5 Lessons from the Mormon Choir

choirHow can we learn leadership skills from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Well read on and you’ll find out how. This is a great article that explains how this choir sets sky high standards as one of their key focuses and all with an army of volunteers.

I particularly liked the choir’s laser focus on “hiring” the right people and how this is often not a focus when we hire in retail. There are many other learning’s that come out of this intriguing article. Well worth a read.

If you’re like many business leaders, you feel the pressure to produce measurable results.

But what if you had to do it in a conspicuously public way? And on a relentless schedule that never, ever, accommodates pesky little things like holidays or other forms of time out?

What if your efforts were showcased every week on more than 2,000 radio, television, and Internet outlets all over the world?

And what if your team consisted mostly of volunteers? That’s right, unpaid volunteers!

That’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the most recognizable “brands” on the planet. And all this magic is pulled off by a leadership team that includes a retired elementary school principal, an ex Procter & Gamble marketer, and a former human resources chief for a large food wholesaler. Experts in arithmetic, soap, and groceries can apparently combine for great music. Who would have guessed?

Originally established in 1847 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the MoTab, as it’s affectionately called, is an international phenomenon. Its weekly broadcast, launched in 1929, is the undisputed longest running, uninterrupted program in radio history.

The Choir has done more than 200 recordings and won countless awards including Grammys and Emmys. It’s performed at 13 world fairs, at the inaugurations of ten U.S. presidents, at the Olympics, and at concerts in 28 countries. Its non-denominational worldwide audience is in the tens of millions.

So, how can all this be pulled off with mostly volunteers?

The formula is fairly straightforward. And to a great extent, much of it can be adapted in a traditional business environment.

  1. Embrace an engaging cause. While the notion of “engagement” is a favorite focus of today’s organizational experts, the Tabernacle Choir discovered it a century and a half ago. True engagement, they’ll tell you, is a function of discretionary effort. People don’t become engaged because they’ve been ordered or compelled to. They become engaged because they deliberately choose to invest their energy, ingenuity, gifts, and passion in a cause that has meaning and value to them.

The Tabernacle Choir’s cause is simply to give voice to the hopes, joys, trials, and triumphs of people around the world. Yes, they are unflinchingly devoted to their Christian faith. But their primary purpose is to uplift and encourage, not to proselyte.

“A key to this organization’s longevity as well as its enormous success is its culture of commitment,” says Ron Jarrett, president of the Choir. “When people are zealously devoted to a cause bigger than themselves, there’s really no limit to what they can accomplish.”

The Mormons call it consecration. But by whatever term, the fervor with which they embrace their mission produces remarkable results. The Choir includes academics, executives, homemakers, scientists, engineers, and people who work in sales, law, health care and several other disciplines. But whatever their “day jobs” may be, they invest hundreds of hours per year in rehearsals, recordings, and broadcast performances. Tours, which can be grueling for even the most seasoned traveler, are done while they’re on vacation from their paying jobs.

“Aside from all the marvelous technology we use for our recordings and broadcasts, the ‘people factor’ is always the bottom line,” says Jarrett, who was an elementary school principal for 22 years. “Having gifts or talents is not enough. Sustainable excellence is a matter of the heart as well as the head.”

Or, as a behavioral scientist might put it: action without passion will not endure, nor will passion without action. People must find meaning in the work they do.

  1. Insist on sky-high standards. President Ronald Reagan referred to the MoTab as “America’s Choir.” Famed orchestra conductor Erich Kunzel said the all-volunteer Tabernacle Choir is the most professional choral group in the world.

That kind of praise comes at the price of uncompromising rigor.

Similar to major league baseball’s use of “farm clubs” to assess and develop players, the Tabernacle Choir has its own talent appraisal program. It’s called the Temple Square Chorale. Tryouts involve three steps. An aspiring member first submits a demo CD or tape. This is followed by a two and a half hour written exam to assess music skills proficiency. Candidates must score 80% or higher. Step three, for those who make it that far, is an in-person audition with Mack Wilberg, the Choir’s famed music director. He focuses on things like vocal range to size up a candidate’s fitness for the big leagues.

But that’s just the beginning. Singers who endure the first three tryout phases earn a ticket to run in the marathon. That’s a four-month regimen of twice-weekly rehearsals and training sessions in subjects ranging from music skills to deportment for television. Attendance requirement: 100%.

Does successful completion of this endurance test get you a seat in the MoTab? It gets you a place in the queue. The Choir has a roster of 410 singers, but no more than 360 perform at once. The “bench strength” is maintained to accommodate retirements (required at age 60 or after 20 years of service, whichever comes first) or the occasional resignation when someone’s family moves to another area.

Similar discipline is required of the 85-member Orchestra on Temple Square that performs with the Choir.

Can you imagine how a typical business could benefit from a screening process this laser-focused on excellence?

  1. Be of one voice. Music director Wilberg, a coal miner’s son with a University of Southern California Ph.D., is admired worldwide for his compositions and arrangements, published exclusively by Oxford University. He’s also known for his no-nonsense insistence on excellence. In normal conversation he’s quiet, genuinely humble, almost bashful. When he steps to the conductor’s podium the metamorphosis seems instantaneous: he leads with the tenacious confidence of Gen. George Patton. If any of the 360 choir members is out of sync (yes, he really can notice an individual in the crowd), he’ll halt a rehearsal in mid lyric and announce something like “There’s a tenor sticking out.” If the singer continues to freelance, he may stop again and say “Get with the rest of us or I’ll need to call out your name.”

