What Your Start-Up Can Learn from a Jazz Band

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis & the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Last night I caught a spectacular performance at Massey Hall from a  modern treasure in jazz, Wynton Marsalis. Heading up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Marsalis led the band in classic renditions from Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and more. During the show it occurred to me how similar a jazz band is to a start-up company.

1. Every player is important. Every player is important to the overall sound, not one instrument is extraneous. In a start-up environment, keep your team tight and make sure each member is contributing something valuable. It doesn’t matter how big or small your team is – last night’s jazz was just as spectacular whether it was five or 15 people playing. Every person offered something unique and they knew it.

2. Each player is allowed – and expected – to shine. In jazz, each band member is offered a few moments in the spotlight to shine. This is called a solo. In business it could be a presentation of new idea, closing a deal or finding a cost savings. Give your employees space to demonstrate their unique contribution. In jazz, this creates competition among players to perform at their best. As Wynton explained to the audience, there are ten arrangers in the band (out of the 15 band members), and each one arranges music to highlight their instrument, which the others fully expect and support. Competition pushes people to innovate and exceed their own expectations.

3. Praise is necessary to the performance. And it’s free. In jazz, players are often rewarded in the moment by their conductor and peers. Wynton would frequently offer grunts, murmurs and encouraging shouts during a a player’s solo, eliciting nods of appreciation from the others.

As a manager of a start-up, don’t be afraid to single out people for innovation and excellence during the process as opposed to once you achieve a big goal. So often during start-up mode we are hustling fast and hard towards a long shot that may be months or a year down the road. We can be so laser-focused on the long term that we lose sight of the small successes happening right now, in the process. You need your team to be on tempo and in sync with you. Appreciate your talent in the moment. You’ll build team loyalty and that is a good thing.

You don’t have time for turnover anyways.