This past weekend, I watched the sequel to the popular movie Pitch Perfect. As the father of teenage daughters, I have to acknowledge that I was “encouraged” by my daughters to see the original movie more than once, as well as to see the sequel. I also have to confess that I really enjoyed it. Not just for the entertainment value of the movie, but also for the lessons in leadership that it demonstrates.

Yes, I’ll confess something else. I’m a huge leadership geek. As a person who has committed a career to developing and coaching leaders to create cultures of responsible collaboration, I take great pleasure in finding unique ways to observe and learn about leadership. And let me say, there is a lot to be learned from the acapella groups in these movies.

I am often engaged by leaders who have taken over a team or department or an entire company. Usually, the first thing these leaders ask is for me to help “get the team straightened-out.” Most often, the conversation begins with some version of a desire to “fix” the people on the team and make them change the way they operate.

This is almost always the wrong place to start.

Leading teams and departments in organizations is a lot like pulling together an acapella singing group. The leadership opportunity is to get everyone to sing in tune and with the same rhythm.

Here are three simple steps that you can take as a leader to improve your team.

Step 1: Figure out what kind of singers you have

The first step is to figure out what talent and capabilities you have to work with. What parts do you have in your group? Some people sing low (Bass/Alto), some people sing high (Tenor/Soprano), and some people sing in between (Baritone/Mezzo-soprano). The first step is to figure out who can sing what part and what parts may be missing. You may have an idea of what kind of music you want your team to make, but if you don’t have all the parts, it doesn’t matter what your goal is, it just won’t happen. If you have a team of tenors, you won’t be able to make music with those deep base notes, no matter how much you scream about the bass line.

This is akin to a new leader coming into a team and declaring that we are going to be more “agile” and adaptive to changing market conditions. If your team is made up of people who only know how to respond to traditional, bureaucratic oversight, agile isn’t likely to happen. This has implications for hiring, too: oftentimes new managers rush to hire the type of talent they believe they need, when in fact that talent is right there on the existing team — they just need to discover it.

Step 2: Get people to listen to each other

In a successful music group, what matters is how each singer listens to their performance and listens to the other performers and then adjusts their tone, pitch, and volume to make sure that everyone blends together. As the song goes on, each person makes slight adjustments to continue to blend to produce beautiful music.

In the domain of leadership, we call this collaboration. People work together; fulfill their role on the team for the sake of fulfilling a shared promise that is bigger than what they are doing by themselves.

Step 3: Go make music (i.e. – Do your thing.)

Pick the song(s) you are going to sing, then put your heart into it. Then ask your team to put their heart into it. Think of it this way, all of the people you are leading take actions to produce particular outcomes. Think of these outcomes as the notes in the music. As a leader, your role is to shape the outcomes from each person to produce notes in the same key. It’s the way the team works together that produces the music.

Here’s the really interesting thing about it. You don’t even have to be singing the same song. If everyone is in key, collaborating, listening and engaging with a rhythm that blends, it makes beautiful music.

In leadership, this happens when one small group can be focusing on one project; another group can be producing a key deliverable, while another is coordinating with customers to find out what they really value. Bringing it all together is how the leader establishes the key for the music and directs the team to stay together and sing in tune.

An example of this can easily be seen in this scene from the original Pitch Perfect:

Not everyone even has to be singing the same song. As long as everyone is singing in tune and blending with the same rhythm you can quite literally “rock the house.”

Leadership success is measured when everyone on the team is playing the same tune and the customer is happy with the music. If one person is doing their own thing, it distorts the entire song.

As a leader, ask yourself how you are keeping your team in tune? 

  • Are you lamenting the fact that you don’t have all the parts, or are you adjusting to the group you have? 
  • Have you identified your customers and have you asked them if they are satisfied with the music you are producing?

It might serve you well to take a page from the Bellas in Pitch Perfect and make great music with the team you have.

About David Hasenbalg

Dave Hasenbalg has spent the last 20 years leading, coaching, and consulting businesses to build cultures of responsible collaboration, develop new patterns of behavior, build high-performing teams, improve leadership, and develop communication skills that establish dynamic, engaging cultures that dramatically improve the bottom-line. He has an expertise in selecting the right balance of consulting, coaching, and training to deliver precise solutions tailored to meet the needs of clients. His practical background is as a military officer as well as a leader in cutting edge, non-profit, and Fortune 100 companies. Dave has earned an MBA and is an ACC Accredited Coach and member of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

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