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Tuning to a simplified worklife - Peter Cook [Interview]

Tuning to a simplified worklife - Peter Cook [Interview]

March 14, 2022

About Peter Cook

Tuning To A Simplified Work life - Peter Cook [Interview]

Peter is a keynote speaker, conference facilitator, event host, the CEO of the Academy of Rock. He delivers unique keynotes and master classes around the world, blending business intelligence with parallel lessons from music. He also helps with businesses, organizational development, mentoring for entrepreneurs, leaders and professionals. A talented musician who linked all his passions for a greater course. We're happy to have Peter in our interview series.

Sumitha Mariyam

Sumitha Mariyam interviewing Peter about how tuning into simplified worklife helps

We have the pleasure to welcome Peter Cook today to our interview series. I’m Sumitha Mariyam from the peopleHum team before we begin just a quick introduction of peopleHum: peopleHum is an end to end, one view integrated Human Capital Management automation platform, the winner of 2019 Global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel, which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors every year and publishes around two interviews with well-known names globally every month.


Welcome. Peter, we are thrilled to have you.


Thank you so much Sumitha. A very professional organization you're running there actually, so thank you.


Yes, it is Peter. Thank you so much.

So, Peter, going to our first question, You have very interesting work experience. I mean, your work for the last two decades is quite interesting. So can you tell us a little bit about your secret recipe for linking music to business?


Well, it starts with birth. Will move five years forward. But it was a difficult birth. My mother was 45, my dad was 67. My mother told me I was a virgin birth, a fact which I used as Priceline, Rich Prince some 50 odd years later, of course, it's sadly gone now.

Even then my dad was still helping me many, many years after, but when I was five, I wanted to be in the Beatles, but unfortunately, the jobs were taken. I couldn't even get chores for the drama and I had a guitar at five, but by the time about the age of 10 I wanted to be a scientist when I went to secondary school, I was fascinated with three things passionately, science, music and then by the time I got to 30 I was fascinated with business and management when I worked in, and so I left school didn't go to university.

Actually, at that time, the norm for grammar school would be to get straight off and go to university. But because my parents were very old, I felt the need to live and so help the family, so because they were quite old at that time.

I went and got a job at a pharmaceutical company for my work. I had a lucky break of being so reasonably talented in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. And so I worked on the first human insulin product on the first product for HIV AIDS and so my early career was done amazingly wonderful in terms of working with scientists. I had a great privilege also of working around the world at that time working around Sydney, in India for many, many months, actually around India we are sort of fixing the factory that we had there and looking at contractors.

That actually gave me another element. I think of a unique sort of privilege which was seeing other people's worlds. I think you can learn at universities and learn brilliantly now via the Internet. But the University of Life is a much better teacher in terms of experience.

So at the age of 34, I left corporate life. I had also become a university lecturer through studying management. I thought it was so interesting that I wanted to do that as well. So I had science, business, and music. For the last 25 years, I systematically fuse those together. It's taken a long, long time to do. But I came to realize that it's not such a weird combination because let's face it, music is applied physics that's all it is.

So science and music are not poles apart, science and arts are not poles apart. We think of it like that because most times at school we’re told they were either Artie or mathematical or scientific, and the two are taken apart at school to be treated separately. But in fact, they unify. Even Einstein was known to have felt, but hanging up a physicist, he'd prefer to be a musician. So over those 20 odd years, I've synthesized business, music, and science really. That's what I'd bring together, which is an unusual combination, but not so weird when you really take it apart.


Well, that's a wonderful journey. One door opening to another and keeping it all together and linking it. I love it. So I have another question for you.

So we see a lot of professionals quitting their jobs to pursue their passion, which is art. So would you advise them to keep a fine balance of both or pursue one of them?


(chuckles) What a difficult question! I don't know any musicians, the probable world-class musicians that paid properly for their works. So I should really be sorry, but don't drop your business for your art. Okay? I had my music as a hobby, but I've managed to cheekily combine it. I must say that lots of people do start out with the dream of being an entrepreneur.

