The Duke Ellington Principle

Photo: Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Two recruitment questions for bandleaders and business leaders alike

If you read management books you will come across numerous formulae for recruitment. For example, in his book Winning (2005), Jack Welch advocates the ‘acid tests’ of integrity, intelligence and maturity as an initial filter and then his 4E (energy, ability to energize others, edge and execution) 1P (passion) framework.

The Duke Ellington Principle is an approach that I first heard described by professor Nigel Nicolson of London Business School. It appeals to me as a musician and a coach and it reflects my experience both as an employee and a recruiter.

Basically, the Duke had two criteria for players in his band:

1. Can you play the music? — technical competence.

2. Do you love the music? — The Duke was seeking people who loved playing jazz in his idiom. Being able to play the music was by no means sufficient for him.

Mirror neurons had not been discovered when Duke Ellington was in his prime, but nonetheless he obviously appreciated that enthusiasm, like anxiety, is infectious.

If you have a band (or an office) full of people who are clock watching, it is going to be a challenge to raise their performance above the level of mediocre. If you have an band full of people who love what they do, morale is unlikely to be an issue for you.

My first job after university was as a design engineer. It was a job for which I was superbly well qualified academically — first class degree, Archibald Denny Prize for the Theory of Structures, ICE Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Achievement, senior scholarship — and totally unsuited. I liked engineering but I didn’t love it. And time dragged.

I actually loved working with people, but it turned out that much of design engineering involved interacting with a calculator and drawing board. For some reason, this had not occurred to me. My employer, a multinational design engineering business, was exceptionally kind. I was a square peg but they patiently tried me in various diameters of round hole over a period of five years before I resigned to do an MBA.

A couple of years later I had a job as Project Manager for a large construction business. It was a people job and I loved every minute. And for the following 30 years I had a blissful working life. I loved the music.

When I became regional director for the office of a project investments business, the Duke Ellington Principle was my go-to for recruitment. The result was an office full of sparky people that broke all the records for performance in our sector. I was quite open about how I approached recruitment and everyone had heard of The Principle; indeed it was the centrepiece of our overall strategy.

So, when you are recruiting I would recommend that first of all you look for job applicants who can enthuse about the business you are in — that love coding or design engineering or utilities networks or whatever it is that you do.

Check that their knowledge is consistent with what you would expect from an enthusiast. I once had a job applicant who told me (with a straight face) that they felt destined to be a manager. “Oh” I said, with genuine anticipation of an interesting conversation to come, “what was the last management book you read?” “Well, I haven’t actually read any books yet” came the reply.

Once you have established they love the music, use work samples and assessment centre tests that will help you objectively determine whether they can play the music — numerical and verbal reasoning, collaborative working, presenting, exercises specific to your line of business.

Objective tests are important because all the research that has been done on interviews has found that interviewers pay too much attention to first impressions — they make a decision on the information they receive in the first four minutes or less and then spend the rest of the interview attempting to rationalise their decision. (That’s one of many reasons why internal candidates that have a demonstrable track record are often a better option.)

Incidentally, this observation about first impressions is not a character flaw — though I suppose you could see it that way — but an evolutionary adaptation. In former times our survival depended on a split-second judgement of character when we encountered strangers. It’s less useful nowadays and particularly unhelpful when we are recruiting.

So, whilst I wouldn’t ignore Jack entirely, a multi-dimensional recruitment model has the potential to mask or de-emphasise the things that really matter; the two things that the Duke put centre stage. They helped him create a legendary band. They can help you create a legendary business.

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Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership

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Chris Whitehead

Chris Whitehead

Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership

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