Where other evangelists of corporate change listen to the likes of statisticians and pundits, Josh Linkner hears music—literally. Before he became one of the nation’s leading speakers on innovation, he learned the art of jazz improvisation, earning a degree in jazz guitar at Berklee College of Music.
And boy, can Linkner play. A four-time tech entrepreneur, serving as founder and CEO of each company, he drove a combined exit value of more than $200 million. U.S. President Barack Obama gave Linkner a Champion of Change award in the youth entrepreneur category. And his insights on change and creativity in American business have made him a must-read in the C-Suite. Linkner is the best-selling author of books such as “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity.”
The keynote speaker at BAI Beacon 2016, Linkner explains how small changes can make a big difference as banks fight to stay relevant in an era of FinTech and unprecedented sea changes. In the first of a two-part series, Linkner describes his revolutionary approach and how banks can leverage it to make smart decisions.
BAI: You started out as a jazz guitarist, and still continue to play jazz. It’s common in corporate culture and business to put the artistic part of one’s life in a silo off to the side. But you haven’t. How much of a difference has that made in your success?
Josh Linkner: It’s made an enormous difference. Being a jazz musician was the best MBA I could’ve ever received. Jazz is very improvisational; you have to pass the baton and leadership back and forth. You have to be a good listener, and sometimes it’s best to listen and not play at all. For me, it’s music; for someone else it could be painting or dance. But whatever it is, it allows to you to be more creative in all areas of your life, whether it’s your work, contributing to your community or spend time with your family.
BAI:Music has also helped you explain how leadership in banking and other arenas has transformed. Tell us about that.
Linkner: The metaphor of leadership has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It used to be the leader as a classical conductor: It was all about precision, alignment and complying, someone in the center of the room who makes sure everyone plays the notes on the page. It’s getting people to follow the rules, to be technicians, without thinking much on their own. But if you do things that way, I don’t think you win in business. Today it’s about improvisation: how to innovate in real-time and look to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Taking this improvisational quality to business gives you an edge.
BAI: How so?
Linkner: The world today is too fast and too competitive, too complex. We can’t follow an operating manual and expect to win. In jazz–and in business success–it’s about operating in real time, making tough decisions even when you don’t have all the notes in front of you.
BAI: Yet banks operate in a tough environment of compliance, where the government hands down rules they must follow to the letter. There’s no room for improvisation there. How do you inject creativity into the banking world given that restraint?
Linkner: It’s easy to throw up your hands and say, “We can’t make any changes because we live in a tough regulatory environment.” But there are things you can control, along with things you can’t. You can create memorable experiences for customers, or change the way you work with each other and collaborate. So in a constrained environment you can be creative in different ways. Twenty or 30 years ago, being creative in banking was optional, a nice-to-have thing. But you can’t run a bank unless you incorporate creativity.
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