How well do ideas flourish in your workplace environment? Do you see harmony between teammates? Are conversations structured in a manner that encourages participation? Are you all singing from the same sheet of music and chasing a shared vision for the final product?

I believe these questions are fundamental to assessing one’s ability to thrive. I want to share an observation that dawned on me recently. It ties back to high school, when I was an awkward teenager trying to find my place in the universe. Today I am an awkward adult still trying to find my place in the universe, while also helping companies find their place, and unique value proposition. Here’s the connection:

One of the most influential people in my life recently retired from a 36-year career teaching band to students. I met Mrs. Laura Estes when she taught at Columbus High School during my years as a student from 1993 to 1997. Entering my freshman year of high school, I struggled with many things that are common among teenagers: a severe lack of self-confidence, figuring out my circle of friends, and growing into my own person. In the very first days of 9th grade, Mrs. Estes talked to me one on one as I entered her lowest-tier band class (Concert Band). The one thing I was confident about was my inability to play the piece of music she handed me, “I can’t play this piece of music. I’m not any good.” I said. She agreed with that assessment, but also took on the challenge of growing me into a decent trumpet player.

I was never a great trumpet player, but I loved band.

I was both sad and excited to hear Mrs. Estes was retiring this year from teaching band full-time. Her final concert this week was only an hour from my home, so I traveled over and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the event. It all felt so familiar! The environment inside of the concert hall radiated positivity, energy, and enthusiasm. After the concert, she and I talked for quite a while, and she reminded me of that conversation in 9th grade and reminded me that I eventually achieved a first chair position in the top-ranked band (Symphonic Band). I reminded her that I only did so thanks to her encouragement and the positive environment she fostered.

Professionally and personally, I frequently think about Mrs. Estes and the environment she created in her band room. The kids did not organically begin to support one another, challenge one another, and build each other up. Those things happened as a result of the example Mrs. Estes set for us day after day. She always had an encouraging tone and a willingness to help anyone in need. She ends her career teaching at a Title I middle school that has remarkable 350 students involved in the band program alone. That sort of participation would only happen due to the investment she made towards creating the right environment to prosper.

Fast forward 21 years: I find it interesting how similar my role as a leader and product designer aligns to that of Mrs. Estes’ role as band director. Creating the right environment to prosper our team and clients, is what I try to do every day. When I convene business people for meetings, it is my responsibility to conduct the meeting in a manner that is well-orchestrated and well-timed, where everyone has a vision of what success looks like, and to seek harmony as we move an idea forward together. It is critical that these activities take place in an environment that encourages participation, values contributions, and has positive energy. On multiple occasions I have gone out on a limb to guess which adult in my workshops were a band kid. I can spot them quickly, because they are always the first to “get” the importance of setting the right tone and creating this sort of environment, and they reliably work hard to bring others into the fold.

How well do ideas flourish in your workplace environment? Are you doing everything you can to create an environment Mrs. Estes would find familiar?

On that note … Here is a glimpse to the music and Mrs. Estes’ final bow…

And for those of you band geeks – here is the full 3 minute video of her final career performance of the Smitha Middle School Symphonic Band: