Stephen Arnold: “Mistakes are the stairways to greatness”

…mistakes are the stairways to greatness. The first thing I tell our new hires is that if you’re not making mistakes then you’re probably not doing your job. If someone is being proactive and taking initiative, they will make mistakes. That’s what you call experience. As a part of my series about how leaders can […]

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…mistakes are the stairways to greatness. The first thing I tell our new hires is that if you’re not making mistakes then you’re probably not doing your job. If someone is being proactive and taking initiative, they will make mistakes. That’s what you call experience.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Arnold. Stephen Arnold, founder of Stephen Arnold Music (SAM) is often referred to as the most heard, least-known composer in America. Their compositions can be heard daily in more than one billion homes worldwide. Based in Dallas, with additional recording studios in Santa Fe, The World Leader In Sonic Branding® has more than 25 years of success delivering impactful, brand-defining music and sound identities to top media outlets, television networks, advertising agencies, production studios and corporations. With multiple Emmys, Addys and PromaxBDA awards to their credit, SAM’s specialized approach and commitment to the power of sonic branding, state-of-the-art production and unparalleled customer service is at the core of its promise. SAM continues to set the creative bar in a highly competitive content landscape. A key element that sets SAM apart is our commitment and ability to research the marketing goals and objectives of our clients, and to understand the demographic target as it relates to the clear communication of a company’s brand through sound. The core foundation of SAM is the belief that of all the senses hearing offers the greatest opportunity to influence long-term memory, emotional response and brand recognition. Sonic branding offers a most effective way for a company to communicate their brand statement to a target audience. It is our approach on every project to emotionally connect our client’s brand to their message and audience through sound and music.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

SA: In the early 80s I had my 1st opportunity to create music for a television station — KXAS, the NBC affiliate in Dallas. They had hired me to write, record and produce an image song, which is basically a 60 song promoting the station. I spent days writing and of course that was before computers, samplers and sequencers so everything was played and recorded using live musicians.

Presentations were always done in person using a simple boom box playing a cassette (pre CDs). I was thrilled with how the song came out and listened over and over on the 45-minute drive to the station for the presentation. I knew without a doubt they would be blown away with their new station song.

When I arrived in the conference room at the station there were three executives — the general manager, the creative services director and the news director. I passed out the lyrics (which of course were done on a typewriter) and then popped the cassette in and hit play. After about 15 seconds, the general manager motioned for me to pause the music and said, “I really don’t like the style or direction of the song” followed by the news director chiming in saying, “I’m not really crazy about the lyrics.” Then the creative director, looking up from her lyric sheet said, I really don’t think that melody is working.”

After an uncomfortable pause, I looked around and said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong here that a new song wouldn’t fix”. Learning to never take creative criticism personally was a lesson that has well served my team and I through the years. Twenty-five years later we now provide music for 350+ televisions stations across the US.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

SA: CCTV — We were tasked with a top-to-bottom rebrand of the music of one of the largest global news organizations CCTV — The music we made is being heard on channels that reach billions — not millions — of homes worldwide. Part of the process was presenting in person 7 melodic logos to a group of 40+ news and creative directors from the five CCTV International Channels; Arabic, English, French (Africa), Russian and Spanish at their headquarters in Beijing.

Typically we present initial music logos on an acoustic guitar to show how they work in their most simple and organic form followed by the logos played within a more produced demo track.

None of the CCTV directors spoke English so we had a translator who would communicate our discussion. They were quite intrigued with two Americans presenting melodies on a guitar live in their large conference room with tables/chairs in u shape with us in the front. I couldn’t remember all the logos so I literally had a piece of paper taped to the top of my guitar with not only the melodies, but where the fingerings were on the strings since melodies can sound totally different depending on where they are played.

After several hours, they finally all voted on one melody which resulting in a 2nd trip to Beijing to present the final themes in the five different regional styles.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

SA: We’re working on a number of challenging projects for an array of TV networks ranging from Ada Derana, the news channel of Sri Lanka, the Golf Channel, CNN and as well as more arrangements for CCTV which is branded now as CGTV, but the one that will likely help people is our on going involvement in an amazing non-profit called Little Kids Rock that provides free instruments and music lessons to disadvantaged public school students in some of the most economically challenged communities in the United States. Since 2012, 100% all proceeds from our “Six Strings Of Christmas” CDs we’ve produced goes the LKR.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

SA: Keeping your workforce engaged in the ultimate goals of the company is crucial to long-term success. Everyone needs to feel like their playing a role in the grand vision. If not, it’s ‘just a job’ and the slide begins. Also, due to technology, often more is expected to be accomplished with fewer resources, which adds additional stress.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

SA: An unhappy workforce creates a toxic situation that can permeate the entire company. If an employee is unhappy, they’re likely not to be very productive and their attitude can easily infect other staffers and lead to lost profitability and a general malaise. That’s why in addition to making everyone feel they play an integral role in the company’s success, we try to have a little fun as a staff — staff lunches, our annual mandatory Texas state fair day to the state fair, concerts, are just a few examples of how we encourage a family vibe here.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

SA: A flexible workweek so employees have option to work longer hours and get an extra day off every other week.

