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Rhythm Kings: Leaders in context

For leaders, it is not enough to increase their self-awareness and apply their skills where most needed. They have to become masters of ...

By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones . 01 March 2006

For leaders, it is not enough to increase their self-awareness and apply their skills where most needed. They have to become masters of context. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones discover organisational rhythm.
Rhythm Kings Leaders in contextThere is a pattern to change, a rhythm we see in organisations with effective leaders. That rhythm is: observe, understand, adapt, and re-write.

Consider Rick Dobbis, an experienced senior executive in the music business with experience at companies such as RCA, Sony and Polygram. Rick is a quintessential New Yorker. We first observed him when he ran the Polygram Labels Group, a loose association of Polygram's smaller labels in the US. He brought hard marketing expertise to this role together with sensitivity to the more tender souls of the A&R world and, of course, to the artists. Then a new opportunity offered itself. He got the chance to run Polygram's European operations – 26 countries accounting for around half of the group’s profits.

Not many American entertainment executives make a successful transition to Europe (and the same is largely true of those who attempt the feat in the reverse direction). The contacts and cultures are fundamentally different. The business covers large territories like France and Germany, both with distinctive musical cultures; medium-sized ones like Spain, with its potential to internationalise repertoire into Latin America; Italy; Scandinavia, with a strongly emerging repertoire base; and smaller countries like Portugal and Belgium, which rarely produce international hits but which still have thriving music industries. (After all, it was a Belgian who invented the saxophone.)

Dobbis approached all of this contextual diversity with an endless cultural curiosity combined with a clearly communicated willingness to help. He avoided the “I know the best way to do this” syndrome and conveyed a genuine openness to learn from his colleagues. He watched, understood, adapted and, finally, began to re-write the context. He started to hold meetings of all 16 managing directors. He ran workshops on best practice, he encouraged the signing of local artists, always keeping close to the flavour of the local music scene – resisting the temptation to impose from the centre. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, they formed into a strong team. Repertoire flows between countries increased, the coordination of marketing international hits from the US and the UK improved. It became probably the strongest part of Polygram's operation.

As Rick Dobbis demonstrates, leadership works most effectively when you have understood the context and made a judgment about what can be rewritten and what cannot.

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