Friday, May 23, 2008

Friend of Simplicity - John O'Leary

My Simplicity interview today is another US based friend John O'Leary. I first came across John when commenting on Tom Peters Blog and we have struck up a friendship through email and Blogging that continues to develop. John and I share some similar music tastes and we share many similar ideas about how organisations should value people working at the front line. John is based in the US.

TREVOR: Hi John – I know you have had a fascinating and interesting career. I would love to hear a quick summary of some of the stuff you have done.

JOHN: Thanks for the opportunity, Trevor! Well, I always feel my career is just beginning, but I guess that’s because of all the twists and turns and course corrections I’ve made. In 1968, after several years of college—and 6 years of studying Ancient Greek—I abruptly left academia (and a promising future teaching dead languages) to play rock & roll full-time. My campus rock band in New Haven had been picking up some prestige bookings in Greenwich Village, New York—opening for acts like the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Sly & the Family Stone, and Joni Mitchell—and we were invited to play the Berkeley Folk Festival that summer. So the band and I didn’t need much convincing to take the leap. We never got the recording contract we wanted but we had a great ride for the next year as did my subsequent “almost famous” bands. It was a real kick to be a part of the NY and LA rock scene in the late 60s and 70s, hanging or jamming with the greats—Blood Sweat & Tears, the Byrds, Tina Turner, Jackson Browne. 15 years later I changed course again and landed in the training & development world. I lucked out again and got to study or work with luminaries such as Werner Erhard, Peter Senge, and Fernando Flores. 15 years later I started consulting under the Tom Peters umbrella. Oh, and in the early 1980s I took some time off to run for US President as an independent—though that was mostly for the fun of it and to write a book about, which is mercifully out of print. A lot of folks who saw me on TV in 1980 still haven’t made the connection to me now, which allows me to keep working.

TREVOR: I was born in 1952 and so I was brought up in England as a teenager in the 1960’s on The Beatles and the music revolution. We rightly remember with great nostalgia the 1960’s. Was it really such an influential decade or do we just have rose tinted spectacles when looking back?

JOHN: Every decade is influential in different ways of course. What interests me is the contribution the 60s made to popular culture, especially in the area of pop music. If rock & roll was born in the 50s, it got a license to drive in the mid-60s. Rock wasn’t taken seriously at first—despite the genius of songwriters like Chuck Berry. But after the Beatles & Dylan showed up, the universe changed. Someday I may write about the summer of 1965, the tipping point. Everybody was trying to outdo everybody else then—the Stones, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Kinks. All at once you were hearing songs like “Satisfaction,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Help,” “Mr Tambourine Man,” “Help Me Rhonda.” Not to mention some great Motown hits.

TREVOR: You do work for Tom Peters who is one of my management icons. Tell us something about working as part of the Tom Peters Company.

JOHN: Actually in the States we’re all independent contractors—in the spirit of “Free Agent Nation” (Daniel Pink’s book and Tom’s credo)—who come together to work on specific projects for clients who want to implement Tom’s ideas. We all share Tom’s iconoclasm and have a lot of fun contributing to the blog, which is a terrific worldwide forum.

TREVOR: What do you see as the greatest challenges for leaders in the future John?.

JOHN: In business, government, education, healthcare, even religion I see leaders trying to make sense of a world turned upside down. Leaders trying to get their organizations to work with user manuals that are obsolete. What’s desperately needed is some independent thinking, and some courage to improvise. This is not a good time to rely on traditional management wisdom, economics orthodoxy, or political dogma. Clinging to ideology can destroy everything. The wise men in robes don’t have the answer. That, in part, is what my book is about.

TREVOR: Tell us about the book.

JOHN: Well, it’s turning into my life work, given how long I’ve been hacking away at it. My focus is on business lessons we can learn from rock & roll bands. The book identifies 6 ways in which the great rock & roll bands are exceptional business teams: (1) they’re radical innovators and risk-takers; (2) they’re passionate and inspired about their work—and they have fun; (3) they manage differences and capitalize on conflict; (4) they create a distinct identity and brand; (5) they’re ambitious, focused, and result-driven, despite stereotypes to the contrary; and (6) they’re highly autonomous and independent-minded. Then I show how to instill—or liberate—these abilities in our organizational teams. And I argue that without an infusion of these qualities many of our beleaguered organizations and institutions, ill equipped to compete in this crazy economy, are headed for obsolescence or irrelevance. To keep it interesting I illustrate my points with lots of stories and anecdotes from boardrooms, bars, and recording studios. It will be a business book you can dance to. Hopefully I’ll finish it this year. I’m a slow writer, but maybe it will appeal to all the slow readers out there.

TREVOR: Have you any plans to come back to England?

JOHN: I’d like to go tonight, but I’m knee-deep in other projects. And to stay healthy I’m trying to trim back on air travel for awhile. I don’t think living on planes is particularly good for any of us. But London is one of my favorite cities. The last time I was there in 2002 I played guitar at an entrance to the Tube just for the fun of it, and I happened to leave my guitar case open. A homeless woman came along and threw in a few pence. Something told me I should just accept it with gratitude, so I did. For one hour I was part of that street community and they took care of me. I'll always remember that snapshot of London. After that I made my pilgrimage to Liverpool to pay tribute to the Beatle gods.

TREVOR: And finally John you know I can’t possibly interview you without asking what you honestly think about The Eagles – Just how iconic are they and how will they be remembered when they finally hang up the instruments?

JOHN: I believe the Eagles, who came out of the same LA folk-rock crowd I used to get in trouble with in the early 1970s, will be forever honored for their alchemy of rock & country. The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers got that started but the Eagles took it to a new level, with a little Don Henley soul mixed in. And from the beginning they were a triple-threat band, which is a hallmark of the top bands. They could sing, play, and write. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were among the best songwriters that came of age in the 70s. When I first heard “Best of My Love” on the radio in 1974 I had to pull over to the side of the road, it hit me so hard. And of course “Hotel California” belongs on a short list of perfect rock songs. It should be launched in a time capsule documenting the whole era. The Eagles are also a wonderful illustration of a business team that learned how to harness their conflict—interpersonal and creative—to put out strong product for a fanatic customer base. And they’re back at it!


Joel D Canfield said...

I've been waiting 30 years for business to figure out that it should be rock and roll.

Oddly, now I'm trying to help my rock and roll friends realize they should be in business.

I hear there's going to be a book which might appeal to both crowds . . .

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Joel - I'm pretty sure John's book will be a brilliant read!

Unknown said...

Fascinating interview - will definitely watch for the book!

Anonymous said...

Great interview. What terrific life experiences. I am impressed. You have now interviewed a presidential candidate. Thanks to John for sharing his story. You have made a lot of wonderful connections through Tom Peters blog. Everyone has a really diverse background but seem to share the same concepts of excellence through people instead of excellence in spite of people. keep up the good work and it is a pleasure to be introduced to John.

Unknown said...

Wow, thanks for the comments! Hey, something I forgot to mention when I was reminiscing about the mid & late 60s: when Dylan or the Beatles or the Stones released a new single or album at that time it was a friggin’ EVENT! Time seemed to stop to make room for these moments. I remember everybody crowding into my college dorm room to listen to "Yesterday" the day it came out (and listening to the music theory major from next door pontificate on the unusual key change in the second measure!). These record releases always seemed to occur on a Friday or Saturday whereupon these songs were suddenly cranked out of every radio and record player in town. And because pop music wasn’t so heavily niched, EVERYBODY was exposed to the top hits. (I doubt I could name any song in the top 10 now.) That had its disadvantages at times, but for a few years at least there was a cornucopia of high quality songs — with excellent lyrics — on the ol’ hit parade. The songwriter was preeminent then (more than the musician or even singer) and these writers were peaking then (perhaps in more ways than one): Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, Jaggar-Richards, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Stevie Wonder, Holland-Dozier-Holland. Ah, even nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding! John O'Leary for President 2008! The lawyers have ruled for to long and someone with John's knowledge and life's experience is exactly what is needed. "The wise men in robes don't have the answers" is to true...neither do the politicians in suits.

I recall reading an article in Fortune on Rolling Stones Inc...and it detailed how savvy and innovative the Stones have been in building their brand and business by managing the big three of touring, publishing rights and merchandising. Mick Jagger credits their success to the the folks on his team saying he greatest contribution is he hires talented executives...downplaying his role and involvement. Sounds like they exemplify many of the leaderships characteristics John speaks of and it's difficult to argue with their results.

I spent the late 60's/mid 70's in Sacramento/ and the Bay Area. The music and references brought back some great memories of days spent at the Day on the Green concerts in the Oakland Coliseum and nights trying to sneak in, sometimes successfully, to the Fillmore West. That was a great time and great place to be.

Trevor and John...thanks!

Marilyn Jess said...

Another fantastic interview. John, you're so right about a song or album being an event back in the day. Sgt. Pepper was one of the first concept albums, and my three girlfriends and I couldn't wait to listen to it after school in one of my friend's homes. It was on a Friday, I remember that clearly even though that was so long ago. We listened to it together, over and over,and the music helped to bond us as friends. Can't recall any artist, song, or album today that has the potential to do that.

Trevor, can you feature John's book on Simplicity when it comes out?

Cheers from Vermont.

Trevor Gay said...

Dave and Marilyn – great memories aye?

I will feature John's book of course Marilyn once it is written – I can’t wait to read it!

David Wike said...

What a varied and interesting career! John comments about leaders trying to get organisations to work with user manuals that are obsolete. One of the problems is that people do regards them as manuals i.e. instructions to be followed as opposed to a guide to things that might be tried but with a healthy application of common sense to modify the approach to suit the situation. ‘Rules is rules’ is a dangerous mantra to adopt. Of course, I am inclined wonder whether it is managers who follow the manuals whereas it is leaders who write them.

It is reassuring to see that John is a slow writer crafting a book for slow readers. I can empathise with that much more than with writaholics like Trevor who must be able to type in his sleep!

