An Award-Winning Distraction: A Case Study about Ideas

by Elaine Bennett

I hate writing promo copy about my speeches—especially when organizers want the blurb three months before the event. But Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte LLP, was booked to speak and The Conference Board wanted to advertise it.

So I’m hunkered down at my desk with copy due that very day. Fingers hovering over the keyboard. Staring at a blank screen. And this song starts playing in my head: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” You know—the song the nuns sing in The Sound of Music. (Other people might hear Beyoncé. What can I say? I’m a musical theatre geek.)

I shake my head, trying to swat the song away. Fingers over keyboard. Deep breath.

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

“Shut up,” I tell my brain. “I’m trying to get an idea.”

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

And then I realize: The song wasn’t a distraction. It was my speech—the perfect entry point for the kind of discussion on women and leadership Mr. Salzberg enjoyed engaging in.

The finished speech, The Sound of Leadership, treated the plot of The Sound of Music like a business case study:

A young woman—we’ll call her “Maria”—begins an entry-level job with high hopes of success. But she soon discovers it’s a much more restrictive environment than she had imagined.

 It seems like she’s at work 24/7. Her supervisors expect her to perform the tasks assigned to her the same way every time, with no leeway to add her own personality. All of her work has to be done at the workplace, with no exceptions made for any other pursuits in which she would like to engage. For instance, she could never leave work early to go to her child’s softball game.

 Fortunately for Maria, she doesn’t have any children… yet. But she does have something she loves to do—and her work schedule definitely interferes with it.

After laying out the challenge for her employers, he revealed that the “problem employee” was in fact an Alp-climbing, skirt-twirling, would-be nun named Maria.

And if her organization looked at her another way, they would see that she wasn’t a problem; she was a leader. The organization employing her…

…wasn’t set up to recognize, nurture, and capitalize on those leadership skills. So they encountered a situation that many businesses deal with today: generational differences in work styles led to the loss of a promising recruit.

 When Maria was given a different opportunity—a more self-directed job in the secular world—she thrived. She rapidly changed the culture of her new organization and dramatically improved the morale of her new colleagues.

 And, if that weren’t enough, she employed a combination of quick thinking and bold action to save her entire team from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of leader I want in my organization.

I got to hear Mr. Salzberg deliver the finished product and I’ve never been so proud to hang out anonymously in the back of a room. The audience loved it. They were engaged in the speech within moments and they stayed engaged throughout. Lots of meaty questions in the Q&A proved that the fanciful statement of the theme had enhanced rather than overshadowed the points he wanted to make.

You can read the entire opening here. If you’d like to see the full text, shoot me an email.

Oh, and one other thing: The speech won a Cicero Award.

So I pay attention to distractions. Because sometimes they’re the doorway to exceptional ideas.