Roger Nierenberg, Symphony Conductor, Creator of The Music Paradigm

Scaling Up Serivices - Roger Nierenberg

Roger Nierenberg, Symphony Conductor, Creator of The Music Paradigm

Roger Nierenberg, orchestral conductor, leadership consultant, and founder of The Music Paradigm. 

The Music Paradigm is an engaging and unforgettable learning experience for any type of organization. The organization's people – who are participants, not just audience members – are seated within a live professional orchestra where they can observe highly trained musicians as they perform. The participants’ attention is drawn to fascinating and unexpected organizational dynamics within the orchestra. People soon realize, however, that The Music Paradigm is much more than a riveting demonstration.

Prior to each event, Maestro Nierenberg has a discussion with the client’s leadership to understand what they want to achieve with their meeting…their goals, their opportunities, their challenges. Based on that conversation, he then devises a series of interactive exercises for the orchestra that will bring their most important issues to life with startling clarity.

While every session is unique, you can read The New York Times coverage of one specific session here.

Roger is an expert on many leadership topics, and can speak about setting a vision, becoming an engaging leader, strategic thinking, fostering genius teams, organizational agility, and more.


[00:00:01] You're listening to Scaling Up Services where we speak with entrepreneurs authors business experts and thought leaders to give you the knowledge and insights you need to scale your service based business faster and easier. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.

[00:00:22] Are you a CEO looking to scale your company faster and easier. Checkout Thrive Roundtable thrive combines a moderated peer group mastermind expert one on one coaching access to proven growth tools and a 24/7 support community created by Inc award winning CEO and certified scaling up business coach Bruce Eckfeldt. Thrive will help you grow your business more quickly and with less drama. For details on the program visit That's E C K F E L D slash thrive. .

[00:00:58] Welcome, everyone. This is scaling up services. I'm bisexual. I'm your host. And our guest today is Roger Nierenberg and he is a conductor and a leadership consultant. Fascinating story. We're going to learn a little bit more about him in his book. We're gonna learn about the program he has.

[00:01:11] I am fascinated about this because I'm fascinated with leadership. I think one of the key things around scaling businesses, any businesses, particularly service based businesses, is how do you become effective leader? How do you create effective leaders in your organization?

[00:01:24] So I think this is a key discussion for anyone in our audience who's looking to build and scale their business with that. Roger, welcome to the program.

[00:01:31] Good morning. Thanks for inviting me.

[00:01:33] Yes, it's a fascinating background. Why don't we talk a little bit about your kind of experience, like what got you to looking at leadership. So you're a conductor, you know. So listen, from the music world was like, I guess, give a sense your background in the music world. And then what led you to looking at what you were doing and applying it to leadership and applying it to organizations and how to create leaders, train leaders, create effective leaders inside companies and businesses and organizations?

[00:01:59] Well, that was never my intention to do. Twenty five years ago, I was a conductor as music director of two orchestras. I spent my time and in conducting rehearsals and concerts and and doing the other things that come along with being a music director. I think anybody who's a conductor and conducting this is kind of pure leadership. You don't make any snap, but you're accountable for what everybody else does. And the other thing was that I was very interested in the role of music in the society, and I was progressively more and more concerned about the American audience and the number of people who who just don't feel comfortable with classical music and whose lives aren't enriched by it. And I thought at a certain point I started challenging myself, too. Was there a way that I could create some kind of an experience which would give give to people the same kinds of feelings and engagement and rewards that I got from music? That was that was what I was looking for. And I would I was pulling together many pieces from my career. And finally, I created this learning experience, which consisted of two things. One is putting people in the same place that I was when I fell in love with music, which was inside the orchestra that was number one.

