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They Don't Play My Music Anymore – A Three Step System for Creating Personal and Professional Harmony During Times of Change
by: Thomas W. McKee

I was a sophomore at Campbell High School when the Big Bopper was asked what the secret of his success was. His response puzzled me. The Big Bopper said "Some cats got it. Some cats don't." But I wanted to know exactly what some cats had that made them so successful. The answer came crashing down on my head two weeks later.

I slipped into the Campbell High School band that morning as usual – quiet, shy, and unnoticed. Hastily scrawled on the chalk board were the words "Anyone who wants to try out for the student director, write your name on the board." Eight names of popular students were jotted underneath. Seizing the moment, I walked to the board and wrote my name down.

As a high school sophomore, I had never assumed any role of leadership before. So, what motivated me – a rather vertically challenged, 5'4", average musician – to stand in front of the band and potentially risk my reputation? The answer was simple. I had practiced for and dreamed of this moment for five years. At the age of ten, I would practice leading an imaginary philharmonic band to John Philip Souza's Stars and Stripes Forever. Tinker toy in hand, I would stand on a chair, cueing the trombones, trumpets, clarinets, drums, flutes and piccolo as my parents' record player blared the tune. I knew every nuance, every instrument introduction and melody. When the band director announced that we could select our own music, I knew that my day had arrived. No longer would Thomas McKee be an unknown name on Campbell's campus!

The day arrived. As the eight students practiced their conducting skills to Souza's tune, my confidence grew, pumping through my veins with each beat of the drum. Their performances were only mediocre. After a seeming eternity, I was handed the baton, and strode to the podium. With the raising of my baton, every instrument shot up in the air. The immediate synergy charged me with power like I had never before experienced, and I began to lead. To my delight, the band followed! The chemistry grew as I began cueing in different sections. I could see my quiet, reserved impression being shattered in the eyes of my fellow students. My fifties style, greased back hair began to flop all around like Elvis, and when I had finished and my baton was lowered, I received a standing ovation. At that moment, I knew that I must be one of those cats that had it.

Life lesson number one came a few weeks later when Mr. Perkins, the band leader, asked me to lead the band while he made a phone call. To my horror, I was asked to lead a Bach choral, a piece I had never heard before. I didn't know how to read music. All I knew was my own trumpet part, but I couldn't read bass clef, and the conductor's score looked like a jumble of black dots on a page. Gaining quick composure, I decided to follow the examples of many greater leaders faced with similar circumstances – fake it! Quickly, I counted the measures and arrived at 98. I determined to mentally count the measures out while leading the band, and when I reached 98, I would cut everyone off and no one would ever know the difference.

Standing before the band, I raised my baton and we were off…at John Philip Souza's pace. The Campbell High School band had never sounded so bad. By the sixth measure, I lost count, and after ten feeble measures, I cut everyone off and said "Anyone for John Philip Souza? It's all I know."

In the ensuing weeks, I discovered what some cats had and some cats didn't. I began to understand that life was going to continue handing me new pieces of music, and that I couldn't rely on old records forever to fake my way through. Successful cats had mastered three very important skills.

  • First, they could interpret the music. Equipped with a basic knowledge of life, themselves and their industry, they could anticipate changes and keep up with the rapid pace, making wise decisions along the way.
  • Second, they could feel the beat. Like great musicians who could gaze at a score and hear all the parts blending together, a successful cat could compile his knowledge, analyze it holistically, interpret it in light of changing times, and get excited about the future.
  • Finally, successful cats were leaders who could set a beat that anyone could follow. They were masters at communicating and equipping others to join in.

I decided I wanted to become a successful cat. I had learned my lesson.

Interpreting the Changing Score

An old Persian proverb demonstrates the significance of knowledge. In college, we used to apply it to the four classes of students: Freshman, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors.

  • A Freshman is a person who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know – He is a fool. Shun him.
  • A Sophomore is a person who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know – He is a child. Teach him.
  • A Junior is a person who knows, but doesn't know that he knows – He is asleep. Wake him.
  • A Senior is a person who knows, and knows that he knows – He is a leader. Follow him.

But how does a leader know that he knows?

I was in my early thirties when I decided to tackle graduate school. I wanted to become a leader, and realized that my philosophy of not letting my books interfere with my undergraduate education had caught up with me. My goal was to spend three years in the library, find the answers I was searching for, and walk away equipped as a powerful leader. Within weeks of my first quarter, I was swamped with information, and felt completely overwhelmed. After finals week, I trudged into a professor's office, listless and discouraged. Half an hour later, I walked out, having learned another important life lesson.

My professor told me that there is no such thing as an instantaneous leader. A leader knows that he knows, not because he has some piece of information, but because he has mastered a system of learning, of collecting data, interpreting it and applying it in life. I discovered that the most significant part of my education was learning to interpret the knowledge around me. Interpretation is wisdom, and wisdom is very different than mere knowledge.

For years, A.T. Cross Company dominated the luxury—pen market with their unique, elegantly designed pens which sold in the range of $25—$60. In the 80's, however, the pen market underwent a paradigm shift as the American consumer market began paying much higher prices for fashionably shaped luxury pens. In an effort to combat the new trend, Cross regrouped and expanded their distribution along mass—merchandising channels in order to maintain volume. This move resulted in the erosion of their image. They were no longer a status symbol, and to this day, the Cross pen no longer dominates the luxury—pen market. What went wrong? Could A.T. Cross have avoided their downfall? The data was available. They failed in their interpretation of it.

