My belief is what makes a great company is measured on the impact and sustainability of that impact to support income.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brett Lucas.
Brett Lucas continues to expand The Academy of Music Dance Drama through increased enrollment and growing curriculum
Brett Lucas, the reinvented founder of The Academy of Music Dance Drama, runs his school with this in mind: “I am on a mission to empower the creative minds and create more creative markets. ”Brett has run The Academy of Music Dance Drama since 2018 and has continuously worked to transform it into the South Coast’s leading performing arts school, refusing to let a global pandemic stand in his way. Brett has increased student enrollment despite the standstill that COVID-19 has created for most people.
In his three years of owning The Academy of Music Dance Drama, Brett took enrollment from 75 to over 250 students, with most new additions within the past year. Before he took over The Academy of Music Dance Drama, Brett was a performer himself, freelancing with the Melbourne Symphony, State Orchestra of Victoria, Australian Ballet, Australian Opera, and other professional arts organizations. He graduated from Victoria College of Arts with a performance degree and soon after got his teaching degree. Following a few years in the corporate field, he felt he wasn’t getting enough value from the work he was doing so he turned to social work. There he learned all about how he could make a difference for people and he went on to complete his MBA with a focus on social impact. Brett’s background in performing, teaching, and working as a social worker provided him with a wide range of knowledge and tools necessary to run a performing arts school and take it to the next level.
Brett works, not just to teach students how to perform, but also to have confidence in their ability and creativity in their product. “I believe in the difference to encourage and nurture community spirit by having a safe place to grow and create skills and confidence without judgment,” said Brett.
“Not everybody will become the best performer but the soft skills and presentation certainly give the student a competitive edge in their school and potential working lives.” Participation in the arts is proven to help children develop their motor skills, grow their imagination, and improve their academic performance. Brett acknowledges that while not everyone is destined to be a great artist, taking part in the arts can help students to develop a variety of life skills off the stage. “As the leader of The Academy of Music Dance Drama, Brett brings not only his experience to the mission of enriching our children’s lives through creative expression, he also cares about families and community,” said Danielle Dobson, author, speaker, and parent to three students at The Academy of Music Dance Drama.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was fortunate to have a great start in the music world. I started as a brass student, and by the time I was 18, performing professionally with many outstanding ensembles in Australia, such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and others. My passion for the performing arts extended to a stint teaching high school, where I learnt the importance of education and how it is relevant to understanding how to learn!
At this time, as a musician, I wasn’t taught how to ‘conduct business’ and found it very challenging to manage and network. I had to learn the hard way but learnt from my mistakes. In reflection, l wondered how successful I could have been if I had a mentor or someone to lead me in the right directions.
After six years of teaching, I started a building design business with my then-wife. I again learnt the hard way to run a company and the complexities of operations, marketing and, of course, dealing with multiple staff and customers.
Through these years of ‘corporate’ focus, I became fed up with the pressures and lack of accountability in some of my senior executives. I found my epiphany! PURPOSE!! I needed to find meaning and relevance. I started an MBA but moved my focus into combining my performing and educational background into a shared value business model. Voila! I am running a growing performing arts business that is getting recognized for its innovative and unique culture where students and their families can create a safe and encouraging environment. And to add to this, I am in the middle of launching a second tiered level component to my performing arts business called Entertainment Connect. It is the professional business side for entertainers, we sign and develop entertainers plus mentor them through their professional careers.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There have been many times in the beginning and even recently where there are hard times. To be completely honest, I don’t believe anyone when they say it’s easy to run a business or build successful projects. In my earlier days, hard times were where I didn’t have the knowledge and trusted people too much. Also, a sense of arrogance can yield its ugly head, and you lose the relevance and context in building relationships.
