Management Articles


Some Cats Got It...Some Cats Don't!

By: Thomas W. McKee

Thomas W. McKee is president of Advantage Point Systems, Inc., a staff development and change management firm. Thomas is an author, motivational speaker, trainer and leader. He has spoken to over 1/2 million people and taught the Advantage Point System method of change management to over 100,000 managers in companies like Hewlett Packard, Ernst and Young, Procter and Gamble, the California Department of General Services, and the IRS. ; For information about the Advantage Point System of managing change see

Some of life's hardest lessons can yield the greatest harvest in our personal and professional lives. When I was only sixteen, I had one of those moments. Driving in my hopped up '36 Ford, I heard the Big Bopper interviewed on the radio. When asked what the secret of his success was, he responded "Some cats got it! Some cats don't!" I was awe struck. What on earth did these cats have? Did I have it? The answers to these questions came crashing down on my head two months later.

My status in high school had gone from virtual anonymity to stardom overnight when I was elected student director of the high school band. Little did my teacher or my fellow students realize that I could only wield a wild baton to John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. With tinker toy in hand, I had been rehearsing that piece for more than 10 years to my parents' old 78 record. But when my teacher asked me to lead the band in a Bach Chorale, I knew I was in trouble. I had never heard that record before, and what's more, the conductor's score loomed before me like a chaotic splattering of unintelligible black dots.

Have you ever heard Bach to the beat of Sousa? It's not pretty. I failed miserably, and my leadership for the moment came to an abrupt end. It was in this moment of embarrassment and shame that I learned one of the most important principles of managing change. Life continually hands us new pieces of music! I learned that old records would not suffice. If I was going to be successful, I needed to know how to read music in order to interpret a changing score. I was on my way to becoming a cat that "got it."

Change is an ever developing and unfolding reality. Without the ability to understand and move with a changing score, we will find ourselves embarrassed and left in the dust. Three new pieces of corporate music that are striking with a powerful fist today are downsizing, reengineering and restructuring. An American Management Association study reported that the employers of America's top 100 companies dumped 25% of their employees between 1989 and 1994. The impact on morale was devastating. Eighty-six percent of these companies experienced a loss of confidence. Scott Adams has responded to the devastation of these companies and employees. As creator of Dilbert and author of The Dilbert Principle, he has become one of this decade's best selling authors of management books because he addresses the cynicism and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness that many workers who have been downsized, reengineered and restructured experience.

How can confidence and a positive morale be restored in a team of people left after a downsizing or reengineering? How can team leaders restore a passion for change, a hope for the future, a trust in leadership and an enthusiasm for growth? What do "some cats got?" They have the vision and passion to equip their managers and supervisors with the skills needed to lead new pieces of music, by mastering the following five techniques.

First, the great conductor can read and interpret new music.

Armed not only with basic knowledge and information about life, themselves and their industry, the successful cat also knows how to make sense of it - anticipating changes, keeping up with a rapid pace and making wise decisions along the way. Organizations and companies of today must have leaders at all levels of management. Herein lies the difference between a leader and a traditional manager: managers work best within the status quo; leaders strive for change in environments which are indifferent, hostile and often threatening. The leader must think strategically, be a visionary and welcome change. Great conductors can look at a new score and immediately hear the symphony in their head with all of the parts blending together. Like conductors, leaders compile knowledge, analyze it holistically, interpret it in light of changing times and get excited about the future. They are believers in change and have a strong faith in the future.

Second, the great conductor restores team confidence by establishing a strong and clear beat.

A skilled conductor sets a beat that is not only rhythmic, but interpretive. When the conductor begins to lead, the orchestra not only knows what rhythm to play, but also when to crescendo and decrescendo, when to come in and go out and all the other subtleties and nuances that are involved in performing the piece. A poor conductor spells disaster! The team in transition needs a strong and interpretive beat from the team leader.

Third, the great conductor restores team confidence by bringing out the best in the musicians.

When Leonard Bernstein conducted, many of the orchestra members would memorize their scores in advance in order to watch him. Why? They loved Bernstein's expressiveness when he truly enjoyed their music. As a magnificent conductor and composer, they knew Bernstein wouldn't settle for mediocrity. But, the desire to please him with their music inspired them toward superiority and musical excellence. Like Bernstein, the team leader will let the members know when they are doing well. High expectations can meet with success when team members are allowed to experience the joy of the leader. Under conditions of encouragement and pleasure, the best can be brought out in the team.

Fourth, the great conductor restores team confidence by listening.

Arturo Toscanini, the famous Italian conductor, demonstrated his sensitivity both to his orchestras and his music by listening to individual musicians. By simply listening, he was able to prevent mistakes from happening. How did he do it? He recognized that feelings are often forerunners of mistakes. Acts often proceed from feelings, whether good or bad. If a conductor is sensitive to the feelings of the individual orchestra members, any hesitancy or lack of concentration can be headed off before it spirals into a disastrous mistake. When leaders are sensitive and "tuned in" to the needs and feelings of team members, changes are dealt with smoothly and with eagerness. When leaders fail to listen, team synergy disintegrates.

Fifth, the great conductor breaks the score down into manageable sections.

Too much at one time can be overwhelming. To deviate from the music analogy for a moment, consider Michael Jordan. When he returned to basketball after playing baseball for a while, Peter Vescy asked him, "Michael, do you think that you can come back to basketball where you left off - averaging 32 points a game?" Michael Jordan's response offers an incredibly valuable and insightful lesson on management. Michael Jordan said to Peter, "Why not? That's only 8 points a quarter." By breaking the entire game down into sections, Michael Jordan could focus one quarter at a time. And he was successful.

What "some cats got" and "some cats don't" is the ability to master these five key leadership skills when they are faced with change. Like a great conductor, they can read and interpret the music, set an interpretive beat that others can follow, instill hope and confidence in the team through words of encouragement and a listening ear, and break the music down into manageable parts. When these skills are applied, life's changing score can be met with confidence.

© 1998 Advantage Point Systems Inc.

Other Articles by Thomas W. McKee

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