On a whim Eric Whitacre joined the choir at the University of Nevada. A kid with no musical training found himself standing in a room with 100 other people about to begin singing Mozart’s Requiem in D minor. He said “I’ll never forget that moment. That first breath, which to this day entrances me. That first breath that a group of people take before they sing.” Eric left that room the self-described world’s biggest choir geek.
Eric went on to become one of the most influential choir composers of our time. Almost every choir performs some of his music at one point or another. But perhaps his most interesting creation is the Virtual Choir. Eric created a way for thousands of people around the world to sing together over the internet. Started in 2010, when the technology was barely capable, the choir has grown from several hundred singers to many thousands and created six amazing works. Eric thought he was done in 2018, but with the entire world going remote in 2020, he brought it back for one epic production. Called Sing Gently that features over 17,500 singers from 129 countries.
While everyone loves beautiful music, what most intrigued me about Eric and the virtual choir, was something he said in an interview on 20,000 hertz, one of my favorite podcasts. Host Dallas Taylor and Eric talk about what it’s like to sing together in a choir:
Dallas: Anyone who’s been part of any sort of team knows the joy of working together for a common goal. But there are a lot of people who have never had that chance. The Virtual Choir is a team with no boundaries or limitations. It allows people from any background to make a meaningful connection… albeit a digital one.
Eric: There is something truly transformative that happens when you get a whole bunch of people together, singing at the same time, it’s extraordinary. There’s now all kinds of scientific studies that show that the physiology of it is transformative in itself. That stress hormones decrease. It’s good for breathing, it’s good for your musculature. There’s even some studies now that suggest that people who sing together, their heartbeats begin to synchronize.
There is perhaps no better example of the effect of working together as a team than making music. When it goes right, the result is far greater than the sum of the parts. The audience is thrilled, and the bond among those making the music is quite literally harmonic.
The same is true in almost any business or organization. When the team is working well together, when the vision is pitch perfect, and the culture is in tune with the market, the result can be a harmonic crescendo. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
This episode continues the examination of organizational culture. This time we look at how culture can multiply through success. This is Episode 235 – Harmonics.
No team in baseball has ever won more games in a season than the 2001 Seattle Mariners. At 116 wins, they hold the record for a 162-game season and share the total wins with the 1906 Chicago Cubs. As season ticket holders, I’ll never forget the anticipation of walking into Safeco Field and down to our second-row seats not just rooting for but expecting a win.
The Mariners set that impressive record without a team of superstars. A mixture of largely undistinguished veterans and some fresh faces, it was the least likely group to accomplish the feat. In fact, unless you’re a diehard baseball fan, I’m betting the only name on the roster you know is Ichiro Suzuki, one of the first Japanese players to truly stand out in the US. Avid baseball fans know of Edgar Martinez, the first designated hitter to make the hall of fame, and maybe Jamie Moyer the veteran pitcher. But the number two and three starting pitchers in the lineup, Freddy Garcia and John Halama, were virtual unknowns. In a year where the single highest paid pitcher made over $15 million, combined they didn’t make a single million dollars.
This group of largely unremarkable players excelled together. A team that not a single analyst had predicted would even make the post-season won an astounding 71% of their games. How did they do it? Harmonics.
One of the most interesting things about being in the high-end car stereo business was the customers. Athletes and celebrities were regular visitors to the shop. They would purchase some incredible top-of-the-line car and we would install an over-the-top sound system. We saw a cavalcade of Northwest music and sports stars and they left us with a lot of stories.
One Seattle Supersonics basketball star brought his vehicle in for repair, the cell phone bracket had stopped working. As I poked around to see if it was something simple like a disconnected cable, I couldn’t help but see the mess of paperwork. There, in the center console, crumpled and uncashed – still attached to the stubs – was a stack of a half-dozen semi-monthly paychecks. Each for over $365,000.
Once I spent the better part of an hour chatting with Apolo Ono, the speed skating superstar, as we waited while his car was detailed. His stories of life growing up with his ever-present father and in the cutthroat world of elite sports at the Olympics were fascinating. He was the portrait of passion and perseverance.
But few of my encounters compared to my chat with Jay Buhner, the Mariners outfielder whose bright star had recently been outshone by Ichiro. Jay is passionate about trucks and toys, and would stop into the shop often, just to kill time. We eventually asked him to voice a commercial for us, and during the radio crew’s setup he and I chatted teamwork. It was late summer 2001 and the Mariners were well on their amazing roll. He was sidelined with a minor injury and the team was out of town. I asked him how this seemingly mediocre club was doing so well.
Jay answered instantly, it was clearly something he had thought about a lot. He shook his head and marveled that had never experienced a team like this. There were no prima donnas. They were all exceptionally supportive of each other. When one player had a great game, the team rallied around them. When someone made a critical mistake, everyone came to their side. Each game, it seemed, there was a different hero, and everyone took a turn in the spotlight.
Jay described a culture of quiet confidence. The veteran players were, to a person, soft-spoken and humble, who let their play on the field speak for itself. The young players saw this attitude and modeled it themselves. No one, it seems, sought the limelight, and when it turned on them, they all used words like “us” and “we”, or deflected the light to a peer. Not some tired “I owe it all to my team”, but with a kindness and generosity that’s hard to fake. Everyone inside and out, knew it was real.
