Being an Active Musician Has Made Me a Better Consultant
Updated: Jan 21
If you are intrigued by my headline and know where I live in the world, you would expect me to carry a golf bag walking the best courses every Saturday and Sunday hobnobbing with local friends, executives, thought leaders, or weekend hacks who come to visit.
Truth be told, I’m a terrible golfer and – as much as it would come to the chagrin of my late grandfather – I gave up the game several years ago. I even donated my long-outdated clubs.
What I continue to enjoy is my passion for music. I’ve played drums since age 5 and picked up bass when I was a freshman in high school. Without taking a lesson, it continues to be an incredible gift. Everyone needs a hobby — playing music has been mine. It’s been my companion during celebrations and been my confidant and release during the tough times. My musical experiences – good and bad – have made me a better business partner, mentor, and leader.
So, if you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably asking yourself: how could sneaking into bars underage to play Roadhouse Blues in the middle of the night shape my career and professional behavior?
Enjoy the read!
The Art of Negotiation. Whether you’re an independent consultant or a large or small business owner, you’re always going to have to negotiate. Whether it’s a set of deliverables, contracts, payments, fees structures, team salaries — the art of negotiation is a necessary skill. It’s one of the hardest things to do because, no matter what level of an organization you’re supporting or what you’re delivering as a consultant, you’re going to have to represent yourself and/or your firm. You’re going to have to be able to assess, negotiate, and agree on the value of services, insights, direction, and milestones that you and your firm will deliver. Being a musician is no different. My greatest experience has come from negotiating with ornery bar owners who could care less about your band and are more interested in how many people you’re going to bring so they make money. (As a side note, this has always been a contentious topic with every working musician.) Suffice to say, most of the time the bar owner wins. Yet, I gained valuable skills at a young age negotiating an extra meal or bar tab or tips. Negotiation skills and positioning the value of your band is ultimately what you’re still doing as a consultant. It’s a lifelong skill that, in my view, can only be experienced the hard way.
Performance: Be Authentic, Engaging, and Have a Message. For some, being in front of an audience – whether it’s an audience of two or 2000 – always sparks some level of anxiety as well as an adrenaline rush. It’s no different being a musician. I always get excited and a little anxious about a gig, what’s next on the setlist, or if I remember a new song we’ve added to the mix. In the end, having to play at a very young age in front of – at times – hostile crowds, and being able to manage those that may have been spent too much time at the bar has made me a better consultant. In any setting, I’m able to breathe, actively listen, and really think through an appropriate response that needs to be delivered in an engaging, thoughtful, and truthful way. It’s about being authentic. When performing solo, as an acoustic act, or full band, people want energy, engagement, and strong skills in the form of a great set of songs. Clients expect the same (well, not necessarily the music part…)
Be Adaptable and Flexible. This is the linchpin of being a good consultant. You’ve got to be flexible and adaptable. Something as simple as your microphone not working happens on stage as a musician, and it happens if you’re making a presentation or facilitating a learning session with 500 people. In the band setting, you need to laugh it off and sing harmony vocals with the guitar player on their mic. If you’re hosting a presentation, and your lavalier isn’t working, calmly go to the podium and use that mic. You must be prepared to manage the unexpected. If you’re facilitating a discovery session with operational leaders on current challenges and you come to find out that key business executives are in the room, you’re going to quickly engage all parties and connect those operational issues with business strategy. It’s important to be ready and pivot content on the fly. It’s no different being in a band. If you’ve been told the venue you’re playing is big on classic rock and you show up and find a boisterous crowd requesting country, you better dig deep into your catalog to play something — anything — that’s country. Johnny Cash or Jason Aldean anyone?
Creativity. This one has always been one of my favorites because, as a musician, whether you’re playing cover songs or writing your own composition, you must always stretch yourself creatively. I find interpretation of existing material makes it fresh and exciting — not only for yourself but for others who are there to experience it. Being a consultant is no different. With so much data and thought leadership available on any topic, you have to interpret what you believe to be the most important aspects of those messages and strategies and distill them down into a cogent message with actionable steps that deliver results for your clients. In my view, creativity is the fuel that drives breakthrough results. New arrangements for 40+ year old tunes; fresh perspective when sharing insights with clients.
