Right Chord Leadership

Dr. Michael BrennerSeason 2Episode 2


In this episode, Dr. Michael Brenner, founder and CEO of Right Chord Leadership, shares how he combined his love for music and leadership development to create his CHORDS Model and how it helped leaders and their teams find their groove, get in sync, and work in harmony.


Dr. Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner

Founder and CEO

As founder and CEO of Right Chord Leadership, Dr. Michael Brenner works with leaders and teams at all levels to strengthen the essential skills needed for peak performance. He achieves this by drawing on two decades of experience as an international leadership consultant, executive coach, keynote speaker, and educator, and more than 35 years as a professional musician. Michael’s unconventional workshops, executive coaching sessions, and consulting services – grounded in the belief that “When people work in harmony, great things happen!”™ – have helped his clients increase employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve customer service, and create more collaborative work environments.

Michael is the creator of the CHORDS Model™ which consists of 6 key “notes” all successful leaders and teams play: C (Communication), H (Harmony), O (Ownership), R (Respect), D (Direction) S (Support).

He has partnered with leading organizations in a variety of industries, including law firm Ballard Spahr, Morgan Properties, Burlington Stores, QVC, SAP, Penn Medicine, Drexel College of Medicine, the City of Philadelphia, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Boeing, The Goddard School, Godiva, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. He has worked for several not-for-profit organizations as well, including JEVS and Habitat for Humanity.

Michael was 2014 president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and Chairman of the chapter’s 2015 Regional Learning and Development Conference. He has been a featured speaker at many industry events and conferences around the world, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Canada and Australia.

Michael holds a doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia University and a master’s degree in Adult and Organizational Development from Temple University. He has taught courses in organizational behavior, systems dynamics, negotiations, and interpersonal relations (among others) at Immaculata University, Temple University, and La Salle University. Currently, he is on the faculty of both Penn State University and American University.


Troy Blaser: 0:01
Welcome to today's episode of Simply Feedback. Our guest today is Dr. Michael Brenner, founder and CEO of Right Chord Leadership. He is an international leadership consultant, executive coach keynote speaker and professional musician. He has taught business and management courses at Penn State University, Temple University, LaSalle University, and American University. Dr. Brenner earned a doctorate in adult learning and leadership from Columbia University and a master's degree in adult and organizational development from Temple. Over a 20-year career, he has worked with a variety of well-known organizations, including SAP, QVC, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Godiva, Boeing, and United Way. Dr. Brenner or Mike, welcome to the podcast today. It's good to have you with us. I'm looking forward to our conversation.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 0:57
Well, thanks, Troy. I appreciate it very much. Thanks for the invitation and I'm delighted to be with you.
Troy Blaser: 1:03
I appreciate that. I love to start with this question and that is the podcast is called Simply Feedback. We like to talk about feedback in the ways that it affects our lives so if you don't mind, would you tell us about a time that somebody gave you feedback maybe that had a significant impact on your life?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 1:24
Sure. I've gotten a lot of feedback in my life, both as a musician and as a consultant and a trainer. So feedback is nothing new to me nor for colleagues that do similar work. We get feedback all the time. If I had to think of one feedback moment that really had an impact on me, I've been in the same Philadelphia cover band for this is our 26th year which is pretty remarkable when you, when you consider that you're lucky if a band stays together for a couple of years. So we've been doing it for a long time. And I remember in our early days, we worked with a coach, a coach by the name of Michael, and he had gathered my band and a bunch of other bands in the same room. And his job was to sort of turn us from musicians into performers, right, because we were all decent musicians in high school and perhaps college. But that didn't mean that we were great performers on stage as a different skill set . So he would do a bunch of activities and exercises with all of us. And I remember one, he told us to come in to the session with some lyrics from a song that resonated with us that we were passionate about about the song. So I came in with my lyrics and we were to stand in front of all the other band guys. And we were to recite the lyrics and all the other guys in the room were supposed to keep their hands raised. And when they felt that we were delivering the lyrics, the proper amount of power and feeling and emotion, They were to put their hand down. And I remember reciting the lyrics to the song that I had selected. I thought I had done a pretty good job and all the hands stayed up. So Michael said, why don't you try that again? So I did it a second time. All the hands stayed up and he had me recite those darn lyrics. I don't remember how many times, but finally, the last time I did it and I did , I reached way down and I delivered the lyrics and all the hands in the room went down and Michael turned to me and he goes, that's what I need from you every night on stage. He goes, whatever, wherever you had to go, just now, whatever you had to find to deliver those lyrics in a way that reached the rest of the guys here in the room, that's what you need to do. Because when you're in a club or a venue, you're going to be competing with a lot of noise and televisions and distractions. And you want to not only reach the people in the very front of the venue, you want to reach the guy all the way in the back of the venue. And I never forgot that. I mean that utterly transformed my entire approach to performing on stage and connecting with an audience. And of course that carried over into my work as a trainer and a facilitator as well.