Dreams are important and I even started and decided to leave my work and started as a management consultant. The music came a little bit afterward, but it isn't possible to fuse your hobby with what earns you money all the time. So I must sign up. Yeah, a word of caution I've worked and it took 25 years to get to this point.

And people seem to think that somehow like the expected overnight you can do this. It takes real determination, actually. But you must pursue your dreams, providing you execute your dreams practically in detail. I mean, it's not enough just to want to pursue your hobby. You have to work at it like any business. So the answer is yes.

Pursue your dreams, but do the perspiration rather than just the inspiration. Because you will know that any balance between inspiration and perspiration is 1% inspiration and a lot of hard work. So do the hard work as well and then probably you’ll succeed. But I can't guarantee that.


Yeah, that is right. So a lot of people are struggling with, you know, not knowing what they want to do next.

So coming to our next question, according to you what would be an ideal workplace culture? What do you think organizations should go about while giving their employees the best experience?


Well, I've written a book on sort of HR cultures and several books in fact on that line. We are in the fourth industrial age, it’s not exactly that we've left farming and heavy industry behind, but we are now in the fourth industrial age. We're able to convert data into information is just as important as being able to do physical things. We need both of those skills. So just go back to your question a moment because I'm drifting a little bit there. So go back to your question, please.


So I was asking,

what according to you is an ideal workplace culture like what organizations should do to create the best employee experience?


A good employee culture, I'm working on several of the moment is one that Britain's last people to bring all of themselves to work. I don't mean their hobbies. I do mean yeah, their brain, their passion all of that. There are several examples out there on that, the company Virgin Groups, that won the prize, and Richard Branson is a really good example of what I would call purposeful capitalism.

Because Richard does encourage people to bring all of themselves to work. If they have something that they do, especially hiding it on going home at five o'clock, he tries to design a job so you can use your passions and it is the ideal.

I think there are views that say that capitalism has gone beyond its design point on companies now not just sweat labor out people without caring for what they do but that doesn't produce a discretionary effort and it doesn't produce superior performance.

The great companies that actually get that superior performance allow people do if they've got some passion, that they find ways of allowing them to do what they're good at. I don't think it gets much more difficult than that, the companies that do that are actually not new in real terms.

I mean, I looked back off into my own company, the Welcome Foundation, which was a philanthropic pharmaceutical company. It's sprung out of the need to do good things, and then the profits kind in the same way as Merck looked at that. I mean pharmaceutical companies are variously good, bad and evil.

This was a company which actually donated most of the profits, all of the profits to a charity, so their purpose was to do great things around the world and in spite of themselves, they made money and kept wanting to be there for decades, and yet for years. Now we don't have that sort of long term employment outlook because the half-life of jobs is dropping really, really fast.

Companies that do that thing help people learn and improve. Continuous professional development used to be a luxury when I used to run the challenges in personal development here in the UK or a part of it. It's no longer a luxury, you have to learn because the half-life of your skills is gone within a few years sometimes shortly after.

Good companies celebrate what people bring to the workplace. They also insist that people learn it's not an option and they encourage them to do their best work on design jobs I think. All those old companies that we think over that Quaker inspired like Pilkington and Cadbury that built villages for their people.

People say that it's quite old fashioned actually doing things to give people that their basic needs one inspiring them to do great things are the hallmarks of great cultures, and I'm privileged to work with a couple at the moment as well. So it is things around that actually I think are important.


Yes, So I think you know organizations are drifting a little bit from what they call themselves as employees centric. I love your idea of designing jobs for them and celebrating what the employees bring to the organization, that’s wonderful.

So, keeping all this in mind, how would you like to describe the concept of the future of work? How do you think the current scenario of the coronavirus is going to change the workplace of the future that we imagined?


Well, I don't know that it will change it that much for some people I have worked virtually for 25 years. This is, in fact, my office here. I do have some equipment, office equipment. A lot of guitars in here as well, we'll check. But it is my laboratory for thinking and doing.

