If you haven’t heard the name Berry Gordy, you have surely heard of the monumental musical acts he developed and launched as the head of Motown Records. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the list literally goes on and on. There is a great documentary out about him called “Hitsville, The Making of Motown” and it’s worth a look as much for the musical exploration as it is to get inside the head of visionary.
There were three things that impressed me most about Berry that I think are great lessons for any leader:
- Berry applied what he learned – Berry worked on the assembly line at Ford in Detroit, and realized he could use that concept to make hit records. Find the talent, write the songs, produce the record, train the talent to represent the brand, repeat. You can argue the “artistry” of this method (as my wife and I did), but it proved to be a winning formula to make records people wanted to listen to and buy. What have you experienced that could be tweaked or modified to help you fix a current situation? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
- Berry didn’t have to be the best – Berry knew he had assembled a very talented team of writers, arrangers and musicians. And despite Berry’s own musical talent, he recognized that a lot of the people on the Motown team were more talented than he was. There were many stories in the film where Berry was outvoted on something or he stepped aside to let others shine. That’s why you may not have heard of Berry Gordy, but you HAVE heard of the Jackson 5. Who on your team is more talented than you are? When was the last time you got out of the way so they could shine?
- Berry recognized when things had to change – as they gained popularity, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder both started to balk at the Motown “system”. They were writing different types of songs and addressing different subjects (politics, Vietnam war). Berry had originally stated that Motown would not deal with those topics to keep the music accessible to all, but what he found was that times were changing and that meant that HE had to change, Motown Records had to change. He recognized that even if you have a great system, people are still going to be people and do what they want. When what they are doing is working, don’t fight it! What change or new direction have you been fighting? Is anyone being held back because of the “system”?
Honestly, that last one can get a little sticky, because it’s a judgment call. There is no absolute right or wrong, and a leader has to know how to balance sticking with the system and letting someone express themselves. Sometimes that comes from experience, sometimes it comes from the gut.
If you’ve seen this movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts. It also talks about a pretty amazing culture that was developed at Motown, and I think it developed through the things mentioned above… high standards and a shared goal, willingness to listen and let others shine and the ability to be agile when needed.
Sounds like a big hit to me!
Thanks for reading!