How a quiet word from a colleague brought music back into my life

The story behind LinkedIn Park: summer festival headliners and my best ever side-hustle

July 4, 2018

The story behind LinkedIn Park: summer festival headliners and my best ever side-hustle

My unlikely journey to rock and roll stardom began a year ago. And it started in a bad place. Something hadn’t gone to plan and as a result I was going to miss my sales targets. I was running on stress as a result, and putting a huge amount of pressure on myself in the process. Sensing this, the colleague I’d been working with on the project took me to one side:

"What do you do when you go home?"

"Nothing special: bath time for my son, a bit of Netflix maybe."

"Well try this. When you go home, disconnect and do something you like. Take your guitar, sing, do something.”

I picked up my guitar again. Then, 12 months later, on 6th June, I found myself striding onto the stage at LinkedIn’s summer party as the frontman of ‘LinkedIn Park’.

We’d formed the four-piece band as soon as we heard that the summer party was to have a Festival theme. It just seemed too good an opportunity to miss. However, that doesn’t mean that making it onto that stage was an easy ride for myself and my colleagues. We had a 45-minute set to fill. We’d only ever played in a studio together before – and that on only a very few occasions with everyone present. Oh – and I’d never actually performed as a vocalist in my life. My on-stage experience was strictly limited to occasions when I had a guitar to hide behind.

It could have been an incredibly stressful experience. It turned out to be an absolutely exhilarating one. It wasn’t just that seven of the eight songs we chose started exactly as we planned, involved all of us hitting the right chords at the right times, and ending at least two of them as we'd rehearsed. When you’re performing a hard rock set list that includes a cover of Hit me baby one more time to a passionately enthusiastic group of colleagues, the technical details maybe don’t matter so much. However, it’s still a challenging and exciting experience – and I cannot believe how much we learned as a group in preparing for it.

Preparing for a performance at short notice takes you through lots of different phases as a band. I found those phases strikingly similar to the experiences that I go through in my professional life. Being the frontman for LinkedIn Park was amazing in its own right, but it also gave me a new perspective on work – a perspective I’d never have had if I hadn’t had that quiet word with a colleague and made that commitment to pick up a guitar again. I’m a better live musician for having been an account director – and I’m a better account director for being a live musician once again. Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Learning to prioritise makes almost anything possible
Planning for a gig can be difficult. You might only get a month to prepare your set list, learn the songs and nail them. What do you do? Dropping everything and focusing on the gig isn’t possible – especially if, like me, you’ve got a full-time job and 2-month and 2-year-olds at home. It’s not helpful to assume that a project like this can simply leap to the top of everyone’s priority list. What you need is one person to take the lead, book times in for everyone, drive things forward, and in our case, ensure we got enough practice. I took on that role – and one of the first things that I did was start prioritising about what we needed to achieve with our limited time. It’s taken me years of my professional career to figure out how to prioritise in this way. It’s a difficult skill to develop one you should never take for granted. It can make a massive impact on your ability to advance important projects. I had just never expected to be able to apply it to something that was so intensely personal as that goal of walking on-stage at the festival. Planning and prioritising is a life skill. If you only apply it at work, then you’re selling yourself short.

The art of giving feedback matters whatever you’re doing
It’s not what many people associate with the freewheeling, jamming experience of being in a band, but even with playing music you have to be able to give open, honest feedback to others and make some tough decisions. I think it was our ability to do this that enabled us to make LinkedIn Park a reality in a matter of weeks – it was the big difference between my experience getting back into music now, and my adventures of being in a band in my younger days. Deciding on an eight-song set list for a 40-minute set was a critical set of choices that we had to try to make early, or all that planning and prioritising would be wasted. However, we had to balance the urgency with genuine collaboration. This wasn’t going to work if one person tried to enforce their ideas on everyone else.

We most likely had 20 suggestions for our set list over time but we were able to whittle it down by cutting the ones that we as a group agreed should go (most of the time, at least). This process came down to being able to share our own ideas, whilst having empathy for the ideas that were particularly important to others. That combination is the key to a lot of different situations. It’s a skill that can only be developed over time, through understanding of when you can be direct, and when you have to be more thoughtful.

Memorise your message to bring it to life
After all the hard work, it’s important to be able to execute and deliver. With music, you build up to a performance and then give it, hoping that the audience you’re performing to will appreciate it. It’s the same for a big presentation. I’ve been a huge advocate for years of ensuring you know your material off by heart before a big meeting, just as you would walking onto the stage. It switches your focus from the slides themselves to the inherent value in the story you’re telling – the soul of it all. It enables you to bring the points to life and illustrate them in a way you can’t if you’re mentally focused on just trying to remember everything. Great live music performances aren’t just a case of playing the right notes in the right order – it’s the energy and belief that goes into them that makes the difference. I’m not saying that LinkedIn Park’s performance was in this league, but it was a great reminder to me of what we’re aiming to achieve every time we present to a room. And on all these occasions, practice makes perfect.

Playing in a band again, and preparing a live performance, hasn’t just re-connected me to something that I love. It’s energised my experience of work as well. It’s been a timely reminder of the difference that my skills can make – and it’s taught me how to make better use of those skills at the same time. I’m very grateful for that quiet word from a colleague that set me on my way to the LinkedIn festival. I thought I was just trying something to take my mind of work. In reality, I was doing something that would re-focus my mind on it as well. And of course, nothing beats the buzz of playing to a live festival crowd!

PS. Here’s our full LinkedIn Park set list:

  1. Hello there (Cheap Trick)
  2. I bet you look good on the dancefloor (Arctic Monkeys)
  3. Supersonic (Oasis)
  4. Valerie (Zutons)
  5. Hit me baby one more time (Britney)
  6. Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett)
  7. Are you gonna be my girl? (Jet)
  8. Fight for your right to party (Beastie boys).