Are You Engaging Your Audience?

I make no apologies for my taste in music. In fact, I’m convinced the 80’s hairband genre featured some of the most talented musicians and entertainers in the last century. You certainly don’t have to share this opinion, but I’m clearly not alone - as evidenced by the 30 to 40 thousand fans packing major league baseball stadiums on a nightly basis to see four of the biggest bands of that era, and only one of which has released new music in the last decade…

Just recently, Cindy and I had the chance to enjoy a bit of the nostalgia as they made their stop at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. Having purchased the tickets more than a year and a half prior (when we were being heavily restricted on the amount of in-person work we could even do), I opted for seats in the nosebleed section of the stadium. That ended up being a huge advantage since it rained off and on through the entire show; we were under the roof the entire time, but that’s a story for another time…

From the time we boarded the metro to head into DC, we felt way over dressed! While we had scaled down from the business attire we were wearing for a few meetings in the area earlier that day, our jeans and t-shirts were far dressier than all the fishnet paraphernalia we were surrounded by! Regardless of clothing though, we all had at least one thing in common; at least one of the bands playing had made enough of a connection with us to be worth $75 (or much more) per person to see them play on a muggy June Wednesday afternoon.

On more than a few occasions, I’ve shared my disdain for the lead singer from an 80s band named after a rodent. Although I had always really liked the band’s music, he was a complete ass the first time I saw them play live in a small bar in the mid to late 90s. Couple that with a mediocre (at best) performance and I’ve struggled to even listen to their music ever since. I did see that same band play live one more time, not by choice but as part of a larger show with several other bands. The band headlining that particular show didn’t play a whole lot better but their lead singer had a completely different approach; he was one of the most engaging entertainers I had ever seen! Quite honestly, the way he engaged the audience carried the band that night.

Bret Michaels has made a career out of engaging his audience. He did that, albeit while very hoarse, when we saw Poison in 2017 and he’s still doing it today. He brings a level of energy that very few can (or are willing to) match. From the time he stepped on stage, it was clear he was there to serve the crowd and he was very intentional in saying how much he appreciated the opportunity to do it…

OK Wes, what does any of that have to do with leadership?

I realize the vast majority of folks that Cindy and I will ever interact with will not be performing on stages in baseball stadiums… But if any of us want to develop genuine influence with the teams we lead and build connections that earn real buy-in, we can take a lesson from the energy Bret Michaels puts into engaging his audience and showing that he appreciates them being there. When we get right down to it, we need to take responsibility for engaging our teams and we had better make sure they know we appreciate what they contribute - or someone else will!

Moving forward here, we’ll dig into some things we can each do to build a strong leadership presence - even if we’re not wearing a bandana or singing songs from more than 30 years ago…

Which Stage Are You Singing From?

I’ll be very transparent here, I know my limitations… I'm certain I’ve never even been able to sing as well as Vince Neil (if we can really call what he does now singing), which is a fairly low bar at this point! In fact, I haven’t believed I could sing for more than twenty years - which just happens to directly coincide with when I stopped participating in some other nonsense… But make no mistake, each of us who accept leadership responsibility still have a song to sing, or at least a message to share and an audience to engage!! And while our performance won’t likely be on a stage in front of tens of thousands of fans in borderline inappropriate attire, whether or not we choose to connect with our audience will make a significant difference in the results we’re able to achieve!

I remember the plant manager who was responsible for the facility when I first started in manufacturing as a 19 year old kid. He was visible on the shop floor almost every day and interacted with every employee he went by. This was a stark contrast from the one who managed that same facility when I left close to 19 years later; one who rarely even left his office door open and refused to accept questions in employees meetings unless those questions had been submitted in advance. (We’ll circle back to that mess another time…) Both had effectively the same stage but they used it very differently!

