It is perhaps coincidence
that on the same day I saw the new movie Dreamgirls – the powerful adaptation
of the Broadway musical – that uber-talented Smokey Robinson was also being
honored at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
Dreamgirls is set in the
sixties, and is the story of an overly controlling record company owner who
grooms a female starlet into the sound he wants to “crossover” to the pop
charts. It is loosely the story of Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, the Supremes and Motown. The movie stars American Idol loser (and now Academy Award Nominee) Jennifer Hudson who lost that competition to the ever annoying and far less talented Fantasia a couple of years ago, which begs the question, “how can so
many people get it so wrong?” Of course, I ask that question almost every year with American Idol, and absolutely every time I make the mistake of watching an awards show. I also ask that question when I realize that so many people in our culture value organizations over people.
So, it was sweet irony that on the same night I saw the movie, there was Smokey Robinson seated next to Laura Bush being honored at the KennedyCenter. Smokey Robinson was one of the key elements in making Motown the sound we all grew up with. He wrote songs for the Temptations (My Girl), Mary Wells (My Guy) and of course all the great songs he sang with the Miracles (Shop Around, Ooo Baby Baby, Tracks of My Tears, Tears of a Clown, I Second That Emotion, Crusin etc.). He was also Berry Gordys best friend and in many ways they built Motown together.
When Berry Gordy sold Motown he faced a lot of pressure from the African-American community not to sell the icon of Black music. There was so much
pressure in fact that Gordy rescinded the first offer to sell and held on for a couple more years. After he finally did sell the company, a reporter asked Smokey Robinson what he thought of the decision. Smokey responded, “Berry Gordy is my friend and if it was best for Berry Gordy to sell Motown then I want
what’s best for him.”
I am in awe of that comment.
I’ve been around a lot of organizations – most with loftier purposes than making records – and almost always the people in the organization say, “I want what’s best for the organization.” But Smokey says, “I want what’s best for my friend,” and he’s got it right. The organization is, after all, by definition, just a collection of people, and people are the most important part of any organization. If we focus on the organization – the brand and the product – and not the people, we’ll find ourselves holding an empty promise and a hollow logo. Just ask the shareholders of Enron. The market, product or logo weren’t the problem there, it was the people. Those who believed in that company were left empty handed when it all collapsed.
Every organization is only as good as its people. We all know that. We also know that every problem is a people problem, and every solution is a people solution. Why then do we act like the solution to our problems is better marketing, a slicker logo or a tighter policy and procedures manual?
Look at the American Auto Industry. With Toyota about to take over the top spot among car manufacturers, does anyone really believe that the problem with the American auto industry is its advertising?
Jim Collins told us in his book “Good to Great” to “get the right people on the bus and in the right seats” and that remains the key to the success of any organization. Berry Gordy knew he wasn’t the best songwriter or singer. He got Smokey Robinson on the bus and put him in the right seat and together they wrote the soundtrack of a generation. The job of
every leader – business owner, manager, CEO, President – is to invest in the right people and put them in the right seats on their bus.
The people are always more
important than the organization.
Know Who You Are And Be It!