Taking team performance up to 11: building your team like an 80s Rock-band

When it comes to inspiration on how to lead teams to maximum performance, I have had some very different “muses”. There was my Jack Welch from GE phase, my Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bulls phase and even, dare I say it, there was my Tony Soprano phase. I relentlessly studied their leadership habits and like a cover band I tried to mimic their greatest habits/hits. Some of the routines worked out great (I recommend Tony Soprano’s approach to giving your “capos” autonomy), but others not so much (in-sync breathing in team meetings from Phil Jackson anyone?).

About 6-7 years or so ago, I learned that the language leaders use to talk about the world determines how their teams see the world in which they operate. In short, language shapes behaviours. I noticed this first-hand when I drew my inspiration from business leaders, sport coaches and military men. My leadership vocabulary was full of “Winning”, “Losing” and “World Domination”. The culture and behaviours you create through this language is a culture of beating the competition by better execution and closing the gap. I noticed that it proved to be a great language for the transitional change situations I found myself in. For instance, my winning-takes-all leadership style helped in turn-around situations where we quickly needed to make up ground. In such situations the approach is: provide a clear “we are going from A-to-B”-storyline, focus on results and be lavish in your praise.  However, I also observed that after 2.5 years or so my teams started to reach a performance plateau. When you have fought your way to the fore-front, closing performance gaps to the competition no longer applies as a maxim for your teams. In order to go above and beyond you need to do stuff differently. I needed new inspiration on how I could help my teams overcome this plateau. It forced me to overcome the plateau I had reached in my own leadership style.

It took a while before I found my new muses, but since 4 years or so I have been taking inspiration on how to lead teams from a completely different group of muses: 80s Rock Bands. Yes, that’s right, I have found that when it comes to delivering superior & lasting team performance and overcoming obstacles there is a lot one can learn from those brown-M&M hating, hotel room-thrashing, groupie-loving, big-hairdo wearing rock gods from the Reagan era. You see, despite all their antics, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, AC/DC, Def Leppard and all those others rock bands, figured out the secret formula for gearing up teams to maximum performance in very difficult circumstances.

I have compiled a list of 11! things (I salute you Nigel Tufnel) that these bands do consistently well in order to achieve peak performance over and over again. I have divided my top 11 list in three distinct categories. The first set deals with the band composition. The second set deals with the band-culture whereas the third set is all about how the band deals with the outside world.

Band composition: getting the right band together

Getting the right kind of people on board is crucial to form high performing teams. I have found that every team needs at least the following members to achieve lasting performance:

1.      Every team needs a Duff McKegan (i.e. a bass player)

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The bass player forms the foundation of every band. He or she is a team player by default because he maintains a steady rhythm and brings all the other instruments together. Bass players wear no crowns and win no glory: they shine in the shade, keep their cool and make sure everybody in the band knows what needs to be done because they bring structure to the songs. You will immediately notice when a team does not have a decent bass player: team meetings will not have structure, the backlog on the scrum board will  be all over the place and there is no instant overview of the budget and/or performance achieved. In growing the performance of teams, one of the first people I look to is the bass player: is someone bringing structure to the team(meetings)? Does somebody make sure that the team knows where they are going by providing performance reports? In agile environments, the scrum master is very much the bass-player of the team. If you are not in an agile environment, look for the team member that focusses on creating overview and structure for the team. This is not necessarily the teamlead. Once you have your bass player in place, it is time to source the guitar virtuoso for your band.

2.      Every team needs an Eddie van Halen (a creative trailblazer)

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All 80s rock band had at least one phenomenally talented lead guitar player. Think Eddie van Halen, Slash and Angus Young. Lead guitarist are known for their riffs and their heavy metal powersolos and unique riffs. The reason that they get to do the solo is that they master their instrument like no other guitarist in the band. For me, the ultimate lead guitarist is Eddie van Halen. He reshaped guitar playing: he was an innovator that invented new ways of playing the guitar, he was a fabricator that modified his instruments in ways to make them sound like pianos or violins. In teams, your Eddie van Halen is your creative problem solver, the type of person that uses their craftsmanship and pioneering spirit to find new ways to solve problems. They love to experiment and drive improvements and clearly know their stuff. If your team does not have an Eddie van Halen it can still be a successful team within a stable environment. However, when your environment is in flux or you have reached a performance plateau, you need a trailblazer on board that drives innovation. A person that is not afraid to try new stuff, and a person that has a vision beyond the status quo. I have learned to identify the Eddie van Halen’s by the passion that they have for the job they do or the company they work for. They are open-minded and they don’t get discouraged when solutions don’t work. They keep tinkering even after office hours to come up with novel solutions and they are very up-to-date with the latest and greatest in their functional discipline (i.e. craft). After you have identified them within your teams, connect with them and connect them with other innovators across organisational silo and have them work on challenging business problems together in specific taskforces. Also, make sure you put a spotlight on the ideas and innovations that they bring, since these are their heavy-metal power solos that will get you above and beyond your current performance plateau.  Note: if you have never heard Eddie van Halen’s “Eruption”-guitar solo, put it on your Spotify list. It will be the best 10 minutes of guitar playing you will ever hear.

