In the excellent Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, the author describes a discussion between Jobs and Steve Wozniak where Jobs is explaining to Woz that the role he plays in Apple is that of an orchestra's conductor, here to get the best out of the team, to ensure that they play in harmony and deliver to the listener the most inventive and yet classically rich vision of the original design. This conversation is said to have taken place after a strong 'debate' just before the launch of the iMac itself, where Wozniak had just exclaimed to Jobs that he was neither designer nor engineer and therefore did not really warrant or justify the recognition he was getting as the 're-saviour' of Apple.
Is the creativity of the conductor the real line to success in IT leadership? After all the 'band plays on', or at least tries to, whether there is a conductor or not. Even as early as 1998 Jobs was describing, I think, what the modern CIO now needs to be, although maybe we now need an evolved model from conductor to DJ or rock-and-roll front man.
Why does the analogy and the model need to evolve? Well, in times gone by the IT leader would have sought out the best in class people they needed. Much like creating an orchestra of around 30 talented artists, the Leader had to be the best that the orchestra could afford and then the conductor had to make them fit into the team, not always an easy job. The 'prima donna' persona of the highest calibre technologists is not always easy to integrate into a high-performing team after all. This then, perhaps, is where the evolved model comes in.
The leader of a rock band enables the band to "jam" - developing a structure and order to remain in time, and chooses a riff as well as creating a tune as they play. Maybe this roll can be best described as the startup innovator of the music scene. A band always needs a front man - someone with a vision for the sound they want to achieve and the charisma and charm to wow an audience, the band may play on if the front man leaves, but rarely as successfully; what would U2 be without Bono? Or the Rolling Stones without Jagger? Queen without Freddie or the E-Street Band without Bruce Springsteen? Perhaps the best real world example of the rock star digital leader is Larry Ellison of Oracle, truly a front man if ever there was one to be seen in digital leadership. The owner, founder, creator and beating heart of the Oracle empire, while no longer leader in name still very much the charismatic front man of the brand and indeed, band!
An orchestra, on the other hand, follows a very strict plan and each of the upwards of 30 members (over 50 for a symphonic orchestra) knows exactly what they need to play and when, whether it is solo or synchronised with their team by virtue of the score. Only the conductor knows the full score and reads all lines simultaneously, knowing who to call on and who to bring in exactly when they are needed for the orchestra to continue playing in harmony and in time, and for soloists to have their moment to shine. A digital leader in the style of the conductor does just this. The danger here though, is if only they know the full picture, keeping everyone focused takes a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm. Many public sector digital leaders are of this style, often by necessity, as the full picture is in reality always being altered and reconfigured a small amount by the political leaders and paymasters.
The conductor's role is an art form and a talent, while being a very technical job. Take the conductor from this and time signatures slip, the musicians become discordant and eventually chaos ensues. Just as with Jobs and his temporary departure from Apple, as conductor of that orchestra he was never truly replaced and therefore for a time the music was not what the audience needed to hear. The creativity, in the sense of innovation of the music, belongs to the composer rather than the orchestra or conductor; with this in mind maybe we need to see the digital leader as composer and conductor more often.
A DJ, unlike the conductor or rock band front man, can take the best work of a much wider variety of stars, mould them together until they find the right mix and then play it for the audience. The DJ doesn't have to integrate the full character of the artist just that moment of excellence where the beat fits or as the very wonderful NetFlix original puts it, "When the Get Down arrives"! A modern successful digital leader then is going to be a DJ. If we consider the 'gig economy' to be the future in digital then this kind of character and behaviour is likely to become even more prevalent when building successful teams. The magpie-type ability to bring all the best bits together for one moment of excellence that then can be repeated.
We believe the skills of a DJ are also key traits of a transformational leader; someone who motivates and energises their employees to get behind a transformation strategy, creates something that has been written about many times before, the creation of a fan base if you will.
The styles of these three analogies allow us to consider the nature of digital leadership. There is a mix of two key styles here, one is transactional the other transformational. The conductor is transactional, planning, organising and controlling. The DJ is transformational challenging and changing organisational culture, coaching and developing people, creating a climate of trust, establishing a long-term vision. The front man perhaps mixes both styles dependent on the need of the audience or band members, an ambidextrous style that is agile and responsive as startups require to be.
The analogy can continue in a number of ways beyond just the parts of the mix. A DJ brings with them the theme and the end point they are trying to get to, much like a high performing digital leader needs to, they start with the end in mind. Also, the DJ needs to be aware of the change in trends, evaluate them and consider how to adopt them into their fabric, so much learning of how this is done from both professions; I would love a temporary job swap!
The Jobs autobiography also describes the moment that Wozniak and Jobs first met from Woz's point of view: "We first met in 1971 during my college years, while he was in high school. A friend said, 'you should meet Steve Jobs, because he likes electronics and he also plays pranks', so he introduced us."
Jobs and Woz learnt they had so much in common, and yet were so different. The wonderful "Small Data" book by Martin Lindstrom references a Harvard Business Review article by de Swaan Arons, van den Driest and Weed called "The Ultimate Marketing Machine". The article suggested that there are three types of people needed to make a marketing company successful:
Think people - Who focus on data and analytics.
Do people - Who have responsibility for content, design and production development.
Feel people - Who are all about consumer engagement and interaction.
I wonder if the modern digital organisation can apply this exact same logic as has been done here for the marketing team. The types of people the IT leader needs to bring together are defined less by their technology specialty and more by the person type they act when they are in a delivery focused team. Back to Jobs and the Apple empire, the success of the original swathe of 'i' products has always been put down to two elements. First is Jobs' own meticulous eye for detail and secondly, the design standards of the team under Sir Jonathan Ive. If we overlay the commentary from the article in the Harvard Business Review referenced above and the conclusions that Lindstrom himself makes on this article we start to see that the way this team has been successful is by 'minding the small things' by being a team that is led by a digital orchestrator but exists as a team that can deliver empathy together, to the benefit that is trying to be attained.
A modern, successful leader needs to be a strategist, a "front-man (or woman)" AND be able to conduct a complex set of teams in a harmonious way - or at least empower capable section leaders (upper strings, lower strings, woodwind, brass, percussion) to do so on his or her behalf.
The theories of Lindstrom in Small Data will blow your mind, you regularly turn a page and laugh at the conclusion he has made and how it applies so completely, and not just to modern marketing ways of working but to how the right digital function needs to deliver. Whether as leaders we are badged as CIOs, CDOs, Conductors or DJs we don't care, we just want to be able to make IT work.
Elaine Naughton is Continuous Service Improvement Manager at Health Service Executive and has been in the IT industry for 23 years. A classically-trained flautist, in IT terms she is progressing from playing first violin in a growing orchestra to becoming a conductor and leader of a great band. Health Service Executive CIO Richard Corbridge is also CEO of eHealth Ireland and dreams of becoming a superstar DJ.
... as a post script we really do care! Two IT leaders were involved in the creation of this article, one of us wishes they had taken the path of enlightenment and become the superstar DJ of their dreams the other is progressing from playing second fiddle in a growing orchestra to becoming a conductor and leader of a great band.