[00:03:19] And number two was changing the subject from music to something else, because in my experience, my target audience, the moment they knew that this was about music, they kind of brace themselves for something which was painful and without even knowing it. So my orchestras would invest a huge amount of energy and time and resources into bringing people to concerts, but they would come to the concerts and they wouldn't really hear anything in the way that you need to hear or to experience music. So I felt that it was important to do the learning indirectly and to change the subject. So I thought, well, I want to make this subject about something that people really feel they're very invested in and where they feel strong. And I thought, what do people care about in our society as much as their career? So I made this learning experience about people's careers. Yeah. And then what happened when I started doing it was very strange. I started getting this feedback from corporations, mostly big corporations and very experienced and leaders about how powerful this was or what how quickly it worked and how deeply it sank.

[00:04:28] And and then there was this kind of opportunity to I was getting asked and voted to do it by more and more organizations. And so I just went with the opportunity and I customized each particular session that I did for the client organization.

[00:04:43] And after I'd done about 50 of them, I began to know a lot about what was going on in American business and the kinds of challenges that people were struggling with. And this success pictures that they were trying to bring about to that was how this came about. And then people began to ask me if I had written anything about it. And as it turned into my own little second career.

[00:05:08] Yeah, that's great. I just want to go back and highlight or talk a little bit more about, you know, one of the concepts you brought out fairly early. And I think this is the reason I'm so interested in it, because I think this is a sort of evolutionary process that any. Leader goes particularly an earlier stage companies. When you go from kind of founder to real CEO, which is this difference between being a member of the orchestra and being the conductor and as a conductor, you're not making any sound. No, you're not. You do not actually produce what the audience hears directly. It's all kind of an indirect thing. It's actually related to how I was trained as an architect. And we used to always use this analogy that an architect is like a conductor in the building process because we don't you know, we don't swing a hammer. We're not pouring concrete. We're not screwing the screws. We're not building the thing. But yet we're kind of responsible for coordinating all the activities to come to some bigger idea or some bigger picture.

[00:06:00] I think the same thing is, you know, from a conductor, it's everything you do, everything that is created is through somebody else. It's not directly created. And I think that's I think that's a leadership challenge. I mean, I think that's one of the sort of transformations a leader has to go through from being a really good doer, a really good technologist or a marketer or a strategist, you know, doing the work to someone who's leading the work. It does this is this a lot of what you're kind of seeing in terms of business is people moving into that leadership role is like moving to conductor role.

[00:06:27] Yes. And what happens is that people who are who are very strong as individual contributors and as team leaders are the ones who inevitably get promoted to their positions and then the leadership positions. And many of them, I wouldn't say they necessarily are the ones to discover it, but the people who supervise them discover that the same skills that made them successful in their previous positions are not making them successful in the in the leadership positions. It's a different set of skills. And of course, the people who who sit in orchestras and and watch the conductors and think that it's so easy and it looks so easy when they get the chance, if they ever do, to come to the podium, they discover that they make exactly the same mistakes that they were so infuriated by when conductors would do that. So it's a whole different a different set of skills.

[00:07:20] Yeah, well, you kind of alluded to it, but oh I let a little bit more. I think actually the things that often make people such great individual contributors to such wonderful people and their rules doing the work actually works against them. It's not only that it doesn't help them and actually hurts them because they know they do too much. They've got their way of doing things. They've got mental models were processes that have worked so well for them that it actually hinders their ability to manage other people because they don't create space, they don't create room, they don't kind of create the possibility for people to figure out for themselves. I think I mean, I've seen a lot of I work a lot in the kind of the tax space and I don't want to clients in the tax base. And I think it's particularly problematic there as you get folks who are amazing technologists, you know, just the smartest people in the world around certain aspects of technology and domains of technology. And they become managers and become leaders and they just crumble from a leadership point of view because they're almost just too smart. I don't know if you've seen that or how you see that play out in other businesses, but it's certainly on the taxpayers.

[00:08:20] Well, of course. And it's very common, but they're not total losses. And I think you should not give up on them. Let's think, cause then, you know, it's a new set of skills. The question is, with somebody like that, with all those attributes, somebody who's smart and who's successful and and who believes in what they do.

