What the Ohio State University marching band can teach you about business fundamentals, talent management and innovation

When The Ohio State University marching band steps onto the field this month, they’ll be ready. And the journey they take from raw recruits to a national television-ready band can teach us a lot about business. In a conversation with Jon Woods, the band’s director, Jim Lane, director of GBQ Redbank Advisors, identified key lessons that apply to both marching bands and businesses.

“A rigorous focus on fundamentals, talent development, and balancing innovation and tradition drives performance of bands and businesses,” says Lane.

Smart Business spoke with Lane about the lessons learned from OSU’s marching band, and how to incorporate those lessons into your business.

How do you define fundamentals?

Fundamentals are the core activities that a business repeats in order to satisfy customers. It can be closing an order, making a product, or purchasing something, but there are fundamental things that your business does over and over again, everyday. The power in these comes from the number of times they are done. In the case of the band, there are 60-some odd fundamentals a band member needs to know to be successful. Examples include four different types of marching steps, how to tip a hat and how to create a horn flash. The fundamentals characterize how the band looks as a unit. By doing them consistently, the band looks like a cohesive group. By combining fundamentals in the proper sequence, enormously complex musical and visual displays can be created.

Once the fundamentals are identified, the power of their numbers comes into play. Because they are repeated so frequently, even if you improve each one just a little bit, they have a big impact on the business because they’re repeated often. Take a business that sells a high number of orders per day. If that business focuses on the sales process and reduces the amount of discounting on each customer’s order by 1 percent, on average, they have put an entire percentage point of revenue to the bottom line. Without that focus on a fundamental process like sales, results are unlikely to occur evenly across the business and they will under-achieve the potential.

What lessons can you learn about the talent life cycle?

The band has an interesting approach to the talent life cycle. They go out and impress young musicians from high school marching bands, but they also recruit good musicians who haven’t necessarily marched before. Musical talent is critical. Marching they can teach. There is more to this recruiting than just putting on a good show for the enthusiastic recruits though. They also need to help them understand before they commit just how difficult it is being a member of the OSU marching band. It’s a two-phase commitment process — inspiring and attracting and then getting recruits to understand the nature of the commitment.

Once they have committed, the recruits are trained and developed by students. There are directors and instructors supervising the process, but the student squad leaders run the tests to see who is the strongest. Young band members relate very well to the squad leaders who are closer to their age. They also communicate in their own terms, so there’s less lost in translation.

The last lesson from the talent life cycle is that Woods has final say on who will make the band each year. Squad leaders develop recommendations, and rankings are given, but the director makes the final decision. It helps maintain that single vision of what the band needs to be. This translates directly to the business world. Each part of the business, but particularly the talent, needs to reflect the vision of the business.