Feeling the Beat

What do the Challenger space disaster, the Orange County financial disaster, and the significant shift from American to Japanese manufactured cars all have in common? The signs were predictable. The future was readable. But people failed to interpret the data correctly. So, what are the skills in interpreting a changing culture? The following steps serve as guidelines in the interpretative process:

  • Gathering Information – thinking, reading and listening
  • Affirming Standards – determining what is "truth"
  • Setting the Vision – visualizing what the future looks like
  • Going for It – stepping out in confidence

Thinking Strategically

The first step to interpreting involves thinking strategically. The essence of being a futurist is thinking, and thinking begins with listening. I have found that leaders are readers. We can listen by reading ——anything from trade magazines to newspapers to books in our field. We listen by asking questions. We listen by observing. The 80/20 rule applies here. Listen 80% and talk 20%. In reality, most of us talk 95% and listen 5% —— and the 5% that we're "listening," we're really just thinking about what we're going to say next. No wonder we have such difficulty interpreting the future!

Affirming Your Standards

As a college student in the early sixties, I sometimes wondered whether there were any standards at all. I often felt like the CEO who called his Chief Engineer, his Vice President of Marketing and his Accountant into his office. He posed the same question to each one: "What is 1 + 1?" To this, the Chief Engineer answered, "1 + 1 is 2, plus or minus the square root of the difference between the mean and the median." The Vice President of Marketing answered, "1 + 1 is 4 today, but if you give me until tomorrow, I bet I can make it 5." And the Accountant said, "1 + 1? What do you want it to be?"

As much as I believe that our world is not all black and white, and that many things are relative, I also believe that certain truths exist, which remain constant throughout time. I am reminded of the student who walked into her music professor's studio and asked "What do you know for sure?" Taking his tuning fork, the music teacher struck it against his knee and said, "This is A. It was A yesterday, and it will be A tomorrow. The soprano next door is singing flat. The piano in this room is flat. But this is A."

How do we determine the "A's" in our lives? What are our founding values and core beliefs that hold true in the midst of life's changes? The answer to these questions lies in setting a firm purpose and a clear set of principles to fulfill that purpose.

Think of our nation. We have a purpose: "We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…" And we also have a clear set of principles: "We hold these truths to be self evident…" Successful people and organizations have a strong sense of purpose, and clear guiding principles. When President Kennedy proclaimed that we would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, he set forth a clear goal. Despite a myriad of changes, including his own assassination, a divisive war, and many failures along the way, one thing never changed – the mission!

Setting a Beat that Others Can Follow: A Vision of the Future

After thinking strategically and affirming your standards of measurement, it's time to take a wild stab at the future. Dream big! What do you want your future to look like?

Moments of dreaming often bring fears to the surface. At times, I think we all can relate to Charlie Brown, when he ambled over to Lucy's booth and paid her 5 cents for her psychiatric advice. Lucy looked at him and said, "Life is like a deck chair, Charlie Brown. On the cruise ship of life, some people place their chairs facing the rear of the ship so they can see where they've been. Other people face their chairs forward because they want to see where they're going." After a moment, Lucy asked, "Which way is your deck chair facing, Charlie Brown?" To this, Charlie Brown looked down glumly and sighed, "I've never been able to get my deck chair unfolded."

In today's fast paced world, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, like we are missing the real action. In these moments, it is important to be able to open our deck chairs. This requires establishing a personal planning process to help make our dreams a reality, and focusing that information into a vision or mission statement. The following questions are important in identifying the framework of your personal planning process:

What are the fifty things I want to do before I die? —— educationally, spiritually, relationally, vocationally, recreationally, physically, financially, etc. What will it take to accomplish these goals? What are the obstacles? Who will encourage me? Who will discourage me? Why? Which ones require a major change? Where can I find the motivation to keep going? Put a "$" by the ones which require money to accomplish Put a "V" by the ones which are in harmony with your core values Put an "S" by the ones which your spouse, family or special friends will encourage you in Put a number 1—5 on the top 5

After you have answered the previous questions, it is time to focus that information into a vision statement, often called a mission statement. The mission of a company, organization, church or person needs to not only state your vision, but also to affirm your values. I use the following seven questions to help me focus that statement. Try to answer each of these questions in seven words or less:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What do we value?
  3. What do we do?
  4. What is our product/service?
  5. Who is our customer?
  6. What makes us unique?
  7. How will we market ourselves?

Five years ago, when we decided to start our family business, we followed the above steps and answered these questions. Our answers looked something like this:

  1. Who are we? —— We are dynamic and creative business partners
  2. What do we value? —— We value honesty, integrity and open communication
  3. What do we do? —— We help businesses achieve growth and profitability
  4. What is our service? —— We provide sales training, staff development and strategic planning through communication
  5. Who is our customer? —— Small businesses and associations
  6. What makes us unique? —— We provide fun, motivation and future—focused services
  7. How will we market ourselves? —— Through satisfied client referrals, online newsletters, networking and association meetings

Turning these answers into a mission statement, we arrived at:

Advantage Point Systems, Inc. mission is to be the most widely sought after company to help small businesses and associations achieve their greatest possible growth and profitability. We will accomplish this mission by providing relevant, motivating, challenging, and strategic staff training and development services in the areas of sales, communication, strategic planning and world wide web publicity and marketing.

Our business started small with only two clients the first year. We all starved. But, in our fourth year, we have a client list of over 25 businesses and 20 associations. This year, we expanded our mission services to include developing and maintaining online newsletters for businesses and associations, as well as designing and publicizing web sites. I sometimes think back to my high school band days. But this time, there is a big difference. I am no longer listening to an old record and faking my way along. I have learned the secret that makes cats successful. I have a new score. In fact, I have learned to write new music for a changing culture.


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