[00:08:38] How do you reach them with with a revelation about the fact that there's another set of skills? Because if you simply tell them that they're not going to even understand what it is, they're not going to hear that message. And the fact is that there are routinely so many leadership messages that are sent to them that the workforce, they get very expert and resisting. And they have this sort of mentality that that management is giving them something eventually be gone. Yeah, well, on to on the ground. And they know. So this is kind of built in resistance to learning. And so the question is, how can you impact people in a way in it with with learning that is useful for them? And that's where doing this and live in the orchestra is so powerful because no one in music, unlike life, things happen very, very quickly.

[00:09:33] So there's a direct connection between behavior and result, and the result is audible. Everybody can hear it. So the orchestra becomes a kind of a laboratory where you deliberately change behaviors. Some of them are the functional behaviors and some of them are the dysfunctional behaviors. But in every case, they hear what the sound does. And because things are happening so quickly, it becomes much easier to connect the dots in the musical realm than it is in real life, where there could be a month that goes by between the behavior and the result that it in genders. And so therefore, the learning there. But if you see it in the orchestra, you can't argue with it because it's actually happening. It's actually real. And one of the other things that different about my session is that it's. It's not rehearsed.

[00:10:21] The orchestra does not know what the role plays that I'm going to ask them to do will be.

[00:10:28] I love it. And for nobody can argue that it didn't happen to happen right in front of them.

[00:10:35] And so while we're speaking this kind of metaphorical language, it leaves to the the participants to draw their conclusions from it and the things that you discover yourself. You have much greater chance to take ownership of and to to absorb and then to be changed by a couple of things I like about me.

[00:10:56] One, I love the whole idea of switching paradigms to music just to kind of bring down the defenses or at least bring down the standard resistant patterns. You know, that that I think sort of standard leadership management training, you know, ends up facing and kind of the corporate contacts. And I think that's that's one thing I can just envision how that is effective and why it's so effective for you. I think the other thing, too, this idea of immediate feedback, of an idea of it's you do something and you see immediate results. You do something different. You see immediate results.

[00:11:25] You've got a very sort of tight learning curve in that process. I think those are key to kind of any learning. And I can see how that kind of how this program really emphasizes that A really accentuates that so that you can have a really great learning experience. So actually, let's walk people through. How is this program actually set up and how I'd like you to walk us through the process a little bit and what people would experience if they've gone through if they're working through with you on one of these programs.

[00:11:51] Well, it almost always takes place at a meeting in the organization, and they routinely have these yearly leadership meetings. But it could be a sales force. It could be any kind of meeting.

[00:12:03] And on the agenda, there's this particular exercise and people show up in the room and they walk into the room and it's set up all different than it normally is since cause this amphitheater set up and and there are music stands all over the place and there are chairs amongst the musicians. But people are not told, you know, what they're supposed to do other than just take it, sit down in any chair with without a music stand. And and the orchestra is kind of they're idling in. And at a certain point I get introduced. And the first thing that happens without saying a word is that we play music. That's the first experience.

[00:12:41] And then I introduce the orchestra as a kind of a metaphor for an organization and that their role is to spy on it and try to figure out what the competencies are, what the skills are, and particularly what are the behaviors that lead to this spectacular success in collaboration, in alignment, in agility, in whatever it is that the organization itself is trying to achieve. I present that as the the special expertise of the orchestra and the participants are there to kind of just take it in. And then there's a series of observation exercises which start off very simple, just patients about, you know, a particular musician. And then they get they get sort of more subtle. And then the observations become observations of certain role playing exercises in which I I ask the orchestra to imagine what would it be like if this were our culture, if this was this was the way we thought about our work, if these were our priorities, what whatever it is and I design having having consulted with the organization in advance and having learned what it says picture is and what the impediments are to achieving that success, picture design, role play exercises that will grow those particular issues spontaneously in the orchestra in real time.

[00:14:13] So you actually do some diagnostics with the organization for a second to figure out where their current challenges are, where where are they having issues? And that then gives you a little bit of map or a set of priorities to then demonstrate or to create as part of the experience with the orchestra, so that by listening to the orchestra it doesn't happen all at once and it happens gradually.