Troy Blaser: 4:21
That's really interesting to me, it's amazing because those performers that really connect with us as an audience, they make it look so easy, but as you're pointing out, there's so much effort that can go into communicating those emotions and those feelings.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 4:37
Yeah. And you can think of the ones that would typically be considered the best of the best. The Princes and the Springsteens, or Bono. You feel that they're singing to you. I've heard that just people that attend U2 concerts or Springsteen concerts, they say, well, I was up in the nosebleed seats, but I felt like he was singing to me. I think that's partly a natural, innate talent for sure but it's also something that you can learn and cultivate and perfect. And that's something that I've strived to do over both careers, my musical career and my learning and development career, my OD career, because it really is all about, you can have the best message in the world, and if it's not resonating and connecting with people, what's the point?
Troy Blaser: 5:25
Do you remember what song it was?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 5:26
Yeah, I do actually. It was a song from the first Rage Against the Machine album. Yeah I mean I still love the band, but at the time they were relatively new band and that debut album had come out and I came in and I figured out this is a no brainer. I can deliver these lyrics very easily. And Michael showed me that there there's always a deeper place you can go. Maybe the first time that I recited the lyrics, that was good. It was okay but no hands went down and it wasn't until I really had to reach down deep and find that emotional center, that source of heat and energy wherever that is, and in each of us, and that's, I tapped into that. And then I delivered those lyrics and you could just feel the air in the room, the air in the room was different because I was able to do it properly.
Troy Blaser: 6:17
And feedback like that really, as you said, it's something you've never forgotten. It really sets you up on a different path for your career because you got that feedback early on.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 6:27
Oh, absolutely. I feel fortunate that I got that feedback. Actually, I received that feedback it was probably sometime in the mid nineties, I hadn't even transitioned into this field yet. I was, I was doing something completely different at the time and so when I transitioned into this field of learning and development and organizational development and training and leadership development, team building, where you are constantly conveying messages that need to connect, not to mention often in front of live audiences, that lesson that I learned from Michael back in 1995, or whenever it was, was absolutely invaluable.
Troy Blaser: 7:07
Well, tell us a little bit more about that. You've, you've mentioned kind of these two careers, a career in music and a career right now in learning and development, organizational development. And you're sort of synthesizing these two together, but, but tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get started down these, these two paths?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 7:23
My first job out of undergraduate school was for a company folks in Philadelphia may remember Rosenbluth travel. It was a pretty large travel agency. And so I was a , I was a marketing guy, , I was writing marketing materials. And then I transitioned into an advertising copywriter through the nineties. I bounced around to different ad agencies. I worked freelance as a advertising copywriter. I wrote ads and jingles for SEPTA and Sovereign Bank. And around 1999 or 2000 after having done that kind of work for so long, I decided it was time for a change. And I did some self-reflection and I asked myself what , what really fires me up for the next chapter in my life? And I realized that I was very interested in sort of the sociology of the workplace and I think coming out of advertising, I was probably very interested in what makes for a good leader versus an average leader , what makes for a great team versus a mediocre team. And all of that was sort of born out of my experience, working in advertising for many years. And when I discovered there was a field of study called organization development or learning and development, training, and development, it goes by a lot of different names. I was like, wow, I think that might be it cause that's a little psychology, that's a little sociology, that's about leadership and what makes for effective performance in the workplace. And so that was, that was it. I left advertising and went to temple to pursue a master's . And around that time, I got my first job as an intern at QVC. During that time I completed my master's , I then pursued a doctorate and then around 2007, 2008 or so I decided to go out on my own, which was actually right around the time where that recession hit. If you remember. Whatever that was the whole banking fiasco. And I ate a lot of dry cereal and a lot of macaroni and cheese at the time, but I was pursuing something that I felt very passionate about. And I felt that I had found that the type of work that I wanted to be doing, and I've been out on my own ever since. So this is my, whatever that is 13th, 14th year or something like that.