3.      The case of John “Stumpy” Pepys: why you need to sure you have a string of replacement band members lined-up

80s rock bands had a tendency to loose band members from alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses, car/bus accidents or plain old creative differences. However, all great bands dealt with the loss of bandmembers swiftly by putting in place a skilled replacement. Think Matt Sorum (drummer for GNR), Brian Johnson (singer for AC/DC) and Peter “James” Bond (Spinal Tap). If you are leading teams, I believe it is one of your main tasks to be scouting for talent. Like most rock bands, your original line up will last no longer than 2-3 years max (or 2 albums). Therefore, make sure for each team-member you know at least 2-3 replacements you could contact when push comes to shove. In that way you will make sure that the team will continue producing hits even after its original line-up has left.

Band values:  combining determination, grit, improvisation, diversity, open communication and managing conflict constructively

Putting a band together is one thing. The second challenge for you as a manager or business leader is to make sure that your team works according to a set of shared values.

4.      Determination: play until your fingers bleed  

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Everybody who has ever listened to Slash casually playing his solos and riffs in such evergreen songs as “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child of Mine” will attest that such craftmanship can only come from hours and hours of practicing and a thick pad of skin on ones fingertips. Simply put, becoming very skilled at something requires hard work, determination and time (the famous 10.000 hour rule). In the context of high performing teams, I believe that 10% of time should be spend on skill/career development. As a manager you will need to make sure that you provide personal development/career paths and schedule development time so that your rookies can become highly trained professionals. Additionally, for senior professionals you need to make sure they can move in several directions supported by personal/managerial development programmes and that they help junior team members to grow their skills. Although this value is more on improvement toughness (your willingness to improve) , the next item is on mental toughness (your mental capacity to deal with obstacles).

5.      Moving on from failure: don’t stop believing

Success is not about never falling down. It is about falling down, getting up and moving on. Winston Churchill once said that success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Real lasting success is all about resilience and overcoming obstacles, enthusiastically. If you take a look at the biographies of 80s hard rock bands, you will encounter lots of obstacles: substance abuse, plane accidents, traffic accidents and scummy managers. Yet, when one looks at the top-grossing bands of the last decade Metallica, Guns and Roses, AC/DC and Bon Jovi still make the top 20. These bands never “took the midnight train back to Georgia”, but rather they persevered by focussing on what they enjoyed and found comfort in creativity. This is exactly what high performing teams do: they have the courage and mental toughness to continue despite setbacks.

6.      Walk this way: improvise and dare to take different approaches

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By the mid-1980s, the record industry had pretty much written Aerosmith off. The band members were spending more time in rehab than in recording studios and their 1970s hits were long behind them. Around that time, famed producer Rick Rubin was working with up-and-coming hip-hop group Run DMC on a cover version of Walk this way, an Aerosmith anthem from the 1970s. Rick Rubin did not intend to do a cover version, rather he wanted to do a collaboration cover version (a collab) where Aerosmith and Run DMC performed the song together. Aerosmith was open to the idea and the result was a game changer that has since been copied by other respected artist such as Jay Z and Linkin Park. The moral of the Aerosmith story for high performing teams is this: always be open to try new ideas and make sure you work with people who aren’t anything like you.

7.      Manage conflict constructively: taming some kind of monster

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Individuals have their own ideas and sets of beliefs and as a result all bands and teams will inevitably run into some sort of conflict. While some may say that you should try to avoid conflict at all time, I believe that constructive conflict can lead to self-growth, improve relationships . I therefore believe that the best teams are teams that manage conflict constructively. But how can you have a constructive conflict? Again, 80s rock band provide the inspiration, especially Metallica. Metallica has had its share of conflict and it has been very successful of dealing with it. In 1991 when they produced the Black Album, they were in conflict on the songs and the recording process, which resulted in a now legendary album. However, in 2001, after having been in a band for over 15 years, internal (relationship) conflicts between band members threatened the future of the band. The band was in a serious relationship crisis and they therefore decided on group therapy. Luckily for us, they invited a camera team to make a documentary on this process (see Some Kind of Monster). Through group therapy, the band members learned to re-appreciate one-another and reconnect to the mission they had when they started the band: the love for heavy music. When conflict arose, they would no longer irritate one another, but rather they had learned to accommodate and appreciate one another. The same goes for high-performing teams: they have conflict but in a pro-active and dialogical way and they never forget their higher purpose. (For a great write up on conflict as an enabler for Metallica’s success, please read:

