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MUSIC & LEADERSHIP: McCarthy Tracy draws on musical background to lead family business

By Pam Murchison

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When you meet highly effective leaders in the business community, you will often find that they have played a musical instrument. This could mean anything from four years of piano lessons with the neighborhood teacher in elementary school, all the way up to earning a four-year degree in music before entering another field. 

According to the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), music provides important benefits to future leaders, including the following:

• Development in creative thinking

• Teamwork

• Discipline 

• Self-confidence

And more. Check out “Important Benefits of Music in Our Schools” at https://nafme.org/important-benefits-of-music-in-our-schools/ for a full list of benefits.

Maureen McCarthy Tracy

Maureen McCarthy Tracy provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. As the VP of community and connections at Northland Communications, she draws on her musical background every day to successfully lead her family’s company.

McCarthy Tracy’s musical background is quite literal. When Maureen and her team began working remotely in March 2020, she set up her home office in her music room. With a full grand piano as her backdrop, music provides a conversation starter to help her team stay emotionally connected while working remotely. McCarthy Tracy shared that her definition of leadership is “providing a path for others to be safe, successful, and happy.” Having the piano as part of her office helps her do this. 

Meetings with employees “often turn into deeper conversations about both their interests and my interests outside of work. I have barely seen most of my coworkers in person in the past 18 months. I am onboarding three new team members myself and we have hired over a dozen new employees to the Northland family since COVID,” McCarthy Tracy said. All of it has been virtual. Having time to learn about others’ interests whether it pertains to music, arts, or sports is so important to building these new remote experiences.” 

Talking about music helps to build the human connections that are necessary for teams to thrive.

For Maureen, though, music is more than just a conversation starter; it nourishes what she sees as the three most important skills for leaders:

1. Be humble. A leader is only as strong as the people they lean on for guidance and direction. It is a team who makes a leader.

2. Always take time to listen to both sides of a situation. Be sure to take time to mentally digest before making the next move.

3. Never send an email when upset. Craft your thoughts, draft the email, sleep on it, and revisit the following morning. And then, don’t send the email. Instead, pick up the phone and have a conversation. Email is for documentation and not communication; especially when something has emotion tied to it.

How does music influence the development of these skills for McCarthy Tracy?

Be humble

Maureen’s early musical training revealed that there are many things about the world that she can never know. This ignited her curiosity and encouraged her to avoid “pretending to know more than I do. Instead, I absorb and listen.” 

As she’s coaching new employees who are extremely knowledgeable in their content areas at Northland Communications, McCarthy Tracy adjusts to knowing “when I’m a resource and when I’m not. This helps our team with collaboration as we all bring different strengths to the conversation,” she said. 

McCarthy Tracy is an expert on the community and Northland Communications’ culture and history. She can lead her tech-savvy team to best utilize their skills to move the customer relations department & community impact program forward. Studying music helped Maureen to put her ego aside and stay in learning mode, knowing that it takes a great team with varied skills and experiences for a company to succeed.

Take time to listen to both sides of the story

McCarthy Tracy learned to read music but is also adept at playing music by ear. She often learns a favorite tune (such as “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) by ear rather than by reading music. This has sharpened her listening skills as a leader. Working with her team, Maureen often utilizes “Reflect-Assert-Reframe” as taught by the Culture Catalyst training program: Reflect — This is what I heard you say; Assert — This is what our plan is; and Reframe — Recap to make sure the team is on the same page. Maureen says that “this is parallel to my musical experiences, where I’ve learned to listen, pause to think, and then confirm that I’m correct in my understanding.” 

Maureen is an advocate of verbal communication. Being able to listen and reflect in real time, much like she does when performing music, helps her team to communicate effectively through the many challenges they face each week.

Sleep on it

There is another benefit to playing music that helps McCarthy Tracy professionally and personally. Like reading a good book or watching a movie, playing the piano helps her to get her mind out of work. “Playing piano is therapy for me and often brings my family together.” When Maureen sits down to play, “it’s calming for the whole house, which is often so hectic. My daughters, husband, and pets will all gather nearby, and we spend a few moments being still together.”

Whether playing music herself or attending a live concert, music helps McCarthy Tracy to stay centered and mindful amidst the chaos of daily life, a chaos that has only increased since the pandemic begin in March 2020. 

How will you use music to lead your team forward?      

Pam Murchison is the executive director of Symphoria: The Orchestra of CNY. Contact her at pmurchison@experiencesymphoria.org.