In recent times, COVID challenged our business, and I, as with many businesses, was overwhelmed by the possibility of closing the doors and not operating. The Academy is part of my family, and I felt I had an obligation to drive this ship into a new course. One thing I learnt from the earlier days was ‘resilience’!! Don’t give in to something you sincerely believe in. We all have a purpose, and if you genuinely think you are making a difference, don’t let the barriers get in the way. Be agile and creative in your thinking. Reflect and talk to people, even the people you may not trust and be brave and make the calls!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have two stories. Both are related; however, one funny but the other more character building to challenge my norms.
Many years ago, when I managed a musical quintet, we were booked for an Easter performance at a psychiatric hospital. We arrived in my car ready to hop out and in the distance saw a very tall and big person running towards us yelling!! Fearing for our lives, we got back in the car but locked out our trombone player, who had to contend with this man, which we thought was hilarious. That player was not talking to us for some time after this, but the man just wanted a hug as it turned out. Lesson: look after your staff and their well-being, but also don’t judge your audience.
The second was working as a team for our final Capstone with the MBA. I met Joe, an ex-prisoner but driven to help reduce recidivism by training ex-prisoners to become personal trainers and sustain a living rather than going back to old habits. Long story, but I was sitting with Joe and asked, ‘how can you trust murderers or other violent offenders who have done their time and now to work with the public’. My angle challenged my privileged upbringing and opportunities to make good choices (actually some not so good). Joe replied that the majority of cases are ‘crimes of passion’; anger, jealousy etc. These people sincerely regret their actions and are decent good people. Lesson: don’t always consider complex and challenging backgrounds as a source of evil. I had a lawyer friend who represented ‘Bikies’ and once again asked, ‘how do you feel when you know they are guilty?’ He replies that they are people; they are parents, siblings, sons, daughters, and deserve to be treated as humans with rights.
I took away from these stories to support a community of inclusion and support consistently!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I bought the Academy to build a community to support the teacher, the parent and the student. I have always heard the comment; it takes a community to bring up a child. I believe culture and commitment are why our Academy stands out. I am not one for a teacher to teach a student, and that’s all the value we provide. Our commitment to provide a safe and nurturing environment where students can create, access excellent resources and learn from. Multiple experts and make their experience relevant and build transferable soft skills for where their journey may go. We don’t promise that we are the best or promise you will become the best singer. Our measurement of success is when a student keeps coming back for more.
Recently, we had a student who was not applying himself towards the end of last year. Didn’t practice, and to the teachers growing frustration, he was not even listening to instructions. The teacher asked me to consult with the mother whether he had dyslexia. Mum’s answer was no as he was among the top students in his class at school. When he returned to the beginning of the year, the student apologized to his teacher and said that he doesn’t want to learn piano but wants to be a Rap artist! Well, then it made sense. Poor boy, he just couldn’t communicate how or what he needed at the time, fortunately, we have this community where we can speak honestly and truthfully with our students and parents, and now he has composed and mixed a whole album!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
I should say, take time for yourself, exercise and focus on your wellbeing. Well, I am going to be realistic and challenge myself to say this is not always achievable. I believe ‘burn out’ is part of the process of success. I also believe that to be successful is knowing more of your limits and your potential in ‘pushing boundaries’ I think is part of the course to be successful!
Personally, I am a workaholic. I love the thrill of putting a project together and implementing for others to share. I am driven by Shared Value and Networking. I don’t believe in competition as everyone has a unique value to offer in our communities and businesses.
In saying this, that’s me! People with purpose tend to be driven and ‘want to make a difference’. Knowing your limits will also help with your wellbeing. Able to reflect on how to do things more efficiently, build trust in others rather than being the ‘control freak’ and delegate to specialists and yes, take some time out. I still play music and that is my ‘happy place’.
Also build your business even when things are challenging, it still is your purpose and you remember why you are here and why you are going places.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I actually don’t have anyone that I could single out. There have been many people in my life that would comment. I am a believer in diversity. I think from my days at the Victorian College of Arts in Melbourne, I was fortunate to have many teachers who I could call on both locally and internationally. From those days I learnt how to learn! It’s like a great chef developing a great meal! Take a bit of this and a bit of that and viola! A masterpiece.