[00:14:36] Emergence of beginning to see or understand that what they hear in the orchestra is like looking in a mirror and seeing themselves. They're seeing themselves as they wish they could be, or they're seeing themselves as they don't wander the knowledge that they are. But you can put these very powerful things in front of them without risking people getting defensive about it because we're not talking about them. Exactly. Now we're only talking about the orchestra and the conductor. But people get the message.

[00:15:09] They understand what it is. And and that's the way the learning works.

[00:15:14] Yeah, well, I love that the kind of the the indirect experiential learning. So people are. Physically there. You know, I don't know. The other thing I love about the music is it becomes a very kind of emotional or embodied experience. It's not it's not all just kind of thinking in your head abstractly, literally feel the music. You have the emotional reaction, like it's evoking those kind of things to really get out. What I think, you know, ends up being that the core kind of drivers of behavior and and patterns that we get. And so I think that is fabulous. You're not crazy. You know, it's clear that this is a program you've developed over time. Very well. Kind of honed and you've got some assistance around it. Tell you about kind of developing it. I mean, it's I know as a coach and as a trainer, I've, you know, the things that I do really, really well.

[00:15:57] I do well because I've made lots of mistakes. You know, I tried things at one point and it went really askew. And then I do realize that I need to do it differently.

[00:16:05] What what what learnings have you had in terms of developing the program that, you know, other experiences that, you know, you tried something and you realized it was going to work that led to a better idea? Where have you kind of learned and grown as a leadership trainer, as a leadership coach, as someone who helps companies with leadership? What are some of the experiences you've had that have been your learning experiences?

[00:16:25] Well, I was very lucky because at the beginning I was introduced to some executive coaches who specialized in organizational change, and they were the ones who were who were working with the client organization and they recommended me.

[00:16:39] And then what they would do is brief me on what's going on in the client organization, because they know they had surveyed. They knew what was going on. They were hired, as a matter of fact, because they could find out better what was going on than the management could themselves. They needed somebody from outside to see themselves more clearly. So they would tell me what was going on and then I would invent some way of making this come alive in the orchestra. So after having done that many times, I began to begin to know how to talk to to the leadership of the company and to probe and find out what it was that was going on. Eventually, I began to find out that I could find out more effectively than the leadership coach could, because I came in as not as a business person, but rather a musician.

[00:17:28] And so I could ask questions that were really disarming and somewhat challenging because I wasn't supposed to know anything about it.

[00:17:38] Yeah, it's kind of that beginner's mind or the non expert mind coming in and asking the quote unquote naive questions, which are really the be insightful ones.

[00:17:46] Tell us about some of the experiences of Adam in terms of types of companies, types of organizations, types of teams. What range have you kind of dealt with, I guess? How have you found this program? Where where have you found this program being effective in terms of types of situations or types of companies?

[00:18:01] Well, there are so many companies that I've done now, certainly in the hundreds at all over the world. And so it works incredibly well with very large companies at the highest level. It works with smaller organizations as well. It's so completely flexible and adaptable. And because I customize every session, it just hits the target.

[00:18:22] Like, I'm curious because having worked with a lot of, you know, kind of early stage companies and mid-market companies and then a couple of really, really big companies.

[00:18:30] What are the levers that you play with when it comes to making changes to the program and why? Because why do you make the changes? What is it about those different organizations that require the changes?

[00:18:38] Well, let me describe one particular role play, because it's hard to envision these things.

[00:18:45] So there was one very large company that was going it was in the process of making a huge transformation, which was going to completely redo their business is one of these things that businesses decide to do. That's going to cause them great pain because they know if they don't do it, that they will definitely lose their competitive edge. So they created like a seven year program and they they decided that the only way that this was going to take root was if the leadership got behind it and made it their business to proactively enroll their people in it. So it began with leadership training for the top 500 people in the organization, which gives some idea of the scale of it.