8.      Open communication: honesty & 2-way communication

Over 35 years ago, Twisted Sister front-man Dee Snider, addressed the US Senate Committee on Commerce on the topic of record labelling. This was the time when some influential wives of US Senators decided it was a “good idea” to put stickers on CDs, warning the buying audience of the use of explicit language “in order to protect young children and teenagers”. Dee however, saw it for what it really was: censorship of art. Dee was not someone to be intimidated by a number of US senators and articulately spoke his mind on the subject that day in the committee hearing. He clearly won the argument. Despite his clear argumentation, the record industry still decided to please Washington and put labels on music which contained explicit language. Dee’s situation with the record industry not supporting him was very much the same as middle management dropping the ball on their teams to please the top brass.  As a manager, business leader or team member I believe you should make sure that you create a climate where people feel free to give feedback to each other. Furthermore, I also firmly believe that you should make sure the team can share their feedback across the organisation, even if that feedback does not please the top brass.  You therefore have to make sure that middle-management does not put too many “stickers” (i.e. censorship) on the information that comes from the trenches. After all, good strategy execution requires two-way communication and honesty about what is happening.

9.      Come as you are: make sure everybody can wear their colors with pride

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When Dee Snider addressed the US Senate, he wore a tank top and a jeans jacket. He was the kind of guy that did not own a suit and this clothing presented who he was so why should he wear a suit in the first place? I have found that the most important thing as a leader is to create an environment where people can be the same person on the job and off-the job. Irrespective of their demographic qualities, sexual orientation, and love for body art (tattoos, nose-rings etc), everybody should feel welcome and feel uninhibited to contribute to the team. If you look at 80s rock bands closely, you will see some very outrageous fashion statements (orange parachute pants anyone?), hair-do’s and make-up. Those fashion statements were made both on- and off-stage: what you saw was pretty much what you got. And while the ozon layer may have been depleted by all the amounts of hairspray that was consumed, I believe that these bands reached peak performance because they were so comfortable in their skins and they could act so utterly as themselves. Therefore, never ever judge team members on face value, but rather judge people on their contributions and the effort they put into their work. And corporate dress-codes? Well let’s just forget about those altogether.   

Band Ethic: how your teams deal with the outside world

Teams do not operate in isolation. In order to achieve peak performance, they have a certain way in which they interact witch the outside world.

10.  Trust but Verify: why your teams don’t want brown M&M’s

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Van Halen had one of the most specific requests of all rockbands: backstage before a concert it wanted a bowl of M&Ms, with all the brown ones removed. For years, it was seen as complete over the top behaviour. In reality however, the truth behind this request is far more interesting and shows how one should manage interdependencies. You see, Van Halen used the bowl of M&Ms as an indicator of whether the concert promotor had read their requirement document (the so-called rider). If there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, Van Halen concluded the concert promotor or venue had not taken notice on some other requirements for their production. Since they used heavy equipment, lightning and pyrotechnics for their shows, they needed to be sure that the venue was well prepared for their specific demands. In business, the most succesfull teams are very articulate about the conditions that need to be in place for them to reach peak performance. They clearly state those conditions in user stories, action and issues trackers. They then use these documents to verify whether those conditions are met, so that they can perform flawlessly.

11.  Focus on the music: don’t change your passion for glory

When bands start, they are always on the lookout for a place where they can play their songs in front of an audience. They do not expect to be paid upfront by a promotor and they are more than happy to ride together in a smelly van. These bands feel that they are owed absolutely nothing for working hard on their music. Only if they actively and consistently provide value to other people (ie the audience) can they expect a result (filled arenas, money-in-the-bank, groupies).  The same goes for high performing teams. High performing teams are always looking on where they can improve value for their customers (internal or external) and they certainly do not start with the value success brings to the team. After initial success high performing teams discriminate themselves from other teams because they do not lose grip on their original passion and mission to provide value to the customer. They are far less interested in the paycheck. I have learned that this is the hardest part of sustained high performance: how to make sure teams do not get jaded by success and start losing focus on adding value to customers.

Well there you have it: the 11 traits of 80s rock bands that are applicable to any high performing team in any context. Please take a minute to see where you or your team need to grow and make a plan on how you want to improve on that trait. Because as Keith Richards so rightfully said: Good music comes out of people playing together, knowing what they want to do and going for it.