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Earning a Standing Ovation: Celebrity Violinist Roddy Chong Explores Leading from the Stage

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Roddy Chong will be the first to admit his career has been replete with contradictions. A violinist known for high-energy performances, he’s toured with Celine Dion and country music superstar Shania Twain simultaneously — among many others. "Who would have thought of a Chinese man in a country music band?" asks Chong, who also performed before two million as Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s (TSO) “string master” at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and just finished 60 arena rock shows with TSO for the 11th year.

It was when the Chicago-born musician become a corporate speaker that he had to learn how to apply principles learned in the performing arts to create meaningful lessons on leadership, marketing moxie, and what he calls his scrappy, “show them that you want it” ethos. Named one of the top-five business speakers to see” in 2017, he has presented to Boeing, Kraft Foods, Bayer, YMCA, Aflac, 10X GrowthCon, and even NASA.

With each, his message and mission – delivered with violin in hand – is to help individuals realize their potential and deliver their own “rock star performances” that elicit encores. Chong will headline the 2019 Leadership Lectures series, “Beyond the Corner Office,” presented by the Center for Leadership at Florida International University in partnership with Mercantil Bank. 

The Center recently spoke with Chong about good performances, great leadership, and earning a standing ovation. Below are excerpts of that conversation as he shared his thoughts on going all out, being scrappy, and developing a leadership regimen. Read on – you will be inspired.


GO FOR AN 11 OUT OF 10

CFL: What does leadership have to do with performing as a stage musician? 

RC: On the stage, there’s audio, lighting, staging, the crew, and the band. We all have our responsibility and we all have to do what we’re supposed to do when we’re supposed to do it or it affects everybody else. To be a great leader you must be a great performer showcasing the skills you are great at. One of the key principles is a performer is always going for a moment of brilliance. That happens when a performer has prepared to the hilt beforehand, and while they’re performing, they’re going for an 11 out of 10. 

FIRE IN THE BELLY

CFL: How do you balance your performance with audience expectations? 

RC: That’s one thing about leadership. Sure, there’s going to be a lot of takeaways and the audience is going to be inspired and thrilledand learn strategies they can use right away. But leadership is not about appealing to the audience. You want to over-satisfy the client -- or your audience -- if there’s a client, pay a lot of attention to what they want while you prepare. But in the actual performing, it’s all up to you. You want to present with fire in the belly. That’s why I guarantee a standing ovation. It’s not hubris. It’s because my speaking presentation is packed with principles and techniques that will elicit the utmost inspiration. I aim to do the kind of speaking event I would like to attend. 

CUT TO THE CHASE

CFL: How did you make the leap from musician to motivational speaker? 

RC: I made the leap to my first corporate event after touring with Shania Twain and Celine Dion. Someone at an arts conference read about my touring and said, “You have a story to tell, would you speak?” I did what a lot of green, newbie speakers do, I typed it out and had a lot of papers in my hand. I had to give it four times. The first time, I elaborated in the beginning about growing up Asian. When I spoke about getting fired from an earlier band, the guy who brought me in said, “Skip the beginning part and get to the part where you got fired. That’s when everyone was leaning forward. And some people were crying.” In the performing arts, we call it “cutting to the chase.” Each time I gave the speech, I adjusted  such as by getting rid of the papers and that helped build a connection with the audience. 

DO IT YOUR WAY

CFL: How does the violin build on your corporate message? 

RC: I knew all along that I had to play. I knew that whenever I played, I got a favorable reaction. Now I know corporately it proves expertise right away. “This person can play violin, and it’s a psychological phenomenon of social proof -- if he’s good at this, he must be good at everything.” That’s how our brains think. I use the violin to demonstrate expertise and the music helps build the general emotional connection between me and the audience.

I studied violin from age 2 to 17. That’s 15 years of playing violin at least 30 minutes a day. But in a certain way, there’s a business and corporate part of me. My dad was a CPA and owner of a company. That’s why corporate America ends up loving what I do. But it’s part of the trepidation on their part, “That flamboyant artist who’s going to come in. What can we learn from that guy?” But my message is clear. Whatever your skill is, you do it in your unique way. Figure that out and then do it to the hilt without being stifled or nervous of judgment by others. That’s great for you as a performer, and it’s great for the audience to experience  

DO ONE THING GREAT

CFL: Auditions are like job interviews. How do you prepare? 