I don't think everyone has that space to spread out, but nonetheless, I find that entrepreneurs, if they don't find a special place for themselves even if it is a small space sort of in their house, they can't focus. I mean, I do know people that try to do it from their table talk, you need to find a sacred place. It doesn't have to be a laboratory, so I think individuals need to find comfort within their surroundings.

Sometimes the home isn't the best place for that actually so they may have to rent an office to do it. I have the luxury of having a basement here, which is where I had. My wife is very happy when I come down here because she knows that I'm working or playing the guitar but nonetheless finding a sacred place or finding a place that has a protection where you can focus some work at home, and feel that work isn't the thing we do.

Some individuals need to find that space. At Work, they will also need to trust people when they can't see them and that's a tremendous problem because we're very used to having management that watches people work and if they can't see them if they're mistrustful, they think that perhaps they're not working. So there's a two-way street here that businesses need to be more trusting and, of course, more demanding then people fit their own work style. But people also need to workout on work that works for them.

For example, I work all hours, but I don't necessarily work nine to five, but I actually worked many more hours than I would ever have done perhaps at work but I choose those hours. I have the luxury of doing that because my clients are placed around the world and they found me out in the middle of the night. But I prepared for that. The trade-off for me that I love cycling, so I'll go out and cycle for 20 miles a day. I have the chance to do that. So I take my brakes when I can, not because of the routine and work and that doesn't suit everyone.

I think we're also gonna have to get very much better working like this remotely. I think I was in earlier, and it looks like you are well and there are certain things we can do really well over the Internet and certain things that we can't. I feel that I am working for a company at the moment which works in gold mining and they still want me to turn up in their location and play guitar from time to time to teach them things that are much easier to do when we're actually all together.

So, for example, I sometimes get people to jam with me and instead of playing music together, which we may sample later on in this. But that we can do that with technology, but it isn't quite the same as the human interaction of type place in arrangement. I don't think I would ever wish to have replaced my trips to India with a virtual trip.

I could look it all up on the Internet, but some of the things that I've experienced and seen are truly amazing at the same time we have to get much better than global accountability for flying, doing that more responsibly. But I think there's a lot to be done in the world, and I hope we don't simply repeat the mistakes that got us here.


Yeah, yeah, that's very important. In fact, like most of the employees on the couch are really comfortable to work and kitchen counters are the perfect office spaces for people so that is a point it really is. So my next question for you would be. So this is a unique situation, and the leaders around the world, they're not used to this. So they were in an office.

They were in a room with their team, and they were controlling them, managing them, looking after them. So right now, they have, 10 different people in 10 different cities or 10 different houses.

How would you advise the leaders of today who are not trained to manage remotely? What would you advise them to do differently? What would you advise the leaders to keep their team actively engaged?


Well, I'm gonna lean on some of the experience from one of my books. I've written 12 books on business, and some of them are very serious. This is perhaps one of the less serious ones called the music business and inside there my consent is geographic.

If it helps to have this, I could screen share it if you wanted. I talk about the idea of orchestras, jazz groups, and rock groups, or pop music. Perhaps there's a better way of describing it, and leaders have to behave much less like orchestra conductors and rather more trusting and passing leadership around.

Now an orchestra has a division of labor, like a sort of factory. There are seven sections or five sections of the orchestra, the trumpet section, one stream section, and so on. The orchestra conductor has all the shape music, so do the workers and he or she has just similar direct people to do certain things, and they will have instructions in front of them.

But the modern workplace isn't like that because you want people to be creative and to see what's going on with their customers. And sometimes they have to go off the sheet music to improvise with their customers to deliver fantastic benefits. So the orchestra model is never being very good for the last 20 or so years on people still clinging on to command and control.

It works if you're all doing the same thing all the time. But of course, the opposite is your gathering extremely. This is jazz, where I was improvising all the time and there's no conductor and a bad jazz group just improvises away from each other and the music is terrible, so you don't free improvise.

If you think about how certain improvisations work when I can demonstrate this with the robber type music, there is a thematic code or mode to most Indian music rather than music with English there's room for the players to improvise, pop music also, or a rock group is like that.