Troy Blaser: 9:49
All the while still keeping up the career as a professional musician.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 9:54
Yeah. So that's never going away. I mean, I started playing music when I was a kid I've played steadily. Life takes over, you get a family , you have a mortgage. When I was 25, 26, 27, and we were playing four nights a week and driving to all these far-flung clubs down the shore and everything. And that was wonderful. And I don't regret that. That was some of the best times of my life but even as I've gotten older and turned 50 a few years ago I don't play as much as I used to and that's okay. I try to fit it in whenever I can. Right now, obviously the bands I'm in are on hiatus because of COVID. And in the meantime I like working into the training and consulting work that I do.
Troy Blaser: 10:43
Yeah. I think that's a unique approach. I think we'll have a chance to talk about that some more but the way that you've sort of combined the music into the work that you do as a consultant. As you work with your clients , either in person over the years or virtually, do you incorporate feedback into the work that you do with your clients.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 11:07
In terms of me giving them feedback?
Troy Blaser: 11:11
Or giving each other feedback or in terms of not only giving, but also helping people understand how to receive feedback. Are there ways that you incorporate feedback into your work?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 11:23
Yeah, there's lots of opportunity. I mean, I do a lot of work around communication , holding difficult conversations. I was certified many years ago in the methodology that is laid out in that in that famous book, Crucial Conversations with most people are familiar with or I've read it. So I'm very familiar with that methodology and how to hold tough conversations with people that you've been putting off. And of course how you deliver the feedback is just as important as what you say and so there's many opportunities that we do simulations, or we do role -plays and I'll actually put people in triads and have some peer coaching and say, well when you, when you said this, I thought it was great. But when you said this, I thought you came in a little hot, you might want to rethink how you articulate that. Yeah. So for me feedback is it's not something you do once a year at annual review time. I've never subscribed to that philosophy. To me feedback has to be consistent. It has to be constructive. And most importantly, it really has to be with the intent of helping the recipient of the feedback be successful, if you are delivering feedback for any other reason. I always urge my clients to check their intentions because it should never be meant to humiliate or belittle or make somebody feel bad. It's supposed to lift people up.
Troy Blaser: 12:49
I love that approach. And I think that's super important to keep that in mind as we're giving feedback. Do you ever talk to your clients about tips or approaches on receiving feedback? If you're about to do an exercise where people are going to be receiving feedback, do you talk to them about ways to receive the feedback that can make it be a successful interaction?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 13:12
Yeah and I think Troy the notion of receiving feedback usually gets less attention than the giving of the feedback. Right. We hear a lot about the skills necessary to give feedback, but actually receiving feedback I think is just as important. It's been my experience and perhaps yours, that feedback is often given clumsily, shall we say , by well-intentioned people, they haven't necessarily learn the skills necessary to impart or convey that feedback effectively. So what ends up happening is were the recipient of some feedback that was delivered maybe in artfully . And so we immediately get defensive, we discount the feedback entirely and I think that's a mistake. So what I coach people to do is look, if you receive some inartful feedback or some clumsily delivered feedback, try to get past that and try to look for the nugget of gold that may be buried in there somewhere, but it's probably there that you can use to improve whatever it is that you need to improve. It's not easy and it takes some discipline and some self-awareness , as I say, our first reaction is typically to shut down or push back. And that's a natural response, but I say try to get past that and see if there's something there worth considering if there's something there worth exploring. And I bet there is so focus on that rather than the inartful way that it may have been conveyed to you.
