst other rock talent in the 70s and 80s, and his core skill lay in taking raw musical ability and transforming it into a more commercial product for mainstream consumption.
My first instinct was to think – Mr Third Album flattened the talent. And thus ensued an interesting debate. What would have happened to Petty, Springsteen and the others if they hadn’t been transformed by Iovine? If they had remained on the fringes, as innovative, outstanding musical outsiders with an elite following but unable to break through and reach the masses? And why should music that appeals to a wider audience be any worse than a more elitist and exclusive individual sound? Who knows. I would definitely not have heard their music and they certainly would have made less money – though Petty argued that the structure of the music industry was such that he made very little money anyway.
Which led me to an interesting consideration about how corporations foster talent. Because of course many of us bring raw, unshaped energy and ability in the form of graduate intakes into our business. And then the task is to shape this talent through leadership, mentoring, training and other development techniques into something outstanding, and by this we mean, outstandingly and predictably commercially valuable to the business.
But in doing so, are we eliminating much of the individuality and passion – the spark which lies at the root of true talent in the first place – from our young recruits and transforming exuberant bright novices into middle management drones?
Recently I heard of a piece of research which Unilever has conducted into the attitudes and perceptions of young teenagers – around 13 years old – to the workplace. One of the key outcomes was that these young people believe work is going to transform them into robots.
Now here is the scary thing. Why would 13 year olds think the workplace will transform them into robots given they have little first hand experience of it themselves? I have only two conclusions. One, because work is generally portrayed as dreary and mechanistic in film, books and television. And two – very scary for us parents – because this is how teenagers see us, the people in the workplace today. As dehumanised robots.
My own experience supports this peculiar tension between individualised talent and the homogenisation of behaviour generally required to make business work. What a branding consultant once described to me as 1% inspiration and 99% alignment. Alignment which, by the way, I always envisioned as being achieved with a stick.
PR agencies, which is where I worked, aspire to recruit ambitious, dedicated, hard-working graduates who understand the concept of extra credit. To be blunt, I always tried to recruit the swots who had outstanding GCSE, AS, A and degree results. I reckoned that if you work hard at school and university you’re going to work hard at work.
Then we’d bring them into the agency and preach the importance of billable hours and not over-servicing – the shibboleths of consultancy business everywhere.
Now I think this creates a terrible tension for people whose preference it is to over-perform. If your instinct is to go the extra mile, how are you going to perform if your employer and line managers insist that you be just so with the customers? At the same time remembering that you were recruited to impress those same customers, something which is hard to do if you don’t go the extra mile?
Now it’s not impossible to resolve this conflict but it does require careful handling of communications to ensure this talented team understands one simple thing: why they are being asked to do this and how it forms part of a greater aspiration.
So according to Petty’s documentary the third album can be an epical moment for musicians – two albums of spontaneous, unedited talent give way to a carefully manicured production number which makes great music appeal to all.
I think it can also be a useful metaphor for the workplace. Shaping people can be a dangerous business – handled poorly it can remove the passion that we all want to engender. Communications is key. It needs to be clear why employees are being polished and manicured, not to restrict them, but to give them access to command a wider platform of opportunity, and how this creates a greater scope for talent, and not a set of dull and binding restrictions.