“Is that Tom Waits?”
“Yeah. Do you like Tom Waits?”
“I love Tom Waits.”
I am haunted by a childhood memory. Around age 13, my Little League coach and assistant coach had a falling out. Team practices were put on hold. For a kid unenthused about sports, you’d think this was a blessing. But the team was working well together and… winning!
We had a fantastic cast of characters resembling The Sandlot. There were Bennys, Hams, and Yeah-Yeahs. Maybe a Squints here and there. I myself felt like Smalls. We were a mixed bag, some with little to no skill, but we bonded. We helped each other. The loss of practice was arresting. Devastating.
Mike called me up. He was one of the leaders — very much a Benny type. He was organizing a practice and called me up to summon others. After we got off the phone, I had a thought: we should bring music. I loved doing any activity to music. I called Mike back.
He didn’t call it a stupid idea, but he suggest that we didn’t need it. I hung up and felt silly for the idea. I’ve never forgotten how embarrassed I felt for suggesting the idea.
In his fantastic book “The Cubs Way”, author Tom Verducci notes an immediate tactic new Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon took with his team at the opening of the 2015 spring training — his first spring training with the team:
After Maddon’s opening speech as Chicago manager, the Cubs took the field—actually, a wide swath of grass out in back of their training center—looking like a different team. The best way to measure the immediate change in the Cubs under Maddon was in decibels. As the team began its morning stretch, a huge speaker blasted “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. What followed were more tunes from among Maddon’s rock-and-roll favorites, including “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.
“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” he told his new team. “You’ll have to put up with that.”
After reading this passage, I felt vindicated. My 13-year-old self’s idea was not stupid. Joe Maddon plays music. It’s not that big of a deal. Scaling back a bit of focus for a bit of fun encourages free thinking and flow. (A big reminder that my 13-year-old self had shit for brains.)
I’ve recently taken on a new management role. It is challenging beyond belief. With these challenges, I’ve put lots of attention into how my manager runs his team. One of the simplest and subtlest tricks he uses is playing music during one-on-ones and meetings. At times, it can feel distracting, but more often than not, it lightens the mood and opens up conversations outside of work. In a recent case, we hit on our shared love of Tom Waits. (What’s he building in there? A team. I’ll stop.)
I’ve now applied music to my one-on-ones. Nothing too distracting. No early-’00s post-hardcore, ’80s pop, or ’70s prog rock. Mellow electronic, jazz, or my Apple Music Chill Mix do the trick. I think it’s helping. It’s lightened the mood. And — for me at least — makes me feel a bit more connected to my team.
Music can be an equalizer. Embrace it. There shouldn’t be rules to how you manage or run your team meetings. Find energy. Find flow. Find commonality. And while you’re at it, find a copy of “The Cubs Way”.