In business I was able to take many of my skills from learning and performing music. I feel now, I am like the conductor of an orchestra bringing all the sections and individuals to make ‘beautiful harmony’ and to communicate with its audience.
I would contribute my successes to my family. My mother and father. Not a musical bone in their body but they supported me through all my successes and failures. They were always there when I needed them even if they disagreed with my motives. I have had many events in my life (another story) that have been both traumatic and to celebrate. You just cannot discount the importance of your loved ones. And I learnt from my family of the importance of community and this reflects on your ethos in business and transfers to those who are a part of its success.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
In my view, a good company is measured by the definition of high revenue and low expenses and therefore good net profit! Simple!!! Easily a business can sell goods and services to a customer and then walk away with a return. The owner or stakeholders then become happy with money earnt to pay for a nice holiday or a fast car!
Now a great company would be exactly what a good company values but takes it to a higher level of impact!! I return to the ‘P’ word…PURPOSE! The great company would look like the business that creates an experience and turns it into a valued proposition for the customer. The story about the car manufacturer — Fiat is a great story of changing values to make a difference. Traditionally, for many years the company was driven (pun) by engineers who treated its workforce without respect. After many years of revenue decline, a new leadership was engaged to develop a strategy to improve its culture in the business. The leadership started respecting its employees and therefore trust is built. It opened supermarkets and kindergartens nearby to support its employee work life therefore making its employees feel valued. It demonstrated a commitment to go ‘over and beyond’ its employment conditions to value its employees and then as a result, creates a social impact that reflects a better brand.
My belief is what makes a great company is measured on the impact and sustainability of that impact to support income.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
Culture — This is a key element. Supporting and nurturing a culture is the pinnacle of any organizational success. Culture starts at the top and is filtered to affect all stakeholders internally and externally. Lead by people who promote values and community!
I worked briefly for an IT firm who offered what I felt was the best role for me. I was interviewed by two very respectful and well known managers in the industry and felt comfortable working within the organization with this leadership. Once I started, the director/ owner came into the picture and it was downhill from there. All of a sudden I was micromanaged, the director would put down all her senior managers and started creating conflict within the origination. We were part of an attempted cultural change for the organization but after 6 months, the toxicity from the director formed part of that cohort’s demise. Apparently, this was a common occurrence. I came out of that business demoralized and bitter but learnt to trust in my instincts.
Collaboration — You cannot do it alone. Building up a successful business, you need to connect with similar minded people with aligned values.
Creativity — Creativity attracts everyone. I do not believe there are people who cannot be creative. I also believe to be competitive (I know I earlier said I am not competitive) in today’s ecosystems, businesses need to rely on its workforce to be adaptive and called on to collaborate new ideas to create efficiencies and new ways to be innovative. Covid was a perfect example, where we had to draw on all our thinking to provide better ways for students to access lessons. Rather than reducing access, we ended up increasing access…online and eventually set up for return to face to face.
Concern — or empathy. As a business we need to be concerned about the welfare of our staff and customers. Not only do we gather a sense of ‘where they are at’ to nurture and support our staff makes for a happy environment that is attractive to be in. This helps with absenteeism and making sure they are valued. We encourage our students and their families to communicate when they have issues. We focus on making ourselves accessible and adaptive. It’s amazing the complexities in families these days and we need to make sure we can be understanding and support their wellness. We have students who have broken their arms through to those families who have had to deal with grief. Our Academy promotes to be a safe place and we want to make sure we are here for everyone!
