Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown records loved music. However, he couldn’t figure out how to make it pay the bills. While working on a Ford Motor’s assembly line in Detroit, Berry got an idea. He wondered, as those cars went by, if he could create musical talents as easily as Ford made cars—could he create an assembly line for talented humans?
8 Tips to Grow NATSEC Organizations from the Motown Master
Berry came up with a business plan that was informed by his father’s business. His dad was a grocer, and he named his store after Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee University in Alabama (TU!). Booker T. was a strong proponent of self-sufficiency, and that trait was drilled into the Gordy family.
A quick study of the Motown record company organizational model, its leaders, its teammates, and Motown’s first-class talents offers some great insights into how to launch groundbreaking enterprises that can change the world.
1. Keep your goals simple and clear.
Berry Gordy’s vision was modest and easy to understand. He wanted to make great music that would allow performers to earn a good salary. He, like many other black artists, had seen how poorly musicians were treated financially by most record companies. His younger best friend Smokey Robinson summed up the Motown mission wonderfully when he said, “we were just young people making music.” Having a complicated mission that is hard to explain, and even harder for your people to understand, will hold back your progress.
2. Use a good model, if one exists.
In this case Berry looked at the idea of making an organization that would allow talent to come in the front door of the shop and send hit records out the back door. Just like Ford Motor Company had when building those Lincolns and Mercuries at the plant, Berry would have all the tools and parts under one roof. This one-stop-shop gave Berry complete control of the music making process. He didn’t need to send his signed talents to find their own songs, musicians, producers, and recording managers. When you can completely control your organization without a need for external meddling you have more freedom to innovate and power to ask for what you deserve in an industry.
3. Spot and recruit amazing talent.
Motown had a sound that everyone loved and eventually talent came to Berry, but at the beginning he was his own recruiter. Berry, a strong songwriter, struck gold when he met Smokey Robinson. In Smokey he had a kindred spirit who wanted to be mentored on writing and believed in the mission. Smokey was instrumental in helping Berry make Motown a magical place. Your first few hires really matter, if you get the wrong people, they can halt your growth. Berry would continue to look for fighters that got up every time they got knocked down by life. Berry recruited people who strived to be better daily. It made all the difference in the world. Smokey would eventually replace Berry as a master songwriter and Berry was strong enough to be happy for his student. Berry also kept writing and mentoring new writers until he had a stable of talent likely unmatched in the country.
4. Have high standards and give lots of freedom.
One of the things you realize quickly about Motown was that Berry expected to only release perfection, so that the reputation Motown consistently grew. While Berry tightly controlled the image of Motown he brought in creative people, many untested, and gave them a chance to prove themselves. He gave his various teams the freedom to explore and create new sounds in friendly competition. But he was careful not let the songwriting, musician, singer, and production teams lose their sense of overall purpose. His people didn’t get jealous of more successful teams; they respected them and sought to be better themselves. Berry ensured his players all stopped to lift up the struggling teammates and show that they loved them. Motown players weren’t trying to beat each other on the charts as much as they wanted to beat the Beatles.
5. Mentor honestly.
One of the impressive tools that Berry used was a straightforward mentoring style. When people came to him that thought they were going to be a great singer, but lacked the talent, Berry told them so. But he didn’t crush their dreams and send them away. Berry gave them feedback on how to improve and also suggested other roles in the music industry they might be better suited for. Many a Motown teammate showed up seeking a different job than the one they landed in. Berry was looking for drive not just raw talent. Being honest and kind at the same time is a trait that separates great leaders from the rest.
6. Make room for genius.
One thing Motown wasn’t short on in the early 1960s was musical talent. The voices of that era are all household names today, they were amazing and everyone knew it. But as the Motown legend grew, younger talent kept showing up. When an 11-year-old blind kid named Stevie showed up, those legends were blown away. This kid was moving from instrument to instrument in the recording studio and everything he touched, he quickly mastered. The Motown greats all looked at each other and realized they were truly in the presence of a genius. As one of them remarked, the kid “was truly a wonder.” But Berry never stopped allowing himself to be impressed. Later on, a group of five kids came to try-out and a little boy named Michael Jackson knocked them all on the floor again. You might have some fast older horses in your stable, but never stop bringing in the young stock. Keep taking chances on and investing in new talents.
7. Remain a family.
Your teams will grow and shrink over time, the oldest members will move on and the new talents will become the “old guard” but you must keep a sense of family about you. At Motown the family members cared for each other, loved, had fun with, argued, and reconciled; yet they continued to help each other to become better people. Motown wasn’t a corporate looking building in the business district of Detroit, it was a house in a neighborhood full of possible talents and music lovers. Motown headquarters was truly a family home.
8. Hit the right notes.
Let’s face it, most entrepreneurs are not going to create “Hitsville U.S.A.” on their first attempt. But if you follow the Motown magic, you might just gather the right team under the right circumstances to change the world. I listened to Motown on my truck radio all through college; it’s uplifting music and those lyrics still make my heart happy over 70 years after Mr. Berry Gordy and his team made the world change for them.
Authors Note: To learn more about Berry Gordy and his talented teams check out the 2019 Amazon Prime documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown