Every member of the company is equally crucial to the resultant quality of the product or service delivered.

Some time ago, a good friend, Rev. Del Parkerson, used a quote from conductor Leonard Bernstein in a spiritual newspaper column. Responding to a question of what was the most difficult instrument to play, the maestro said: “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who plays second violin with enthusiasm is difficult. Yet, if no one plays second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

The message is so powerful and truthful for your company, that I asked Del for permission to use the quote as the basis of this column. As you read on, I want you to think of yourself as the Leonard Bernstein of your company — the conductor, the CEO, the general manager — even if you are not.

The Conductor/CEO

In every wood products company, there are those people who are indispensible to its success. Leadership is important in any organization, and it is essential to cast the framework within which it can prosper. Thus, we all accept the fact that there needs to be a CEO, general manager or owner who is in charge of a woodworking operation to provide that inspiration and direction to make the company prosper and to make its jobs secure. Look at your company as an orchestra and this person as the conductor.

A conductor must have the overall vision for the orchestra and how it will perform. In addition, he must anticipate how each member will interact with another; how each instrument will blend with the others to produce the music desired. Likewise, a CEO, COO — or anyone in a top management position — must look at the overall goals and objectives and make sure everyone is working in harmony to produce profitable, quality products.

Although some in top management try to do it all themselves, most of us know that one man or woman cannot do it alone. We all depend on others to get the job done. This is where the top management person, or the conductor/CEO, must look for people with a special talent of their own for leading others. The orchestra is divided into sections with leaders, and your company is divided into logical departments that have their own managers or supervisors. I guess we could call them all first fiddlers.

First Fiddlers/Supervisors

Bernstein said that he could find plenty of first violinists. He didn’t mean there were so many that the task was easy, but rather that there were many skilled musicians who would like to play for him. To play first fiddle for Leonard Bernstein would be an honor, to say the least.

Similarly, there are people in your organization who know they do not have the skill or the knowledge to be the conductor/CEO, but they would like to be high on your list of essential first fiddler/supervisor (or first clarinet/assembly foreman or lead trumpet/cell leader, etc.). To be a manager or supervisor is a prestigious job. It commands respect, and the pay is better than most jobs in the factory or shop.

I’m not so sure it is as easy for a general manager of a cabinet company to find good supervisors as it is for a conductor to find good first violinists, but I do know that, once in the position, the first fiddler assumes critical leadership roles. He must have the skills to teach, train and lead others in his department. He must set a high example of dedication to excellence so that customers will give the entire company a standing ovation for a job well done.

This is all very logical, even simple. The real question now is to whom is credit due for such a grand performance? Some would say it is due to the conductor/CEO. Some would say it is due to the first fiddler/supervisor who is leading those in the factory. What say you?

When a concert ends and the applause begins, the conductor exits the stage and leaves the entire orchestra — including the second fiddlers — to receive the accolades. Upon the conductor’s return, the applause grows, and the conductor recognizes the concert master and the entire orchestra. The applause grows even louder. It is understood that it is the orchestra working together that has made the concert great. Indeed, all of those second fiddlers made it all happen.

Second Fiddlers/Employees

Let me state plainly that the second fiddlers in your company are really the ones who make it all happen. They ultimately must have the skills and knowledge to produce your custom furniture (or to deliver your services if you are a supplier).

If you are a CEO or supervisor in your company, you need to let others know that you do not consider them second fiddles in the traditional sense. Instead, tip your hat to them and let them know they are appreciated as a very important member of the team. While you are at it, tell them they are vital to the success of the company.

Remember what Leonard Bernstein said: “…to find someone who plays second violin with enthusiasm is difficult.” But, just as this is essential for an outstanding orchestra, it is true for a successful wood products company.

Second fiddle is most often used to describe a person serving in a subsidiary capacity, especially to one immediately superior. The term also suggests a second stringer or someone on the second team who is ready to step in if #1 fails. This is wrong. The whole orchestra or company team is equally crucial. If one member is not, then that position should be eliminated.

Who of us would do our jobs with enthusiasm and vigor if we were treated as if we were playing second fiddle to another person or persons? How many of us would want to be constantly reminded that we were subordinates or benchwarmers? The answer is absolutely none — zero!

For those of you who think of yourselves as second fiddlers, let me tip my hat to you, because I know what does or does not make a company successful. I see it all the time, all around the world. You are the key to success and I applaud you for your dedication and enthusiasm. It is even okay to be a professional second fiddler (PSF). We need professional, passionate second fiddlers to make sure our products are going to be made according to our customers’ expectations. We need players willing to retune their efforts through continuous improvement in order to remain world-class manufacturers. Finally, we need PSFs with a profound belief in our company and its potential.

So, I say, “Keep up the good work!”

Remember, I asked you to read this as if you were the conductor (CEO or general manager) of your company. I want you to go back and read this column again, but this time as if you were a first fiddler in your company. Then read it a third time and imagine yourself as a second fiddler.

I hope it is then totally apparent that all three are equally important and that being second fiddle does not mean that you or anyone else in your company is second best. 

Tom Dossenbach is the managing partner of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or e-mail tfd@dossenbach.com. Visit his Web site at www.dossenbach.com. Past Management Matters columns are archived on www.iswonline.com.

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