Monthly Archives: January 2021

26. Learning Outside of Class

Two episodes ago, we heard our friend and HBS colleague Joe Badaracco suggest that we give ourselves permission to step back and reflect, at least for a few minutes every day. Turn away from the computer screen, he said. Put your smart phone away. Simply look out the window at the clouds passing by. Let thoughts and feelings come to you as they may. Making it a regular practice will improve your decision-making and lead to a more satisfying life.

In the same spirit, our guest here, Frank Barrett, offers another way to open your mind and spark your creativity. It’s an encore appearance for Frank, the author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.

Frank has worked in two very different worlds. He has taught for many years at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His students are high-ranking officers, some of them admirals. Before doing that, he was a professional jazz pianist, on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band. Some of the most important learning he’s seen in both contexts has taken place inadvertently.

Frank tells the story of how a low-ranking sailor, who had just come on board a ship in the Pacific, dramatically grabbed the arm of the captain who was steering the ship in a thick fog. Touching a senior officer is a serious violation of Navy protocol. But this captain was on course to run the vessel aground. The captain learned something important about navigation, of course, but others on the bridge who witnessed the incident learned a lesson as well: sometimes you have to break the rules.

Frank also describes a different kind of learning for musicians, not when they’re performing or rehearsing, rather when they’re “jamming,” or just playing for the love of it with no fear of making mistakes. Sometimes they stumble, but so what. And when they get in a groove, they’ve created something new and exciting.

Think of your own experience. What have you seen a colleague do—not in a workshop or class—that taught you an important lesson? And how about conversations at the water cooler (or now, on Zoom)? When did someone offer a thought that was entirely off topic, yet proved to be a great idea?

If it seems like it’s been a while, just sharpen your senses a bit. Your best learning may arise outside the classroom.

25. The Upside of Being Brash: Lessons from an Agent

Our guest in this episode in Peter Sawyer, a New York-based agent who negotiates for a living.

Peter has represented Hollywood stars and Broadway actors, along with authors and pro athletes. He seemingly relishes the process of negotiation as much as the result. From where we sit, it looks like a juggling act: setting realistic expectations for his clients; getting producers and publishers to answers his calls; and, as he often does, crafting promotional deals to enhance his clients’ visibility—and their bank accounts.

Peter’s been at it for a long time. When he was young, he represented tennis champion Arthur Ashe and Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. Some of clients, like William Shatner (Star Trek) and three-time Academy Award nominee Jack Palance, became close friends.

Right now, in the midst of the pandemic, Peter is lining up two projects for when it abates. One is a profound play about life and death by a Pulitzer Prize-winner, to be produced in London’s West End. At the same time, he’s in the midst of a deal for a new real-life TV series about “connected” cops (as in, officers friendly with the mob).

Peter claims no formal training in negotiation. Instead he learned from personal experience and has shifted his approach as his industry has changed.

In a reflective moment, Peter says—at least half seriously—that he may have been more effective when he was young and green. “One of the things that I think is really critical is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, you can be very brash and bold.”

Check it out. Might that be you one day?