The result was an amazing harmonic escalation. The more they won, the more they expected to win. Each day every single player showed up at the park and expected to win. Winning was just what they did. When they didn’t, it was brushed off as an aberration. They quickly moved on. And win they did, all the way to the record for the most wins in a season.
As our conversation wrapped up, and the commercial team was ready to roll, Jay looked off in the distance, again pondering this miracle. He looked at me and said “I’ve always loved the game, but never as much as I do now. And I’m not even playing.”
I’ve been on a few winning teams in my life, and the feeling is electrifying. My bantam hockey team in my early teens was the first I can recall vividly. The only game we lost all year was the state finals. At Fox Software I shared an incredible rocket ship from the obscurity of the Midwest to the epicenter of the personal computer world. And being a part of Microsoft as swelled to take the software world by storm was an unforgettable experience.
Each time in those rides I could feel the harmonic acceleration. Whether in sports, music, or business, when the word gets out about your success, more success follows. Inside and out everyone’s expectations are reset. The competition looks at you differently. The media begins to pay attention. Customer referrals multiply, a bandwagon begins to form. Each success seems to breed more success as if like feral rabbits.
Inside the team the feeling of teamwork and comradery is palpable. The team draws closer, the objective seems clearer. Everyone’s own doubts, their imposter syndrome, rapidly fades. They begin to believe in themselves and each other. The mood increasingly tends toward euphoria. One-time enemies in the team begin to cooperate. Small annoyances that previously would’ve blown up get quickly brushed aside. Benchmarks for success get reset time and again. Higher and higher. Everything, it seems, it possible with the momentum of harmonic acceleration behind you.
For the longest time, I thought these amazing miracles were largely accidental. Some random confluence of people and timing mixed together in a witch’s brew that turned into a magic potion and took over the world. In a few instances this is what happens, but those are the exception.
No, just as in music, harmony is rarely purely accidental. In fact, the best harmonies are the result of careful thought, and planning. Take the example of Eric and the virtual choir, it took some time to work it out.
Dallas: There were a few challenges early on though. When you’re singing in a group, everyone hears each other so they can stay in tune together. But if you’re singing by yourself though, it’s natural for the key to fluctuate over time, since you don’t have a reference to guide you. So to fix this, they added a piano track for the performers to sing to.
Eric: We’ve refined that so that now there’s usually a choir singing underneath them so that they feel like they’re singing into the sound of a choir. Instead of just into a vacuum.
In addition to a video of Eric conducting the piece, he also included detailed musical direction for the singers, just like a conductor would do in a normal rehearsal.
[SFX Clip: Eric’s conducting direction]
Dallas: With the materials in place, submissions began pouring in on YouTube.
Eric: I think it’s one of the great selling points of a choir is that you never have to sing alone. Lots of people like to sing, but maybe don’t want to be a soloist. When you’re in a choir you can sing your heart out, and you never have to have your voice exposed like that.
The same is true with teams of all kinds, not just choirs. There has to be the right chemistry of the team, the right mix of people. The tools have to be in place for them to get things done efficiently. The vision, the musical score if you will, needs to be clear and pitch perfect for the market.
Above all the culture needs to be carefully nurtured to seed the harmonic escalation. Expectations need to be just high enough to foster excellence, but not so high as to be frustrating. Celebrations of success need to be genuine and reinforcing, not cartoonish. Consequences for failure need to be tempered so as to not deflate the delicate balloon rising to the stratosphere. And everyone needs to support each other through the ups and downs.
But this kind of harmony can be built, fostered, filtered for, and constructed. By a leader who provides guidance with a delicate touch. And who sets a great example. That’s where you come in.
One final word of caution. This kind of harmonic acceleration can be delicate. The following year, in 2002, the Seattle Mariners, with a largely intact team, indeed did not make the post-season. In fact, they have not made the playoffs since. That has given them another record, one far less impressive. They have the longest post-season drought not just in Major League Baseball, but in all of professional sports. Harmony indeed is fragile.
Next time we’ll look at how you can build a great culture. We’ll look at how cultures change, and most importantly who can make that change happen. But that’s in our next insight episode. In the meantime, do what you can to build a team that creates its own harmonics.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site CLWill.com.
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If you haven’t listened to 20,000 hertz, you’re missing out. It’s one of my favorite podcasts. Dallas Taylor brings the world of sound alive in the most unusual and fascinating ways. Find it wherever you get your podcasts or at 20k.org. Thanks to them for the use of their clips .
Also be sure to check out the Virtual Choir. It’s a great way to realize that a screenful of faces can do more than a zoom meeting. There’s a link to it in the show notes and on the web site.
That’s it for this episode. The next episode’s conversation is a little different. We’ll venture outside the tech world to talk with Brian Pedersen. Brian is a veteran financial consultant in the fascinating world of corporate taxes. We talk about how he builds and leads a team that helps companies navigate that seemingly endless maze. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.