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It's all your business: in search of excellence.

How do we define excellence in our profession? Certainly high quality teaching and performing are major components. So is professionalism, which was discussed in a previous column ("It's All Your Business: Towards a Higher Definition of Professionalism," August/September 2007 AMT). I would also include high levels of quality in the business aspects of our profession in this definition. With the season of resolutions upon us, I challenge us to seek a higher level of excellence in the business areas of our profession during the coming year.

What is excellence in business? Partially, it's the utilization of a studio policy and procedures, a statement of teaching philosophy, professional forms and documents, marketing brochures and webpage, documentation, assessment and recordkeeping. However, I believe that studios with the highest levels of excellence in business go beyond these concrete elements.

In 1982, Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., completed the bestseller In Search of Excellence, a resource still cited today for its findings and unprecedented research in the business field. In Search of Excellence extensively interviewed and studied 21 U.S. companies to determine if there were common characteristics or "best practices" that helped define their excellence. The companies were selected based on long-term financial performance, high esteem within their industry and a reputation for innovation; the study included companies such as 3M, IBM and Procter & Gamble. The result of this research was an eight-point model of basic practices and characteristics. Today, this research remains a benchmark against which businesses (including music studios and local/state associations) can evaluate themselves. Let's consider the relevance of these eight points to our profession.

1. A Bias for Action

The companies all considered analysis to be important, but they also had a penchant for "getting on with it." They exhibited a willingness to experiment and a high tolerance for mistakes.

Are we willing to experiment with new repertoire, types of teaching or new technology? Are we willing to fail? Are we willing to explore new local or state association projects with colleagues? Have you been thinking about attending your first national conference or purchasing a computer lab for your studio? If you've done the analysis (for example, how many additional hours of teaching will it require to be able to afford the trip or the lab?), and you can envision the action needed (for example, teach two additional students for six months), then make this the year that you step forward and take action.

As a profession that largely consists of independent, small businesses (many with one owner/employee), the mechanism for "getting on with it" may often be membership in an association. A local, state or national association can provide the resources, structure or critical mass needed for effective action.

2. Close to the Customer

The companies were all obsessed by quality, service and reliability. Whether their basic business was metal bending or hamburgers, they defined themselves as service businesses. They got some of their best product ideas from their customers. They were better listeners and did so intently and regularly.

Our students are our customers; do we consistently listen to what they are interested in? Goal setting in the initial lessons is not enough; children go through many growth phases: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical. We must be responsive to each phase and take the time in every lesson to listen to their concerns and interests. As a local or state association, do we ask for and then listen carefully to ideas and suggestions from our members, advertisers, and communities?

3. Autonomy and Entrepreneurship

The companies were all risk-takers and encouraged all employees to take risks. "Champions" were present and highly visible--individuals within the corporation who enthusiastically and persistently followed a product idea through to market, without getting mired in the corporate bureaucracy. Champions find a way around roadblocks and follow every route that works, whether an "accepted" route or not.

In our teaching, we are the champions for every new concept. If the presentation of a concept or the illustrative repertoire in a particular method isn't working, then we take a different route through other methods or approaches; and we do so enthusiastically, making it an adventure for the student. In our associations, we cherish and embrace members who are champions for a project or program; we seek more of these kinds of members to join and accept positions of leadership. In our communities, we champion and advocate the value of music education.

4. Productivity Through People

None of the companies considered capital investment to be the primary source of efficiency improvement. Their employees were trusted to innovate, to find a way; they viewed employees and customers as an extended family. Training at all levels of the company was intense and ongoing.

No amount of technology or expensive equipment can surpass the value of an empathetic, intuitive, highly trained teacher. How frequently do we work on increasing our current skills or acquiring new skills? We are our own greatest resource and should seek lifelong opportunities for enrichment and growth, for ourselves as well as for our students.

5. Hands-on, Value Driven

Each company had certain dominant beliefs or philosophies that influenced its achievements more than technology or economic resources, and each company persistently demonstrated those beliefs. The research found four specific beliefs that were basic to all of the companies studied:

* A belief in being the best.

* A belief in the importance of the details of the execution.

* A belief in the importance of people as individuals.

* A belief in superior quality and service.

Sound familiar? I suspect that many of us would readily include these statements in our studio philosophy. We must be persistent in demonstrating these beliefs to our customers and communities. Has your local/state association articulated its basic beliefs clearly to all members? Has it communicated its mission to the community?

6. Stick to the Knitting

Never acquire a business you do not know how to run. All of the companies were very particular about how and when they expanded or acquired new products.

Very few of us are qualified to teach all areas and genres of music. Know your limitations, but if there's an area you would like to be able to teach (for example, jazz or early childhood), then seek the training to do so (principle 4 above). As a local/state association, evaluate whether new products or processes, like an online newsletter, are best accomplished in-house or subcontracted to an outside expert.

7. Simple Form, Lean Staff

None of the companies adhered to a formal, traditional matrix structure. They exhibited a willingness to reorganize regularly and to reorganize on a temporary basis to attack a specific thrust.

How flexible are we in our teaching formats? How often do we reorganize within our local or state associations to deal with specific projects or programs? Not all decisions need to be evaluated by the entire board; consider more ad hoc committees or task force models.

8. Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties

Certain properties or values were adhered to rigidly, while others were not. Basic beliefs were tightly held, but how to achieve those beliefs was given freer rein. Choice and flexibility were key ingredients.

I suspect that this characteristic already surfaces frequently in our teaching; for example, we may insist that a student perform on a recital or jury, but provide a choice of which pieces to prepare. A local/state association may place a high value on providing student performance opportunities, but seek different types of opportunities each year.

In addition to these eight points, there were several other attributes that permeated all eight areas. All activities were undertaken with intensity and energy. There was nothing slow-paced about the work environments. Managers did not spend much time in offices; they utilized "MBWA" (Management by Wandering Around). How often do we get out of the studio-to network, to be actively involved in a local or state association, to attend a workshop or conference?

"Shared values" was a frequent phrase and the key word here is shared. Everyone, from employees to managers to customers, shared a few basic beliefs, and all felt a part of a whole. It is our obligation to find ways that our students and colleagues feel a part of a whole--part of a studio group with the shared value of music making or love of music, or part of a larger teaching community, such as MTNA, with the shared value of "working toward a more musical tomorrow."

We can be proud of our profession, which embodies the same (if not higher?) level of excellence as some of the best-run companies in America? As you begin the new calendar year, resolve to seek higher and higher levels of excellence in your teaching, your performing--and your business.

Karen Thickstun is adjunct faculty at Butler University and director of the Butler Community Arts School and maintains an independent studio in Nashville, Indiana. In addition to music degrees, she has degrees in economics and business.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Thickstun, Karen
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Previous Article:Polyphony.
Next Article:Random access: Web 2.0: how the new world wide Web is connecting music teachers and students.

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