Community — No community, no business! I go back to the phrase, ‘it takes a community to raise a child’. A great phrase but it also extends to our business being this child. We love to generate and support our community. Creating an impact does not mean employing locals or just buying local. It’s also creating a sense of positivity, making people feel like they are important and can add value in the community. Our commitment to the community was when we were starting to come out of lockdown last year, we identified the fear and anxieties of our students and families. Especially those who had autoimmune and other medical challenges. Therefore we created a strategy ‘How do you feel when you are at the Academy’. Not how they felt about it, we just wanted them to reflect on their feelings and create a tool to communicate these to others in the community of the Academy. Our campaign was to draw a picture and write words and display on our ‘Social Media Wall’. Well…I was in tears with the result! Words such as ‘safe’ ‘creative ‘ ‘community’ ‘being with friends’ and many others in this context. From this we created a TV ad to reflect our culture and represented our community. Something all our community took ownership of.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
It’s quite simple. I also teach business and commerce and have reflected to many students on the value of ‘Purpose Driven Businesses’. If you read about ‘true leaders’ and great organizations, they have clear and concise reasons why and how they conduct themselves. These are usually communicated through mission and value statements. My belief is that without purpose, there is no direction. Stakeholders may not have a clear view of the attraction of the business and therefore may confuse its intent. Marketing is a funny thing. A business with a Social Impact angle would define impact using ‘Theory of Change’ to measure inputs and outputs of the business to reflect its success. Very complex, that’s why I did my MBA specializing in Social Impact.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
I bought the Academy in its maturity stage. The previous owners lost their ‘mojo’ and wanted to pass it onto someone who would utilize its platform. I had a choice. Do I just keep it ticking over or do I build a new direction and increase its value.
Well, it was obvious what choice I had. I was already driven for change but to advise someone at standstill I have a couple of suggestions.
Re-evaluate — Sometimes we become complacent and usually the drive and energy escape the reason you are in business. Many mature stage businesses go up for sale. Conduct a snapshot of your business and review if it is still relevant to customers and staff. Does it still have purpose or has the purpose changed? Does your value proposition reflect the mission of the business? Do your systems or workflows need updating or improving? Get an independent external consultant to give it a 360 and give recommendations.
Create Change or improve — Many of the things I learnt from my MBA, the most relevant was the acceptance to change! In today’s environment, businesses who don’t adapt or improve usually become irrelevant or go out of business. A change can be confronting for many but it also has its rewards. Make sure you plan meticulously and involve the right people. Don’t be afraid of having awkward conversations with staff that may be beyond their prime but also speak to your staff that can be used for their experience!
In my experience in the last 3 years changing the culture of my Academy, I inherited staff and systems that needed change. I’ve never had to fire anyone but having conversations and collaborating with all my stakeholders, I now have a beautiful core of teachers who exemplify the values of the Academy. Students and their families observe and this is why we are attracting new enrolments and business collaborations.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
This is the most complex of all challenges, especially in small business. We are a business purely reliant on fees. Last year during Covid, like many businesses we experienced pressure on our cash flows. We are still recovering now. Fortunately, I could use my skills to model and predict a recovery. I actually researched the Spanish Flu and read about the challenges and opportunities. My strategy was risky to keep investing in my staff, expanding programs and resources. I guess the key is to believe in what you are doing but also supporting with knowledge and research to make the ‘informed decision’.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Leadership!! The importance of leadership. Until a person is in the role to lead an organization, the complexities to be a ‘True Leader’ is not understood. In the role you are judged on your thoughts and values, your knowledge, your experience. Your responsibilities are reliant to keep the business alive and the duty of care of workers and customers. Leadership is also not for everyone. We see politicians come and go, we see sports people and celebrities…well you know! A successful leader does not mean the most popular, although it does help, as sometimes you need to make the hard choices. There are those true or quiet leaders who excel in medicine, technology who make a massive difference in our lives but sometimes we do not acknowledge.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Oh gosh. I hate this word Conversion! It is the most manipulated word I feel in the business world. Maybe because I get thousands of emails from people who want to offer me services to convert social media or Google visits into sales.
Conversion means to change or causing something to change. What if that person doesn’t want to change or buy a product or service they may not need. I look at this as what would I do if I walk into a shop and a sales person comes to me and wants to sell something. Obviously, the idea of being in business is to create a sale otherwise we’ll be out of business. Even charities and NFPs need to sell!