With this leader, there’s nowhere to hide.

Humble perfectionist: Director Wilberg is quick to praise top performance.

“We try to operate on the principle of E Pluribus Unum,” Wilberg says. “We have hundreds of very talented people. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. True excellence is a product of synergy.”

Many leadership coaches use the metaphor of a choir director or orchestra conductor. Mack Wilberg personifies the metaphor.

And as it turns out, the metaphor of “oneness” is apparently literal.  A study published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology confirms that choir music has calming effects on the heart. In fact, the study shows, singing in unison produces synchronized heart rates among the participants.

So the teamwork cliché about “let’s lock arms and sing Kumbaya” may have merit after all.

Unified focus on core principles and practices is seen in a range of environments, from the world class medical care provided by Mayo Clinic to customer-centric cultures at Disney and Southwest Airlines to the unrelenting emphasis on safety at nuclear power stations. Harmony can take many forms.

  1. Think globally, act locallyWhile tending to the big picture of international audiences, MoTab people have made a science of “the little things” that are woven into a marvelous operational tapestry.

Take travel, for example. A Choir tour resembles the deployment of a small army. Transporting hundreds of singers, scores of orchestra members, and dozens of support staff requires three chartered airplanes, 11 buses, plus multiple semi-trailer trucks to haul sound systems, lights, risers, wardrobe, choral shell and other gear required for a performance.

Much of the planning falls to Barry Anderson, whose official title is administrative manager but who’s generally known as the MoTab’s logistics wizard. Anderson spent 26 years at grocery distribution giant Fleming Companies, working in senior roles that included human resources and customer service. That background serves him well today.

“My job is all about simplification,” Anderson says. “We have hundreds of gifted volunteers, and I want to enable them to do their work without the nuisance of distractions.”

Distractions can come in the form of travel hassles. So the logistics wizard and his team developed systems that rival the most attentive concierge. For example, when the MoTab tours, chartered buses are parked on the airport tarmac ready to transport Choir members to their hotel. Special trucks, manned by professional (volunteer) drivers, haul the personal luggage. The bags are then hand-delivered to the appropriate hotel rooms. Nobody stands in registration lines. In fact, there’s no need ever to step into the hotel lobby. Every detail is managed quietly and seamlessly “backstage.”

On the credenza in his Salt Lake City office Anderson keeps a small sign held over from his corporate days: “No excuses. No surprises.” That mantra is reflected everywhere in the organization. A team of volunteer seamstresses and tailors design and construct costumes. Men’s suits are purchased hundreds at a time to ensure consistency of fabric dye lots. Four volunteer librarians manage a collection of 1.6 million pieces of music. They’re assisted by 32 volunteer “section librarians” assigned to different portions of the Choir (altos, tenors, baritones, etc.). If the Choir and orchestra are going to perform “wet” music, meaning it’s been freshly composed or arranged, it’s the librarians who must quickly print and distribute the scores.

The takeaway? Find simplicity in the face of complexity. Replace clutter with simple resolve.

  1. Adapt or die. As Army General Eric Shinseki put it, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.” Just ask veterans of General Foods, PaineWebber, MCI, Montgomery Ward, or any other outfit that failed to keep up with the times.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, now in its 167th year, manages to be hip while staying loyal to its historic roots. Guest narrators and performers have ranged from historian David McCullough and actress Angela Lansbury to songwriter/singer James Taylor and, recently, stage performer Santino Fontana, who provided the voice of Prince Hans in Disney’s mega-hit “Frozen.”

“Our repertoire ranges from Bach to Broadway,” says general manager Scott Barrick. “You’re just as likely to find our work on your nephew’s iPod as in your grandmother’s record collection.”

Barrick, with a Harvard MBA degree, spent his earlier career managing brands like Zest and Mr. Clean at Procter & Gamble, then pet food for Mars, then checking services for a large California bank. In 2001, while serving as bishop of his local Mormon congregation, he came across a flyer that mentioned a job opening for business manager with the Tabernacle Choir. His wife pointed out that if he took the job he would earn a fraction of his former salaries while likely doing the work of several people. “It’s perfect,” they agreed.

There’s that consecration thing again.

“With the Choir, I’m really a product manager,” Barrick says. “This is one of the best-known brands in the world. It needs to be managed carefully.”

One of the first things he did was help establish the Choir’s own recording label. Since 2003 alone, the Choir has produced 29 CDs, 15 DVDs, and eight books. All are distributed by Church-owned Deseret Book.

To help keep himself sharp, Barrick works with his own personal coach, consultant Roger Connors whose bestselling book The Oz Principle focuses on—guess what—getting results through individual and organizational accountability.

In addition to its relentless quest for excellence, the Tabernacle Choir takes advantage of every tool to stay relevant. It has a growing presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. And who manages the social media outreach? Again, razor-sharp volunteers like Joe Conrad, a retired Hewlett-Packard division head, and George Kovac, a former Armed Forces controller and inspector general.

“We don’t compromise on anything,” Barrick says. “Whatever it takes to advance the cause, we’ll do it.”

Pioneer trailblazer Brigham Young would be pleased.

Roger Simpson

Roger Simpson – CEO, The Retail Solution and Author of “The Retail Solution” With over 35 years’ industry experience, Roger Simpson is recognized as Australia’s #1 Authority on customer ROI in the retail industry and as a global expert on staff coaching, customer service and selling skills.