You're gonna have three verses and choruses and your repeats of elements so we know that their structure, but within that, there's room for people to bring themselves to it.

I would advise business leaders to get a little more room about pop music or rock. Would you like a demonstration?


Yes, sure.


I don't have tablets or anything, or I haven't banged here, but I'm going to sort of creating a resemblance to the kind of music we're talking about. If I just sort of set this up, I'm quite prepared but so most rock music, for the non-musically educate you to know, you don't have to have a music degree to understand this it works on what people often describe a drone, a single note so it might just, that might be played on Sitar, a guitar in this case. 

So I'm gonna set up something so I can improvise over it. So I have to use trickery and some technology. So I'm gonna recall a piece of this guitar, and then I'll set something that so this will be like, the drone way using (playing guitar)

In pop music, you have three-part harmony but in raga, you use very different scales.

I don't know how good that sounds. I assume sometimes people aren't there. It may sound a bit rubbish, but anyway,


It sounded good.


It's just my speakers rather than a direct line. But you see what I'm making, you conserve so much improvisation. You know, it just is not random either. So they're also nodes that one uses (playing guitar), so It would sound a lot better if it was on the sitar so here we go I've messed it up to do on a Monday morning.

So yes, back to the point, Leaders need to learn to trust people working away from the workplace, they need to learn how to work with diversity where they can't actually get people in the room. And they need to learn about how to improvise with teams.

“Leaders need to learn to trust people working away from the workplace, they need to learn how to work with diversity where they can't actually get people in the room. And they need to learn about how to improvise with teams.”

It's even harder than real music because you're not in the same room, but it can't be the skills that can’t be learned. I think we're all having to do that now, So, yeah, there we are.


That's nice. And I really loved the demonstration. Now I really understand how you know the link everything together that’s wonderful. So, coming to my next question.

Do we have a rising millennial workforce right now? Millennials and the GenZ workforce are on the rise. So with them, the gig economy is also rising. People work as contract workers for all sorts of jobs. It's not just delivery boys anymore. It's more like video editors and sales professionals. Everyone wants their gig.

How do you think this is going to fit in the organizational set that we already have?


Well organized organizations can do two things with gig economy workers. They can exploit them, pay them poor wages and, see them walk away and find better employment eventually, or they contribute properly like employees. Clearly, it's different around the world because gig economy workers, almost all universities, don't have unions, I am not a great fan of unions, anyway, they have no collective power.

Governments and organizations that do the right thing see well by their employees, and they get that superior performance from them. In the world of music that the whole idea of the gig economy actually does come from the world of music and this sort of famous joke in this country about musicians.

You know, these are people that drive 500 miles to go and play somewhere and when they get there, the person running the gig says Oh, he forgot to advertise it and so with that mind I didn't get paid because the owner of the vehicle knows that will go away. And there are another 500 people who were willing to do that trip.

Musicians are particularly good at taking all their equipment 500 miles to get nothing and then returning, that’s unprofessional musicians. Clearly, it's not besides at the top of the music business hence, that gig economy story springs from that sort of idea of going to do a gig and finding that you were poorly treated and you go home and you probably if you’re clever, you learn not to do that again. But so many people actually are exploited by modern employment conditions.

It is a choice for leaders in business to make sure that gig economy workers are properly rewarded for what they do and recognized. Recognition is good, a pat on the back is great, but actually making sure what employees can do as well as if they're choosing to use them for certain things and cracks that and their wage doesn't contribute their entire income because they've got several gigs.

What employees can really do alongside, paying them reasonable wages for their work is to make sure their next gig is easier to find, to recommend them and make sure to make them famous, so to speak, famous in fine terms, but actually they can do things that help you to sustain this happened down your topsy turvy way of working.

If you make sure gig economies workers are continuously employable, then perhaps they don't rely on you so much or perhaps then that you feel less guilty about only being given one day of work or a week and things like that. So there are things that employers can do on the sort of numberable side to make sure that gig economy workers… that could do that.  At the same time, gig workers must learn not to, you know, take the job on the basis that it might make them fine.