Working off site — either at home or at a satellite office we rent for them. Many of our employees have young kids and if sick or school functions we allow them to work at home. Additionally, several have long commutes so we provide small satellite office where they can work 2 to 3 days a week off site as needed. And provide toll tags to allow them to take faster routes if needed.

Also, in addition to vacation time, employees have five days of personal time to take for however the prefer, but in many cases the personal days are not taken so at the end of the year they are reimbursed double for days not taken. We have always felt why should someone be penalized for being healthy. We also offer weekly staff lunches or happy hours; fun work environment with all offices having large window and employees can select their own type of chairs and office furniture.

Lastly, there’s no clock punching or set hours here. It’s all about getting the work done and everyone shares an expectation of excellence in both the music we produce and the way we treat the clients we serve. Everyone knows that the person labeling the packages in the mail area is just as important as the producers doing the final mix for CNN.

Its very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

SA: Of course we need to offer better healthcare options, family leave/day care assistance, flex time, at least 2 weeks vacation paid guaranteed, but also to me, It’s all about balance, balancing personal life with work like. As it’s been said “what happens off the field directly affects what’s goes on the field” so providing better healthcare options, allowing extra time off and flexibility when stressful circumstances occur can and will significantly change a work culture for the better.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

SA: Someone once said, “there is no limit to what can be accomplished if you’re not worried about who gets the credit.” I emphasize to our staff it’s always “we” never “I.” Just last week we were doing a huge project for the Golf Channel and upcoming women’s tournament in Augusta, when the head Golf Channel director at the session complimented me on the arrangement. I said, “Yeah Chad and Mack did an amazing job. We are so lucky we have them on the team.”

Also, mistakes are the stairways to greatness. The first thing I tell our new hires is that if you’re not making mistakes then you’re probably not doing your job. If someone is being proactive and taking initiative, they will make mistakes. That’s what you call experience.

Author Chuck Swindell once said, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.” While we produce many high profile projects, there are many we spend weeks on, putting our heart and soul into only to lose to a competitor. After we lost what would have been the largest project in our history, my head creative director wisely said, “Well if we’d been awarded that project, we’d have been buried for months and probably jeopardize current commitments.”

So many things in life are beyond our control, but attitude is the one thing that is always in our total control. Everyone has a choice every day regarding the attitudes we will embrace.

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 about that?

Dee Joyce, the current Creative Director at KPIX who pushed the creative envelope when she was at WWL-TV in New Orleans where we worked together on the “Spirit of Louisiana” campaign with 25+ arrangements spanning 15 years working with amazing artist from The Neville Brothers, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, The Dixie Cups, Ernie K-Doe to the Zydeco Indians. Also, Sid Wayne was an early mentor. He was composer songs like “See You in September,” Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible,” as well as dozens of Elvis Presley songs. He taught me that not every lyric needs to rhyme.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

SA: Jim Collins said, “Good is the enemy of great. Good will always gravitates to mediocrity.” In our business (and most), good will not last. There are a myriad of good tracks, good composers, good libraries, good salespeople, good producers, good piano players and good managers, etc., but to survive long-term we must be great.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

SA: I would try to promote a movement that would embrace simplicity and limit technology when it comes to creativity, relationships and thought processing.

I learned long ago that technology usually distracts and disrupts my creativity due to all samplers, computers and menu options. I’d rather sit at the piano or pick up guitar first and once the “big idea” comes then I use the technology to help execute.

In relationships technology too often disrupts emotional connections with family, friends as well as businesses and employees as it’s all too easy to fire off a text message or email where the tone of voice is lost so the intent of message will often be miscommunicated.

I liked the idea that Jack White (The White Strips) implemented last year on his tour. No cell phones were allowed and all phones were checked like a coat check at the entrance before fans entered the venue “to insure a 100% human experience.”

It seems in almost every walk of life, technology is sucking the life out of everything-from music, to businesses and employees, to families, to friendships as well the creative thought process. I’m not against technology. It allows for amazing things but when it starts to replace a conversation or disrupt the quality of human interaction and stifle the organic creative process, then it’s time to re-think how it is used.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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