#PunkHR – The fallacy of Engagement scores and the story of the Motown empire.

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

So #nzlead has done it again. Inspired by the general dischord or bemusement at how the employee engagement agenda has gone, we need a different take already here. So I thought I would share the tale of a hyper successful organisation against all of the odds where people were rarely, if ever, engaged with the organisation.

Some context. 1960s racially tense Detroit, Michigan. Young songwriter and ex-boxer Berry Gordy Jnr borrows $800 from his family to set up Gordy records.He secures some great songwriters, singers, musicians and business people from across Detroit and its emigree population from the Deep South. His first million seller “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong sets him up.

From a converted house in the suburbs of Detroit he discovers Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and eventually Michael Jackson.

Now this is not about Motown’s success as a record label. It is an enterprise that made a lot of money. The irony of the first million seller is not lost here. Money was one factor in what made Berry Gordy tick, the other was building a successful black owned business in a predominently white American world. So how did he make this so? And what lessons can we take from this success all those years ago that is relevant to now? Particularly relevant to engagement in the workforce today.

I will start with some of the fundamentals of what being part of the Berry Gordy Jnr empire was all about. It was about success so here’s the first example.

The all important “house band”. Vital to the core of Berry’s vision was the need to have consummate musicians to create the sound he tagged “The Sound of Young America”. Berry knew that this was about tapping into the affluenza that was young white Americans.

Post-war liberation on finances and fun. He hand picked the best of Detroit’ls jazz scene to make up his vital core sound. They weren’t highly paid and received no recognition yet they performed time and again. Why? Because they were masters of their craft. Music. An engagement survey would have shown these guys to be disaffected,hard done by individuals who were ruled with an iron fist and who had to moonlight in jazz clubs to make ends meet. Yet they performed because they wanted to for themselves and their craft.

Secondly, he found passionate and hungry vocalists. One such group was the Andantes. Who provided backing vocals for huge numbers of Motown hits. Again, no credit but they were consummate background artists who did what they did because it was their version of success. Part of something special.

Thirdly, he found writers so poetic of wordsmithing, so eloquent of pop-phraseology that they churned out hit after hit because they loved what they did. Only further down the line did they take to the courts for recompense over royalties. During the heyday, Brian and Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Clarence Paul, Harvey Fuqua, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield wrote song after song because they loved and believed in what they did.

Fourthly he found the front-of-stage performers perfect for the new blend of R&B and Pop like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops – who would define the sound through empassioned vocals and energetic performing brilliance. Berry Gordy Jnr combined their talents and desires to better their lives with that of shrewd accountants, publicists and marketers. They made money hand over fist. He had dogmatic production principles. Playing the sounds over tiny speakers at quality control reviews revealed hit after hit. Yet only 1 in 4 made it out as he stringently put out only the best.

He pitted artists against each other for the right to release a song which is why so many Motown artists covered each others songs. He wanted only the best of the best.

So back to engagement. Was this powerhouse thinking, blissful-appearing state of affairs an engagement pro environment?

I know it wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be, American dream? In part. It was a hotbed of talent outbursts, of egos, of challenges, of tension, of dischord but ultimately of channeled energy and skill.

Take Marvin Gaye. Self confessed doo-wop crooner. Yet Berry saw him as a pop superstar. In order to realise that, he asked his songwriters to script his tunes an octave higher than his preferred range to force him to sing in a popular style to songs Berry knew would sell. Marvin hated much of what he had to record but loved that adoration that came with it so Berry won out on stimulus greater than pure craft. Marvin realised that this was his key to success and went along with it despite his view on wanting to become the “Black Sinatra”.

Then take Smokey Robinson. Bob Dylan described him as one of America’s best poets. And he was a song writer extraordinaire. So Berry gave him space, the best artists to work for and a cut of the profits. Smokey never dissented even to this day and during
lawsuits from other writers in the 1970s.

Then take Diana Ross. Not even the best vocalist with the Supremes, Berry insisted songs be written with her vocals in mind and rumours of a relationship with Berry never stopped that hit machine from becoming his banner act.He knew she had style and panache that would make Motown money. And it did. Some of Motown’s biggest hits were from this arrangement.
And he broke the supper clubs and Vegas which meant Motown had a footprint in the more mature markets who had money to spend on records and concerts.

So again, back to engagement. Berry ruled with his rod of iron – contrary to a lot of what I believe leadership should be all about. However, in the climate where Black businesses were few and far between, he provided a beacon of hope for a new Black middle class that eventually came to be.

Were his staff engaged in Motown Inc? Not really. In some cases, not at all.

Did they tolerate this and perform in spite of this? Absolutely. Did they garner success they craved and money and a better lifestyle? Arguably, yes although the Funk Brothers (house band), the writers and the backing singers (Andantes) got less than they really deserved but STILL outperformed and delivered. They were clearly engaged but for other reasons than Motown inc.

So my message here is engagement scores and indices are a falsehood.

People are engaged in what they do BECAUSE OF WHAT IT DOES FOR THEM is my assertion.

For whatever reason they are engaged in delivering and no matter how the organisation tries to convince themselves it is because of their employer brand. When it suited the Motown artists, they went with the brand, It was a whole lot about their love of what they did and Motown just happened to give them exposure, finances and airplay – literally – for what that was.

That no one has probably ever heard of Jack Ashford (vibes), Benny Benjamin (drums) or James Jamerson (bass) is a sad fact BUT they have written and etched their mark on musical history with “Nowhere To Run”; “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” “My World Is Empty Without You” and “…Grapevine”.

You – as a workforce participant – can and SHOULD be engaged in what you do. What you love. What you were born to do. Many organisations are kidding themselves that is they who you love.

Maybe in the NHS you love the part of something amazing. I have recently experienced palliative care workers who humble me beyond words. Is it their hospice they are engaged in? I cannot say for certain but I think they are engaged in the dignified and caring support they provide to people who are at the end of their lives. So WHY OH WHY are we obsessed with a score on being engaged in WHO we work for?

Ask not what you can do for your workplace but what your workplace can do for you to get the best around you so you become the master of what you were born to do.

So many Motown artists I adore have passed, and despite the dogmatic, ruthless organisation they worked for, they left me with such musical, symphonic joy I cannot thank them enough. They didn’t get moved by a poxy score on a chart. They were moved by what they loved doing and the love they spread with that expression, craft and endeavour.

So dont insult me Employer PLC by being pleased with a 2% uplift. Just let me be brilliant – all the time, individually and collectively,so I can feel joy about the difference I make.

Want to engage me? Let me be Marvin Gaye recording “What’s Going On?”.

  1. Reminds me of my 18 years working at The Wellcome Foundation, a meritocracy that produced four nobel prize winners, poorly managed in HR terms but brilliantly led, bound together by a common purpose to rid the world of disease. Somewhat different than some modern pharma companies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s