That's because musicians in the world of music the standard joke is to do this gig for nothing but you might get famous and managers in the music business do not always need people to look at because they do exploit people and say that it will be good for you. It isn't always good for people, so we must be balanced about that. So there is a responsibility on both the employees and the employer, the best companies know how to manage temporary workers in dreams, gig economies, freelancers, etc they do that better than the rest.


That's wonderful. I really loved the exit example. It's like we have the etymology of the gig economy right there. I have another question for you regarding the same thing.

What connection between music and the millennials or say the GenZ would you use to enable leaders to manage this particular generation of the workforce?


That's a tough one. Well, if we assume that the gig economy that if we assume that millennials are somehow genetically different, my science gene tells me that's not true, it would be amazing if genetically we have evolved in 20 years. But what has happened in the last 20 or 30 years is the experience of workers has changed.

So millennials now, as I said before, there's 1/2 life of their skills, declines quickly. Therefore, they can't stay in a job for life. They have to continuously learn. The nature of work changes continuously may have learned to be kind of grasshoppers in terms of jobs and skills. That might seem really hard. You have to be someone that's comfortable with what I would call a portfolio existence. But just return me to the question.I'm drifting again.


So, I was asking you, what connection between music and millennials would you use to lead us to manage this particular generation of the workforce?


Employers need to recognize that if you opened up the average millennials' iPhone or phone, you would find a plethora of music for all different genres. When I grew up here, you either like rock, or you like reggae, but the music that people have on their iPhones is actually quite diverse, and people’s interests now can be seen into other worlds is quite diverse. Now the employer  wants a person to do a particular job, not keep free-ranging across different platforms.

But the millennial actually has many different interests. So they have to somehow harness those interests and sort of foul into the thing that they want them to do at work. I also have to have on their agenda, perhaps every six months or a year, the conversation, not the praise of conversation.

But what do you want to do next? What really gets you out of bed in the morning on what keeps you getting out of bed to come here? I think they're really good questions And if then the employer can say, Well, I think that skill in marketing would be good for you because I see that you do this in your spare time. It's just discovering why people come to work is one of the key success ingredients and more particularly why they keep coming to work and also what would stop them coming to work? What work do they really hate doing?

Now you can't eliminate those things that people have to do that kind of grunt work of work. We all have to do some of that. I do my accounts for example because I am not making sure things strike, but nonetheless I need to do that, but we have to make a deal with the employees that there are some tasks that are valuable, but they're not interesting. We will have to take a little bit of that.

That work we're bored with, but we must find the things that keep people coming to work and stop them migrating to another firm. It's finding that requisite diversity without losing the focus of what the organization wants. Most organizations set up those machines to do certain things, and that doesn't always play well with the passions and interests of employees.

It is having that conversation that's uniquely a human thing, and you can't find it out by what by downloading the contents of your employees from their iPhone, but nonetheless we have to find out in a deeply human why, what it is that keeps them coming to work, getting out of bed and not staying at home. That's all that is.


That's wonderful. I think you know, if they really want to do it, if they are really passionate, the 15 to 16 hours of work they're doing is out of passion, or is it something else? I think it's really important for organizations to really understand what's, you know, like I don't know, like, what's the passion? What is really behind them, coming to work every day.


Do you know companies one of those great do a talk on rich learning from Virgin Groups one of Richard Branson's group of companies and what's unusual about the Virgin? It starts from the very first day you know, there's that old phrase that people get hired for skills, knowledge and sacked for attitude.

Whereas Virgin hires you for your attitude and if you need to learn knowledge and skill they’re freely available on the Internet to learn. So it's really a reversal of that process because Richard Branson is dyslexic, I think one thing he found that he couldn't always do all the details of all the people he was hiring.

So he places a lot of emphasis on establishing trust with people at the very first moment. So you'll find the Virgin invests an ordinary amount of time in what we call hiring our recruitment rather less time on training and development. So they invest time in getting the right people rather than trying to fix the wrong people. And it is that very first question and building what we call in academia the psychological contract.