[00:19:25] So one of the things they wanted to do was knowing that the leaders tend to be very good problem solvers and that they solve one problem that's in front of them. And behind that there's another problem and they solve that. They knew that that mentality was not going to get them where they had to be. They wanted. They wanted leaders who were going to who are going to envision be able to envision the future and to make other people in addition that and to engage their people in a kind of success that they hadn't seen yet. So that was the goal. And I decided the following role play for them in this one. I said to the orchestra, well, the orchestra, everybody knew by that time that they were they were principal players like the principal oboe. And then there was section players like the second oboe. And I said all the principal players in this performance will be totally engaged and committed to the performance. But all the section players that. About three quarters of the orchestra are going to do as little as possible without getting caught. And, you know, that generates some laughter because it's not the kind of direct conductor normally gives.

[00:20:33] And then and then the orchestra plays exhibiting that behavior. And to everybody's astonishment, it sounds perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong with it. There's nothing to correct. Interesting. And after we've done that, I comment at all the surprised faces that I've seen. And I said, but really, we shouldn't be surprised at all because everybody knows that that's the way most organizations work. The people who take responsibility are so good that they carry the organization through all the mediocre work that's being done with it. And you wouldn't even consider it a dysfunction until you heard the following. I said, what would this passage sound like? The very same passage. If every musician in the orchestra used everything, you know, to make this orchestra sound in a way that these people never imagined it could. Well, that really wakes up the musicians. And so so they being asked to contribute everything. And then the same passage is played and the impact is completely different. The same notes. But the energy is so different and people are astonished at how different it is. And after it's over, I point out what a challenging demonstration this is for a leader. I suppose if you see your job as simply solving problems and fixing things when they go wrong, you will never draw that kind of energy. That kind of result. That's an example of the kind of role play.

[00:21:55] Yeah, it's powerful and I like the kind of modeling of it and almost the element of surprise, the fact that you're you're kind of putting people in a state of unexpectedness like I think they probably expected the fact that they've kind of expected like a mediocre or things off to or, you know, people like it not sounding good. And the fact that it actually sounded pretty good was surprising to them. Keeps them in this kind of curious state. I like that. I like that idea.

[00:22:22] I mean, when I say that I'm going to design these role plays, people think of the obvious things of playing wrong modes. Yeah, exactly. Playing a part. But we don't do that. We do things that are much more subtle and much closer to what's really going on. And and are the real acts, the actual challenges that that the company is facing now occurs in terms of working with these folks.

[00:22:44] Do you see any kind of standard or common reactions or patterns and the reactions that people have and use? Are you able to going to see, I guess, how well are you able to see the star performers for the company and where you the mediocre performers and problematic situations, I guess? How how much do the organizational issues manifest themselves and the exercises that you do and how do you sort of navigate those situations for teams that are that are going through this?

[00:23:11] Well, the music paradigm automatically puts people in a somewhat uncomfortable position because they're not told what it's about or what it's for. A lot of times I have to beg with the company plea to not frame this, not that much about because one of the great barriers to achieving the change that they're trying to trying to bring about is the sense of I know I know all this stuff already.

[00:23:40] I don't have anything to learn, you know. So what I want to do is I want to put people in the place where deep learning is most possible. And for that, it's there's some sense of uncertainty. See you. You take these very successful people and you put them in a situation where they don't matter at all, where they know less than anybody else. And so that's somewhat threatening. But then I make the wrong, so delightful and so carefree and so casual that people relax into that. And then as the session progresses, the challenges get greater and greater and the learning gets greater. So you're right, it's full of surprises and it's full of this kind of community feeling that everybody is equal. And so, you know, if you have a cross, a cross section of employees, you could have the the chairman of exactly one thing. And there's this sitting next to somebody who could be just, you know, answering calls and ask. And they are all equal and they're all treated as equal, because that's kind of an important element of this type of learning.

[00:24:45] Yeah. Yeah. I love the day kind of strips, strips, the real power or the real structure power structure out of the out of the organization for for the period of time for the exercise.

[00:24:55] Yeah. And there's delightfully funny things that happen. I just have to tell you and I did a session for a huge worldwide financial institution and it was very high level. There was the CEO and the presidents of all the countries. This is multinational organization that had I knew how big it was because it had sponsored the New York Philharmonic. Tour. Yes.