Enjoy Multi-tasking and the Ability to Control Chaos. This one is top of mind for me because I just played a gig over Christmas. An hour into the gig, the bar manager is running towards me saying we were too loud. At the same time, a woman is yelling at us that she is buying a celebratory round of drinks for the band all while our lead singer is telling me to end the set early. Multi-tasking or chaos? To top it off, I had my ear plugs in. I couldn’t hear a word. I had three separate people in a ballet of awkward pantomime. I took my plugs out. We turned down and played one last song before toasting the holidays. (It was very funny.) As a consultant, there is a constant need to multitask and control chaos — whether it’s managing a large program engagement with multiple leaders and executive stakeholders bickering over milestones or delivering bad news in detail to program sponsors. You may have multiple challenges like lack of electrical power, room temperature, or the fact that your competitors have snuck into the room to watch how well you do at the latest industry boondoggle. The bottom line is you must stay calm. You have to listen intently. Ultimately, you must be decisive with actions and expected outcomes. I learned early how to better manage crowds, adjust setlists on the fly, and solve sound problems at the same time. (Let’s remember, this is in a super loud bar, after midnight. Yes, I know good things don’t happen after midnight.). Yet, these experiences at a young age helped build lifelong skills as a consultant. It made it much easier for me to manage (or at least better influence) chaos, especially when you’ve got key client executives pounding the table with raised eyebrows saying fix this and fix it now. I chuckle at the thought.
Collaboration and Situational Leadership. Sounds like a big consulting phrase and, yes, it is! However, if you think about it, as a consultant you need to work as part of a larger team. You must step back and let others go through some sense of self-discovery even when you know there may be a better option. You’ll be there to catch them and guide them where their skill and energy is best utilized. At other times, you may take the lead on a project or present topics where you have domain expertise to industry colleagues as a “solo artist.” Being a musician is no different. You’re working with other musicians. At times, you play what’s necessary to keep the beat but other times you can take a solo. Whether you’re singing harmony, playing the melody, or just being able to bring something together that sounds cool, it’s not a matter of always being in the spotlight. It’s a matter of making others around you better so that, in total, you perform better.
Build a Sense of Community. One of the greatest continued experiences I have in my life is building a broader sense of community with the group of musicians that I have been blessed to play with over the past 40 years. These shared experiences are built on trust, creativity, innovation, and the notion that at its core we cheer each other on to ensure that there is a shared level of success. Is there hardcore competition? You bet! Yet, the common core of community holds us all together. Consulting, in my opinion, is no different especially if you are a boutique among the global players. You want there to be a sense of community and shared experience. The common purpose – be it industry focus, expertise, or services – is predicated on significant shared experiences and mutual success. Client engagement means the work you are doing and the need for your expertise exists. It’s validation that you, your company, or your competitors are working towards solving client challenges together, even though we are competing against one another.
Be Unique and Differentiate Yourself. This may seem counter to my earlier point regarding community, but each member needs to have something that makes them unique. Whether you’re a musician or consultant, it’s no different. Every band worth their salt always wants to stand out. Somebody has a cooler guitar. Or, that band has a female singer singing Elvis Presley. Some people dig that. Some people dislike it. In the end, a successful working band has proven that they can draw a crowd, people like their music, and – because of that – the bar owner makes money. The band makes money and gains more bookings. They offer something different from other bands. It’s no different in consulting. There are certain consultants that are hyper-focused on executive coaching, others on talent acquisition. The question is: have you differentiated your services, have you demonstrated your expertise, and are clients willing to buy them? If the answer is yes, you will gain repeat business and new opportunities with more clients. Delivering these differentiated services will help drive your market visibility, your credibility, and your ability to scale these services over time.
Stay in the Moment and Believe in Yourself. Finally, as I opened this paper, I think back to my grandfather who always used the old cliché “with age comes wisdom.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the God given gifts that I have: to still play drums for four hours a night; to learn a song on bass in less than 30 minutes; to share that gift with anyone that’s willing to listen. I find great joy every time I step onstage and still do it in my mid 50s (yes, the Stones are in their late 70s… let’s hope!). It’s no different being a consultant. You must stay in the moment and appreciate the fact that you have clients or prospects that want to listen to what you have to say. That you have earned the opportunity because of your experience, being authentic, and being true to yourself and your craft. That there are clients who are willing to listen, and you can help them reach a better business outcome time and again.
The key client questions many colleagues and I ask are: What are you trying to achieve? What are your pain points? Where do you believe we can help you? A good consultant needs to stay in the moment and listen. You can learn a lot about people, about challenges, and about their aspirations. As a musician, when you sit down with your bandmates, you always ask yourself: What are we trying to achieve? It could be as simple as writing a song or it could be as large as “we want to become the next U2.” In either case, staying in the moment, listening to and learning from each other, and being true to yourself is what makes being an active musician so rewarding. I’m thankful that my continued experience as a musician applies now more than ever as I strive to evolve as a consultant. The one caveat: I won’t be sneaking into a client’s HQ unannounced as I did to play the juke joints in upstate NY when I was 17.