The Motown Culture: Being Flexible In A Changing World

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How can Motown’s Culture connect to the culture of any organization or school/district? Last week, it started with a vision. This week it’s about trusting your squad and being flexible. Here are five ways Motown built the culture.

  1. Research What Matters 
    Before Motown hit the music scene, Berry knew in order to sustain Motown, he had to approach Motown differently. He didn’t want to be the best Black label, but the best label period. He researched what Capitol, Columbia and RCA did for their artists, distributed their records, and promoted their tours. He brought in experts and studied the industry from behind the scenes with those experts; many he hired to help run Motown. While the music did matter, the day to day operations and learning the industry mattered just as much. How are you using your research to guide your vision? Your team? Your school? What books and industries are you studying to grow your vision? Research what matters to build.
  2. Spend Time With People Who Have Positive Energy And Like-minded Visions 
    Berry Gordy linked up with people who were not dream killers. Although the heartbeat of the recording industry had one sound, that sound wasn’t what was being heard in the clubs, neighborhoods and churches around the city. He called it, “keeping the ear to the streets.” In the same manner, he had to be flexible enough to want to hear the voice of the people who mattered the most, the youth. So he surrounded himself with those people. Gordy was 27 when he started Motown. Smokey was 17. Who are your dream keepers? You are looking towards the future, not the past nor the present. Get rid of the dream killers and link up with the dream keepers.
  3. Build The Culture
    Berry Gordy had a power team. He built the culture of trust. They had the weekly meetings and goals, etc. like any organization, but he also knew it had to build the culture like a family. Motown did everything together. The Revue tour was on buses not just for financial purposes, but having everyone on the same bus built the culture. They played cards together, cried together, celebrated #1 hits together, dealt with racism through the south together. Those moments built a deeper respect for the crafts and talents for everyone. They had Motown picnics where the families of Motown came to celebrate as well. Everyone sacrificed those long tours across the country and celebrated together. Motown also had a friendly rivalry to keep the #hustle going, not wanting to ever settle to mediocrity. That culture lasted well beyond the Motown years through today. Motown wanted Marvin Gaye to be a crooner similar to Nat King Cole, but Marvin had a different idea in mind. After many conversations, they allowed Gaye to have creative control over his image and What’s Going On happened. Afterwards, Motown was flexible with how Lil Stevie Wonder was imaged as well. Greatness came forth with 40 years of top 5 hits! How are you building the culture? How are you purposefully creating opportunities for your team to grow together? How is your team celebrating the good and persevering through the adversity of life? What are you doing to be flexible for your staff so their greatness can shine? It’s within those moments your team will grow the deepest!
  4. Get Feedback Constantly
    Imagine if the Beatles, Beyonce, Jay Z, Carrie Underwood, Queen (w/ Freddie Mercury), James Brown, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, and Ella Fitzgerald lived within a five mile radius and all were signed to the same label, using the same equipment, production and studio band? That was Motown. With all of the positive energy and music happening on 2648 W. Grand Blvd, Gordy created a weekly checks and balance meeting called, Quality Control. There would be producers, artists, musicians and executives all in the basement of Studio A.

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    They would listen to each song recorded that week. Berry would ask a simple question, “If you were down to your last dollar, would you buy this record or a sandwich?” If the majority of hands raised, they would mass produce the song and ship it to the deejays across the country. If not, it’d go back into development. Gordy could overwrite any decision, but very few times would he actually do it. The culture he created promoted a sense of safety during the Quality Control meetings. Everyone inside had the freedom to express themselves and argue their points for the records. The only caveat was no person could vote on his/her own record. Who is in your quality control meetings? How are you getting feedback to your ideas, action steps and goals? Yes, you are the leader but how are you setting up the culture for your squad to express themselves and argue their points? If their points are the better decision/way, are you flexible enough to go that path instead?

  5. Be Accountable
    Gordy often encouraged his Motown team to fight/argue and debate him during the meetings if they disagreed. Everyone in the Quality Control meeting were equals. If something was unjust or if something didn’t bode well, it was said during those meeting. That was the way Berry Gordy could stay accountable to the Motown family. To my understanding, based on all of the books I’ve read, no one ever recorded those meetings so what was said in the meeting, stayed in the meeting. Grievances were mended there. Critiques and the same friendly competition was in there. Everyone was accountable for each other not because it was in the company’s handbook but because everyone wanted everyone else to win. When one wins, we all win. How are you keeping your team accountable? How are they keeping you accountable? What system (and/or culture) is in place where people are considered equal, not just through their voice but their roles? Does an employee’s voice feel validated? How is your flexibility when a team member wants to respectfully argue a position or method?

    A strong organizational culture isn’t just with casting a stellar vision. The culture is also flexible enough to accommodate and to thrive with many moving parts.

What resonates with you? What things can you take away from Motown?

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