I’m understanding that will change quite frequently. It needs to be on review, and I don't mean appraisal. I mean, what's your next big step to do wonderful things and help our company succeed? It’s that ongoing conversation that needs to happen and it starts right at the beginning before anyone has even applied for a job.

We can't do that. You see, on the Internet, when the CV is like auto here, they're all the same. You need to really find out what the person brings, why they would come, why they would stay, and what they would do?


Well! That makes a lot of sense. If the first stepped foot 100% perfect, then everything just follows and recruitment is a 24*7 process that never stops so that makes a lot of sense.

Coming to my final question, Peter, if there are any last important sound bites that you would like to leave for our viewers?


Since we're talking about, what we would have won from a business on one from science and one for music. I'm a great fan of Prince, of which this is his symbol. You know, he points out what the Beatles understood many many years before. He said, money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure doesn't have to pay for the research.

So happiness at work doesn't necessarily arise from being paid more. It's certainly the lack of happiness that may well arise from not being paid enough, which is what Hertzberg called dissatisfied. But the pay is a dissatisfier. Doubling people's pay doesn't make them work twice as hard or certain. Not for very long, anyway. It does promote them, asking for another pay rise.

But you know, money is simply a thing we need to manage hygiene factors like getting food and shelter. We need to find better things to do to make us happy. I think the research demonstrates that all the great things that we've had across the world over many, many years seem to not have made people happy and perfect in the Western world. And we've lost hold of things which people hold dear, which is not so easy to put on some spreadsheets. So that's learning for prints.

If I would turn to business perhaps, I think that Professor Charles Handy kindly gave me a credit on one of the books that I wrote. He said some very wise things about organizations, he said, creativity, amassing messy. It's not efficient. Well, it may not be efficient, but it may be very effective.

The different stream efficiency is, you know, finessing your work so it seems very tired, and managers like to do that. But effectiveness is doing the right thing, which leaders like to do when we need leadership and management to do things that are both effective and efficient.

And finally, from the world of science, I'm gonna return to Einstein: simplicity in a complex world matter because Einstein was reputed to only use one bar of soap for washing and shaving, why would you need two soaps?

Of course, we proliferated all these brands, you have to have one bar for shaving, one thing for washing, one thing for doing something else in a complex world. And I'm doing some work with a company about this, right at the moment. Simplicity is really key because otherwise, you drown in that complexity.

“Simplicity is really key because otherwise, you drown in that complexity”

So including the world that we need to look for simple ways to do things rather than the complex ways. That will be my three things.


That's wonderful, Peter. I had a wonderful time talking with you, and this has been a very interesting experience, and I'm very sure this is going to, you know, enrich the knowledge of our viewers. And it was a unique experience: listening to you play the guitar and explaining to us what it means to link your music, your passion, and work.


Would you want me to play you out a little bit at the end?


Oh, we would. We would love that.


I would just add to what you said, This interview you've created is so professionally done. People do hook up on the Internet and say what you do. I don't mind answering that question, but you know, This is also another hallmark of success. When something looks easy, it's because someone has done the homework on it.

And you know, I have a guy that sometimes does my, uh, decorating in the house on whilst I can put wallpaper, I'm able to do it. He will do a corner that's really complex in a way that I have never ever thought of. That's because he's done it millions of times over, and he's, you know, he's learned and improved, so I very much appreciate this conversation. And if you want, I'll give you 30 seconds of music towards the end.But do your end piece, if you will or do it at the end whatever you want.


It's our pleasure to have you Peter and we are so happy to have this conversation. So I'm definitely going to keep in touch with you and yeah, that's it.


Away from Raga to another simple form of music. Well, Raga is not simple, but one that has a simple structure. And the blues has three chords, and it's sort of you know what's gonna happen. And the singer says, woke up this morning in Western thinking. So this is a sort of blues from Prince, actually. So wait, Theo, wait. I think what? John? Oh, huh?


That's wonderful. I'm sure our audience is going to love it. Thank you so much, Peter. Thank you for coming to our interview.


Thank you, Sumitha.

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