Troy Blaser: 15:03
I liked that a lot, and I agree that often it's, we pay more attention to the giving feedback side than the receiving feedback. But it's also true that, whether if you receive some feedback that is given in artfully or perhaps you receive the feedback and you think, well, that's just not true for me. It's important to keep in mind that the person you have to manage the perception as well. If somebody is perceiving that I behave in a certain way, or I do something that they're trying to give me feedback about. For that person, that's true because that's how they're perceiving it. Even if I don't believe that it's true from my perspective.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 15:44
Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I always say, to me the foundation of any successful conflict resolution is acknowledging the validity of the other person's perspective, even if you disagree with it, because if I come out of the gate and I'm dismissing/ your point of view, and you're dismissing my point of view, we're kind of like two rams on a cliff side somewhere banging heads , and hoping the other person's gonna acquiesce. And the only thing that that's good for is a migraine. So if I say Troy, I don't necessarily agree with you, but help me understand where you're coming from here because we clearly see this very, very differently. So I'm acknowledging that your truth, your perspective, your point of view , is valid and has some merit, even if I disagree totally. So this does not come easily for a lot of folks. Part of that is the way our brains are wired. Our brains are wired to perceive threat in our immediate environment. And any time someone is delivering some feedback or I should say, especially if it's not delivered well, our threat alarm goes off. And that often leads us down some, some pretty unproductive path. So we have to be aware that that's happening. We have to pull back and we have to engage differently.
Troy Blaser: 17:13
I like that. Let's go back to the music for just a second. You're an accomplished saxophone player. You've been a professional musician for many years. How has the music side or that music career shaped your approach to training and development and influenced the way that you work with clients?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 18:38
I think there was a book many, many years ago, a bestseller writes something along the lines of everything, everything I ever learned that was important, I learned in kindergarten. I don't remember the exact title. So I like to say virtually everything that I've learned as a professional consultant or trainer, or what have you, I learned as a result of playing music and especially starting out at a young age, there's so much that one can learn about oneself and about interacting and engaging with others. When one is involved in musical activity. I think that the parallels between working in a company and playing music in a band particularly in a jazz band, I mean, I think they're crystal clear. Let's talk about jazz specifically, right? Cause that's, that's sort of the genre that I'm most knowledgeable with. So what is jazz? Jazz is a largely improvised musical art form. What does that mean? Well, it means that you are making stuff up on the spot, right? I mean, there's a certain structure of that . The core changes of the song, what have you, that you have to follow, but within the space of your solo, you can play virtually anything. But, so what does that mean? There's a certain amount of freedom. There's a certain amount of opportunity for self-expression, but it has to work within the parameters of what the rest of the band is doing. I mean, if you just, if you just step up and start soloing, but playing something crazy, okay. If that's the effect that you want, that that's one thing. But if it grates against what the rest of the band is doing, or doesn't seem to, to align with what the rest of the band is doing, then it's going to seem clunky and clumsy. And the same is true in a team or an organization. That's where this right chord concept came from when you're playing the right chords in a musical context, or in an organizational context, you are in sync. The chords you're playing or the music you're playing metaphorically is in alignment. It sounds good. You're working in harmony. See all of these musical terms, all this musical language works beautifully for an organizational context as well. So from the right chord idea a nd playing the right chords and playing in harmony came the idea of the c hords model. And the idea of the c hords model is if you play the six notes - C for communication, H for harmony, O for ownership, which is the accountability piece, R for respect, D for direction and S for support. C H O R D S. If you play those six notes on your team or in your organization, you're going to be playing the right chords. And for me, that c hords model a nd the six notes that are reflected in the c hords model are absolutely critical for any high performance organization or high-performance team. And so once I landed on my musical background as the sort of the engine for my business, everything else kind of just f lows naturally from that,
Troy Blaser: 21:52
I love that there are so many great analogies as you talk about working in a jazz band , and then working in a team at an organization. One of the things that comes to mind is in a great jazz band or in a combo when everybody is in sync, if somebody has a solo, then maybe there's a piano player who is filling in between the rifts , the piano players is right in tune with what the soloist is doing and can fill in and provide the right accompaniment, because he has a sense of what the soloist is doing, and it just makes the whole song that much better. Because they're in sync that way. I love that idea .