Finally John, when you next visit the UK, take another trip to Liverpool (European City of Culture 2008), but this time visit Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. This will help you to see that all Trevor’s propaganda about Manchester United being the best team in England is just hot air! Incidentally, I am now much more aligned with Trevor’s view about Chelsea as they have just sacked Avram Grant, their manager, who took them to within a whisker of winning the Premiership and within one missed penalty kick of being champions of Europe. What fools!

Trevor Gay said...

Hi David - greetings on this very damp Sunday afternoon ... Great comments as always and good to see you have come around to the same conclusion as me about Chelsea (more appropriately called ‘Chelski’) .... It is all about money and nothing to do with history, culture and supporting your front line players and coaches.

I hope they get everything they deserve - that will mean no trophies for a few more years.

As regards John learning about football ...he will of course want to visit the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford Manchester to really appreciate the finer aspects of football...

By the way for the benefit our friends from the US David and I are business associates and good friends.... Apart from when it comes to football and in particular Liverpool (once upon a time many years ago a good team) and Manchester Untied (now the greatest team in English football history)... Not that I am biased of course....

David Wike said...

Admittedly Liverpool have had a few shaky years in the English Premiership but their record surpasses United’s in Europe, both in total (seven finals, five wins) and in recent years. In the last four years they have been semi-finalists (this year) and twice finalists, winning once in that epic against AC Milan in Istanbul where they came back to win on penalties having been 3-0 down at half time.

Perhaps you should visit Anfield and Old Trafford John. As a musician I am sure that you would be moved when 50,000 Liverpool faithful sing the club’s anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

By the way Trevor, do you have your mate Gordon Brown lined up for an interview when he has a bit more spare time, as he surely will before too long?

Trevor Gay said...

Hi David - I agree with tour comments about Gordon Brown. I’m frankly amazed at how things have fallen apart for him - my conclusion is that he is no leader!

As regards John’s visit to Liverpool I'm sure he will take in a trip to Anfield... one tip John - if you park your car in Liverpool don’t be surprised when you return that your wheels have disappeared ... just joking David... the old ones are still the best. :-)

David Wike said...

Just shows how out of touch you are Trevor. Liverpool has an excellent chief constable who has a zero tolerance attitude to any crime. In the last couple of years the crime rate has been cut dramatically. I’ll let you have some figures.

I read an interesting comment about Gordon B. Apparently his solution to his current problem is to work even longer hours and be even more grumpy than normal. It sounds very much as though he is a micro-manager not a leader.

Did you see Alan Johnson on the Andrew Marr show this morning? I thought he put up an excellent defence of the government. He is one of the few cabinet ministers who can put a coherent argument together without trying to browbeat the listener.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi David – great news about the crime rate dropping in Liverpool – This means John will only lose two of his wheels rather than all four :- )

Gordon has lost the plot completely I fear and it is so predictable what is happening. He is losing credibility – disappearing into his own bunker and digging his own hole deeper by working harder.

I too like Alan Johnson and of the other possible candidates as leader I would say he is one of the best. He is an excellent communicator and comes across well on TV. Gordon is far more experienced and competent but there we go again on the debate of depth versus image.

JOHN O'LEARY said...

Thanks again for the interesting responses.

Dave, I'm in a 12-step program to cure my addiction to campaign politics (tho I'm not sure it's working). I actually considered running for a more local office like state senator, but with my bad luck I'd probably win and then I'd have to demand a recount. And, yes, the Stones have been VERY savvy business men. Even in the 60s they were keeping more of their royalties than the Beatles were, which drove the Fab 4 crazy.

Marilyn, yes, I remember listening endlessly to Sgt. Pepper in June 67. Rubber Soul was the release that really shocked me - and my musician friends - with the quality of the songwriting. Following on the steps of "Yesterday" it was suddenly clear that the Beatles were a singularity in terms of popular song composition. Then "Eleanor Rigby," then "Revolver." Whew!

David and Trevor, in 2002 it seemed to me that Liverpool was on the rise. I didn't sense any of the urban ills I see so much of the US. What's the economic forecast there?

Trevor Gay said...

John – my take on Liverpool was unfair and only in fun – there is great banter between Manchester and Liverpool. I don't think Liverpool is any worse or better than most inner city area of England these days in respect of crime. I’m pretty sure Liverpool culturally and safety wise is still on the up.

David may add his comment - he probably knows more than me about Liverpool.

Hope you enjoy Memorial Day John!

Anonymous said...

Point number 2 is also what makes entrepreneurs successful.

Trevor Gay said...

Kaizen Consulting Blog - I agree with you - business takes itself far too seriously and there is not enough fun at work!

Anonymous said...

John- I'm thinking there are probably some things worse than an addiction to campaign politics...getting elected could be one for sure. It sure would be nice however to see the "citizen" put back into the concept of citizen government.

Judith Ellis said...

John is a great guy! Great interview and thread. Dave, I love your last comment.

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks again Dave and Judith - good to know the interview with John hits the right spots.