My view is to promote and target a need. Find a reason or situation for the person to quickly evaluate and qualify that it is a need and then give that person the opportunity to be empowered in engaging in that need! How easy would it be to already create the trust and desire and now you have a customer for life!! Simple, well not so. You need the business to have the culture to support this. Customer service and the technologies need to be incredibly conversed and rehearsed and natural in its connection.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Your customers and staff are your advocates!!! Invest in them and they will sell your product/ service intuitively. How good is your branding if people have already engaged in your business, told their stories and recommend your value propositions!
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Customer service is the experience. As a leader, I need to create the tools and opportunities for this journey to be enjoyable. Whilst its important to invest in automations, however in the earlier stages of customer experience, my view is to have the human connection. As I said earlier, building the relationship needs to have trust that their needs will be met. Connecting with the customer and learning of their needs means that you care. Then you get the idea of what to offer that is relevant! From there, as long as if the customer is being supplied with the need, the trust continues.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Social media is just that. Social! If you walk into a bar, do you reveal all your personal details, inner thoughts and more intimate details to strangers. Maybe not. I remember when Social Media during the late 2000’s became very popular through Facebook and Twitter. It was quite exciting in opening scope to draw people globally and reignited friendships and family connections.
Of course, businesses saw this as an opportunity to manipulate targeted audiences to advertise and engage in a platform that is cost effective and sometimes better ROIs. Unfortunately, sometimes business would be in the firing line of bad reviews and toxic comments from people who remain anonymous. I did some work with the Sydney University in Public Health to investigate cigarette advertising through Social Media. There was a drive at the time to change government policy regarding plain packaging and not to target young people. Some of these companies were setting up alias accounts and telling young people ‘hey have you checked out this cigarette, its cool’. Fortunately, since then, legislation is starting to catch up but we have a long way to go.
Hate speech vs Freedom of speech is a difficult one to monitor and I do believe businesses do need to tread carefully. My personal view is that Social Media is a tool and not to be relied on to conduct business. Even on the corporate level. This is where leadership is so important, we can control our own behaviors and with policies and procedures, also our staff, we cannot control the comments and views of others. Governments need to step up and review legislation that hasn’t kept up. This would hopefully start to transplant to international law to protect human rights and freedom of speech. Very complicated but there needs to be change now! In Australia, the government has taken a lead and introduced late last year an amendment to make Google and Facebook pay for news and therefore protecting journalistic revenue. It’s a start and other countries are about to adopt such laws.
Over the years, my view has changed about Social Media. I do have policies in my business but it’s more in representation EG: staff making comments and how we respond to negative feedback. I also believe that we do not have control and cannot control someone’s view about us or myself. Recently I did have a situation where I just had to motor on from a negative comment. I wouldn’t have a conscience if I didn’t feel bad, but I knew that one person from hundreds of interactions does not mean I don’t make a difference to others. I now have a saying ‘Chocolate is here forever, but people come and go!”
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I love this question. Mistakes are not bad!!! However, it’s great to share mistakes and how to respond. In my experience and what other colleagues have shared, the biggest mistake would be the expectation of immediate returns or the consumer need! In Australia, 20% of businesses fail in their first year and around 60% will go bust within their first three years. 42% of startups fail because there’s no market need for their services or products.
I’ve spoken to many people who have come up with a great idea. Emotions take over and you believe it’s the greatest thing and everyone should jump on board. Musicians are usually like this. I learnt the hard way. Why aren’t people turning up to our concerts, we are the best! We’ve rehearsed so much and put so much time into it! Well, reflecting, we didn’t. We didn’t do our research into if there is a market or a need. The best doesn’t mean the most relevant!
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement would be to develop purpose and relevancy. We don’t learn a lot when we don’t listen. Keep real, keep passionate and keep creative. Out of these motivations comes innovation!!! We need to learn to keep learning about ourselves and that we are on this earth to enjoy it but also look after our environment. This ultimately is our purpose.
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn — https://au.linkedin.com/in/lucas-brett
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!