Music, Leadership, and Licorice

GD_0“Our audience is like people who like licorice,” Jerry Garcia said. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”

I love that quote. It speaks to where ABD is as a company right now – and offers lessons that every business can benefit from on how to grow into the future. Allow me to explain.

A musical beginning

Music has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started playing the piano at age 4 and the accordion at 5. The first band that really spoke to me was the Beatles. I dove in head first to everything they did. I attended my first real concert at Madison Square Garden in NY, watching Billy Squire opening for Queen. Over the next 10 years, I devoured everything from U2 and the Violent Femmes to Poi Dog Pondering and the Police.

I didn’t always like the Grateful Dead. In fact, I never quite had the patience to listen to them until I went to my first show at Tinley Park in Chicago. Listening to different musicians come together in this free form jam, having fun and challenging each other, was incredible. Dancing to “One More Saturday Night” was a highlight. Being a piano guy, the keyboards jumped for me that night.

After The Dead’s second keyboard player died later that summer, Bruce Hornsby filled in for a number of shows. Hornsby is a virtuoso musician. Watching Jerry Garcia challenge Hornsby to “top this” is among my favorite concert memories. The Dead always had great guest musicians stop by and fill in more harmony. And they never played the same set twice; they were always mixing it up. Bobby and Jerry had a great partnership – and when you learned some of the structure and order, the machine became even more impressive. They provided great service to their fans, who spread the word.

Leadership lessons

Over the last couple of years, the ABD team has grown considerably. I often get asked: “What do you want for the company? What is your vision?” In some ways, I always come back to lessons from music.

The Dead created an environment where each of the key members had the opportunity to shine, reinforce each other, and enjoy their own moments. Jerry’s quote about licorice sums this up nicely. They were also huge innovators. They leveraged technology for loyal fans. They created the best sound systems for crisp digital sound. They introduced new music and themes with opening acts – exposing their fans to rap, “free” Jazz, Tibetan monks, New Years Shows, Chinese New Years.

They provided great customer service for their best clients – offering them tickets in advance and special sections for people who wanted to record the concerts (tapers). These tapers pushed digital technology with DATs, and then CDR and VDRs. The Dead were unconventional in allowing these concerts to be recorded, and traded, for free. And the word of mouth created new loyal fans. This unconventional group became the largest concert grossing band for years.

Like the Dead, ABD doesn’t aspire to be everything to everybody. For those who appreciate what we offer, we are a perfect fit. I hope we are defined by quality, not quantity. It can be hard to stay focused, and not try to be all things to all people.

We are trying to build a great company that will stand the test of time. One that can continue to “jam” despite the occasional errant note. A company that keeps pushing each other with new members and new songs. A company that knows the “hits” by heart – but is willing to try new things and keep improving them – or let them be. We are building a great company that will NOT be everything to everybody. But for the right companies, we strive to be EVERYTHING. As we add additional partners – both geographically, vertically, and through new products – we want to provide a platform for each of them to be stars, and also add to the general harmony of the ABD Team.

The licorice factor

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from The Dead, it’s this: find the people who like licorice. If our team tries to convince someone who doesn’t like licorice to love it, we will have a hard time building our company. If we are successful in finding the people who appreciate what we do, we will build a great company.

During a recent talent assessment, the consultant who performed the review shared that she had never seen such a potent group of high performers before. We have a great team – one that likes licorice. And our clients like our licorice. We just embarked on our first client survey using SatMetric’s Net Promoter Score. Our client feedback surveys put us in the top 1% of the insurance brokerage business. And we’re just getting started.

The importance of being relevant

Music is a hard category to evolve with. If you think about the bands you’ve loved over time, have they evolved? Have they remained contemporary? I still love the Rolling Stones, but they really haven’t put out anything “new” since the early 80s. Bands like REM dominated for 20 years, and have faded away. The Police broke up. Sting went neoclassical. People pass away (Joe Strummer, Jerry Garcia, Shannon Moon), and the bands break up. U2 is a rare exception – a band I’ve liked for nearly 35 years that has changed with the times, and still relates to new generations.

In the insurance business, as in music, there are many choices. We know our clients have other brokerage options – but we strive to deliver that incredible experience that people know us for. Because business can be a lot like music. When everyone plays at the same time, it’s just noise. If you put the noise in order, it becomes music, and in layered order, it creates harmony.

We hope to bring that smile and love to the brokerage space. Sunshine, daydream!

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