Just recently, actually the morning before we went to the concert I just referenced, Cindy and I talked with a friend of ours who manages a large manufacturing facility about a similar situation. He shared an example of something he had been very intentional about doing on a routine basis with hopes that the some of the supervisors and managers reporting to him would see just how much of a difference they could make. (Don’t misunderstand me here, he was also very complimentary of the majority of the supervisors and managers on his team!)

Since taking the position in that company, he had been dedicating time on a routine basis to be on the shop floor and interact with team members. This often led to him being one of the first people to have direct conversations with new full time and temporary team members, and it gave him a chance to let them know he appreciated their contribution (kinda like Bret Michaels was doing, right?)...

He wrapped up the story by commenting on how simple it really is to make a positive impact on our team members when we’re willing to engage them and show genuine appreciation. What Cindy and I also saw from his example was how important it is for a higher level executive or business owner to be intentional about modeling the behaviors he wants his team to follow and how important it is for that same person to explain to his team why he’s doing it!

Regardless of the setting or the size of the group, a leader is responsible for making a connection and building engagement. That’s never a task to be taken lightly and it always requires energy…

Size (of the Stage) Doesn’t Matter!

Let’s go back to that less than engaging experience I mentioned before where a fellow not named Bret Michaels soured my opinion of every bit of music he and his band had put out during their entire career… He and his band released an EP and five full studio albums between 1983 & 1990 and they had quite the run in the days where MTV actually played music videos. In their heyday, they were playing sold out shows in large arenas. By the time I saw them play in ‘97 or ‘98, MTV had effectively killed that style of music and all but stopped playing music videos. Like many other bands from the 80s, they were now playing in small bars and clubs to crowds of a few hundred rather than in the big venues to more than 10,000.

Whether they liked it or not, that was reality! And the few hundred folks who were still willing to show up were their customers. The night I saw them play for the first time, he clearly believed he still deserved to be playing arena shows and he made it abundantly clear that he had no appreciation whatsoever for those of us who spent money we had earned to support him. Hey, it’s still (kind of) a free country; you can do as much of that crap as you like - but you can’t do it and expect anyone to continue to follow you! Not as an entertainer or as a leader…

Now let’s apply that same thought process to how we lead our teams. Have you ever seen someone move from a role in a large company where they managed hundreds of people into a smaller organization with a significantly smaller team reporting to them? In most cases like that, they’re not only overseeing a smaller team but they also wear far more hats and have to do a number of things they previously had team members supporting them with. If they approach that new role the same way they handled their previous role, it’s just a matter of time until something hits the proverbial fan! But when they’re willing to jump in and do any task that needs their attention, their new team will be quite likely to rally around them and provide them with any support they could ever need. And any air of entitlement can crush that good will in a heartbeat.

A friend of mine has a YouTube channel where he does reviews of different bands and music videos. I’ve recently been able to help him schedule and host a few live interviews with some of those bands. In one interview, he asked the band member “what venues do you like playing in the most, the big music festivals with thousands of people or the smaller shows where people are so much closer to you?” The response was powerful! The band member immediately said, “I give it everything I’ve got every single time we play. I don’t care if it’s for 20 people or 20,000 people. It’s my job to perform.”

That is exactly how we should view our responsibility as leaders. When we’re willing to invest the energy into engaging the teams we lead, whether that be one on one or when the entire company is watching, we’ll earn a level of influence and buy-in that we’ll never see if we mail it in when there aren’t as many people around!

For what it’s worth, not long after interviewing the band member who told us that, we had a chance to talk with the guy who manages their shows. I mentioned that comment to him and he shared a story about the band playing a venue that did absolutely nothing to promote them. He said the only people who showed up were from a local radio station that he had contacted himself. The venue and the guys from the radio station told them it would be fine to cancel but the band wouldn’t have any part of that. He said they played a full set for half a dozen people and it was one of the best performances he had ever seen from them. They didn’t feel entitled to anything!

As leaders, we’re not entitled to anything either. It’s our job to engage our teams and to serve them the best we can every single time. When we do, it will become what we’re known for. Moving forward, we’ll look at some examples of how we can do just that!