[00:25:20] And so as part of this, I modeled some dysfunctional leadership behavior because as I recall, it was leadership that they were focusing on and I modeled a conductor who was who looked good but didn't listen to the orchestra.

[00:25:34] And the way I knew I was doing it was that as I was conducting, I was thinking about what train I was going to take and where I had to go to get there and all that. My mind was completely on something else. Well, it may seem like it didn't speak very well, but for the musicians, they knew immediately what was going on. And so I saw that there was one one second violence in the corner who was who is kind of grimacing. And so I knew that it was to her that I wanted to get the microphone. So after it was over, I handed to her and I said, what was that like?

[00:26:06] And she said, that was boring. That was so boring. I was unbearably boring. So I said, well, you know, what was wrong with it? And she kept on just repeating that was boring. So I felt like I had to ask her a different question as well. What did the orchestra sound like? And she said, we were terrible. We sounded terrible. She sounded like she said we sounded like we were a bunch of accountants.

[00:26:28] The room exploded into laughter because, of course, accountants had an accountant at some point or an actuary or something like that. So it was very disarming.

[00:26:40] And very often the sessions are very funny, even though I'm not telling any jokes.

[00:26:47] But just the circumstance is is so ripe with comic potential.

[00:26:52] No, no, I like it. And how I think one of the challenges I've always found with leadership training, manager training and these kind of programs is, you know, people have this amazing experience. They you know, they have these kind of epiphany is and these takeaways and these insights, you know, and then they go home and sleep the night and come back the next day.

[00:27:09] And it's work. It's kind of business as usual. How do you how do you gonna tie this into kind of longer term change? How do you what's the kind of follow up process or way of kind of instilling this into kind of long term changes and pattern student behavior for folks?

[00:27:25] Well, there are other kinds of interventions that I've invented that are smaller scale and deal with other things like this, an intervention with a string quartet that deals with other kinds of skills, then the leadership skills and deals with negotiating. It deals with creating a space in a safe environment. It deals with holding people accountable without causing stress. It's different. So there's that kind of follow up. And then there are a series of videos that I've created that can be used frequently. What I'll do is interview people from the organization and splice them into these videos of clients who who wanted to continue this learning.

[00:28:05] There are other kinds of tools I'd like to talk to me about. So you have a book around this as well. Talk to me a little bit about the book and what you're accomplishing in there.

[00:28:14] Well, the book is it's a fable because that was the easiest way to get get the learning across. It's about it's about the kind of person we're talking about, somebody who's very successful as a as lower level leader leader who gets appointed to a very prominent position. And he discovers that it's different, that he has he has people on on his team who know much more about what they do than he does. And they've been there longer than he has. In the end. They're not really very receptive to his to his leadership. And so he institutes changes and they don't take hold. And then he gets a warning that the word in the grapevine is that it's not going well. And he's completely confounded. He doesn't know. He's just doing all the things that made him successful before. So by accident, he kind of discovers this conductor who has a reputation among musicians for being this fabulous leader. And he starts sitting in on his rehearsals and then having dialogue with with him. I'm kind of modeled on that. That book that was popular Tuesdays with Morrie was a series of dialogues.

[00:29:23] And so he attends a rehearsal of the LA with the orchestra. And then he meets with conductor and asks him, well, why did you do that and why did you make that choice? Why didn't you just tell people what to do? Isn't that good leadership? And the conductor says things, you can do that and you will get results, but you'll never get the best results. So over the course of the book is his thinking about leadership begins to evolve and change.

[00:29:51] If people want to find out more about you, about the program, about the book, where is the best place to get that information?

[00:29:58] Will the Web site is And on it there are blogs and there are videos and a number of interesting things.

[00:30:06] Great. I'll make sure that the link is in the show notes so people can click through and get that. Roger, this has been a pleasure. It's fascinating, not only from a legal point of view, but your background, your story. I think the music kind of paradigm. For developing leaders is as a phenomenal one, and I'm really appreciate the time you took for us today.

[00:30:24] Thank you very much, Bruce.

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