Dr. Michael Brenner: 22:38
You're exactly right. And actually, when I was able to do live training sessions, I would actually do an exercise. I pull up a volunteer from the audience, and I have a percussion rack that has a bunch of tambourines on it, and cowbells and woodblocks and all kinds of things that you can strike with a pair of drum sticks , which I actually use in live performance. And I call the individual, I say, have you ever played a percussion tree before percussion rack? No, I say good. Here. And then I hand them a pair of drumsticks and I have my saxophone. And I say, let's say, Troy and I are going to now play an improvised jazz duet. I don't know what he's going to play. And he doesn't know what I'm going to play, but let's see what happens. And you'll start playing something on the percussion and I'll just blow your hair back. Right. I'll just start playing something that's totally out of alignment with whatever it is you're playing. It'll be loud, it'll be aggressive, it'll be obnoxious. And then I stop. And I say, so how was that? And the audience goes, eh , that wasn't so good. You played over Troy, you didn't listen to Troy, et cetera, et cetera. I got okay, well , let's try that again. And this time, obviously the first round I know what I'm doing, right. It was very intentional, but the second round you start playing and then I kind of build on that rhythm. And then you build on what I said, and I build on what you said, and every single time I've done this exercise, what happens during that second round is a fairly cohesive musical statement. It might not be a number one bestseller on the charts, but it's not bad. And so I asked the audience again, what was different that time? You were working off each other, you were listening and building off each other and you were taking a rhythmic figure that Troy played and Mike, you incorporated it into your motifs. And, and I'm like, that's exactly right. I just, we just demonstrated what that sounds like in a musical context. Why do we have such a challenge trying to pull that off in a team context or in an organizational context? And it inspires a conversation about that very question. And so to your earlier point, Troy , yeah it's about being in tune with what the other person is doing or saying, and enhancing that and adding to it and building on it rather than being so adamant about our point of view and our perspective, and trying to firehose the other person with that. To me, that is not what effective communication or collaboration is all about. So there's, there's all kinds of wonderful metaphors and language that we can pull from music and even demonstrations, right. Such as the one that I just described that really make these principles come alive for my corporate client .
Troy Blaser: 25:27
And even to relate it back to the title of the podcast, Simply Feedback, in that exercise or in a jazz improvisation it's real-time feedback, in your exercise you were listening to the percussion player and fitting your expression into what they were doing and vice versa. If the percussion player is listening to the mood that you're expressing, then they can reflect that as well. So it's real-time feedback between the members of the band to create something beautiful.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 26:00
That's why I was so drawn to jazz when I was a teenager, because of that very dynamic that you're describing that playing right on the precipice, right. You're, you're right on the edge between unlimited freedom and whatever lies beyond it. I guess, unlimited freedom and chaos. And so how do you walk that thin line where people are just adding their own unique ideas and thoughts and sharing and collaborating and cooperating without it tipping over into a melee, right, without it tipping over into noise. And that's where I think not only a jazz band is at finest, but I also think a team is at its finest when a team is right on that edge and is sharing and collaborating and cooperating and working in harmony. And it's amazing but of course, it's a little dangerous and it involves some risk. And what I see is a lot of folks are a little reticent to step up to that line and as so much of my work is encouraging people to step up to that line and feel what that's like, not tip over into chaos, not tip over into anarchy, but straddle that line and feel what it's like to be operating it at your peak, both as an individual and as a team and all that came from my experience playing music.
Troy Blaser: 27:30
I just, I wanted to ask, is there something that you've learned as you've kind of worked on these two different career paths or blended two career paths with music and the training and development career. Is there something that you've learned that you would share with others who want to kind of blend multiple passions in the work that they do?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 27:48
I do. I'll share a story that I've told many, many times but I think it's been helpful when I've shared it with folks. I was the president of the Philadelphia chapter of ASTD American Society for Training and Development. So that's what it had been for many, many, many years. It's an international organization comprised of people like me, consultants, trainers, et cetera, et cetera. Now, a few years back, they changed it to ATD, which is Association for Training & Development. And they have chapters all over the country, all over the world. So to make a long story, less long, I was the president of the Philadelphia chapter of that organization back in 2015. And we were doing, or maybe it was 2014, but no matter, we were in the process of putting together our annual conference that we did. And I was vetting a speaker , our keynote speaker fellow by the name of Jim. Jim is a motivational speaker, wonderful guy lives in Jersey. And he and I are having sushi. And I'm talking to Jim about his role as a keynote for that conference if we were in fact to select him toward the end of our lunch together, I said, Jim, let me switch gears here. Let me ask you a question cause you're successful. You've been doing this a long time. Let me ask you, how do I distinguish myself in a large marketplace, full of consultants and trainers and facilitators. And he said, well, Mike, what do you think makes you unique? And I said, gee, Jim, I can't really think of anything. And he said, that's not a very good answer. And he said, I'm going to press you to try to come up with a better answer. So I thought for a minute, and I said, well, I'm also a musician and I've been playing music since I was a kid. And I love jazz and I love blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I play the saxophone. So I must have just gone off on a tangent and been talking about music and my love for music. And he stopped me and he goes, you can't see yourself right now, but man, you are faces like beaming and your eyes are wide open. And you're speaking with such exuberance. He goes, I think you answered your own question. I said, what do you mean? And he said, you figured out how to, how to brand yourself. You've answered your question about how to distinguish yourself. You need to combine your passion and love for music with your passion and love for leadership development. And I thought at first, and here's the real learning. I said, well, Jim, that's all nice. But what if people think that that's superfluous or frivolous? And he said, forget those people, he said , there will always be people out there that think whatever you're doing is silly. But if you come to it with a passion and it excites you , there'll be plenty of people out there for whom it resonates. That was the single best piece of career advice I ever got. Because I said to myself, if I'm going to combine these two things, I'm not going to do it halfway. I'm going to go all in and that's what happened. I said I'm not going to dance around these musical metaphors. I'm going to bake it into the DNA of the brand. And I'm going to make it obvious and I'm going to make it in your face. And I have to be prepared if people don't care for it. If they think it's silly, that's okay. They're saving me time. Cause they would have never been a good client the first place. But with Jim's encouragement, he was right. What I would impart to other people is if you are passionate about something, forget all the naysayers, forget all the people that think it's dumb or it's frivolous, or it's never going to work, put it out there. And it's also one of the things that drives me crazy about this like culture. We start counting how many likes did my LinkedIn post get? Oh, I only got four likes and Bill got 17. Like I can't stand it because when we don't get enough likes whatever that might be, we end up feeling that our idea has no merit and isn't worth pursuing. And I wonder how many cool ideas have been discarded because we didn't get enough likes. So I say, go out, bring all of your energy, all of your passion, all of your excitement, all of your enthusiasm, put it out there. And you will find like-minded people and like-hearted people who connect with it.
Troy Blaser: 32:01
Well as a jazz enthusiast myself, I can say this conversation has appealed to me. What you're doing to bring music into the talent development work that you're doing, I find to be incredibly appealing and a really rich way to think about the work that you're doing and to help others think about the work they're doing through that, that analogy of music and so many analogies that are available in music. So thanks for sharing some of that with u s. Mike, if people want to know more if they want to continue the conversation with you, would you be open to that? What should people do to get in touch with you?
Dr. Michael Brenner: 32:42
Of course, not only am I open to it, I want to connect with folks that maybe got some value out of this conversation today. I would encourage them to email me directly if they're so inclined. And they can also check out my website, www.rightchordleadership.com. And I'm also on LinkedIn, Dr. Michael Brenner or Right Chord Leadership. I'm pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. So if the conversation struck a chord with anybody , pun intended, please reach out, connect. We can expand our network together. And I'd love to hook up with folks who found this conversation enlightening.
Troy Blaser: 33:36
Well, thank you so much. I hope that you do have continued conversations because of what we've talked about today. Mike, it's been great to have you on the podcast today. Thank you so much for your time and for the conversation. I really appreciate it.
Dr. Michael Brenner: 33:50
Well, I appreciate your time, Troy, and your excellent questions. And the work of your colleagues as well. Cause I know there's some folks working behind the scenes there to bring this podcast to fruition and it was a delight to be part of it today. Thank you so much.