RC: I had an acting coach who taught me acting techniques that I used for my Trans-Siberian Orchestra audition. He taught me that when you’re performing, do one thing great. I was trying to do too many things in past auditions. I’d bring cookies for the decision maker. I’d worry about what I was wearing. All of those are huge distractions. They might like you, but they’re not saying you’re great because of the cookies. For TSO, when my acting coach said, “Do one thing so clearly and specifically and shoot it right at them. What is your gestalt or gist? I thought, “I’m going to be the most enthusiastic violinist these people have ever seen.” That was the one gestalt I was going to use to destroy that room. For this particular audition, it gave me purpose. I was going to show that enthusiasm by smiling, moving with purpose, playing technically perfect, and blasting through my performance with a ton of energy. That technique resulted in one of my best auditions ever.

When I perform as a speaker, I have one gestalt, and that is to inspire. I’ve spoken at Boeing and NASA to people who are strategic, left-brain thinkers. But I’m not going to change the plan and say, “I’m going to be the most strategic speaker.” I still want to be inspiring, even for electrical engineers. This principle of doing one thing all the way truly works. My goal is to inspire, inspire, inspire. 

BE SCRAPPY – BUT HAVE A PLAN

CFL: Tell us about the time you met Starbucks Chairman/CEO Howard Schultz. 

RC: We were in Winnipeg with the Shania Twain tour when I saw him in a Starbucks. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’d read his book, Pour Your Heart Into It, a half dozen times and listened to it on audio even more while I was training for a marathon. I thought to myself that if I didn’t tell him how much his book meant to me, I was going to be kicking myself the rest of my life . . .   So I followed him outside, but lost him in the streets. I came across a hotel that was beautiful with ornate sculptures. I thought, “Maybe he’s staying here.” So I ran up to the front desk and say, “May I leave a message for Mr. Schultz?” They said to just call on the guest phone. I quickly created a three-part plan. I thought about what I would say. “I saw you at the Starbucks but didn’t want to bother you. I’d like to invite you to the Shania Twain show. Here’s my number." If I hadn’t mapped out something, I would have been bumbling like crazy. I ended up leaving a horrible message. But he called me back. He wasn’t able to go to that show, but he had me come out to Starbucks headquarters. We sat there for an hour. He had four assistants, and one of them said, “I have no idea what it is, but he just likes you.” By literally chasing him, making a fool of myself, being a sort of stalker, I said, “Let's just give it a good go.” That just led to greatness.  

To me, Schultz’ story is total scrappiness. I think if you execute the principles of performance that I will share at the event, some of the people you want to meet will come to you, because you’re vibrating at such a high frequency of effectiveness. You don’t have to be famous to make that connection. 

CFL: What does your pursuit of leadership do to those around you? 

RC: I read a Wall Street Journal article on leadership. It said leaders don’t always know what to do, but when the challenge comes, the people under the leaders trust that this person has a track record of being able to successfully become more robust because of that challenge. That’s being scrappy. They’re digging in, focusing on principles, taking risks based on the personnel and the mission of the company. 

THINK BIGGER

CFL: What would you tell your 21-year-old self? 

RC: Think bigger. I was slow in learning that and slow in applying what I had learned, yet I still got a lot of great results. Life is short, but there’s a lot of life to be lived. Even if you’re a little slow to the game you can still create magic or have a full life. But if you’re just listening to the voices that say, “That will never work,” sometimes the loudest voices are the most pervasive, you may not even try. I was kind of rescued by books and personal development CDs, and that was where I was able to get the real intel of what was possible . . . So when you’re alive, you’re alive, even if you’re 70 and going to scrappily perform, the onlookers are going to factor in this person’s age and be inspired. 

A LEADERSHIP REGIMEN

CFL: As a performer, a leader, how do you prepare for your day – or your next performance? 

RC: All performing is based on the fundamentals of great sleep, great nutrition, water, and working out. Once that’s going, all these other things can happen. [CFL: Does this improve your performance?] I think so. I show up the day before any performance for at least a one hour sound checkI’ve seen other speakers just showing up 30 minutes before the event and it's not a set up for a standing ovation. I have a tendency to run late. So I always add a little the buffer, like 15 to 30 minutes to compensate. One thing that has helped my work as a performer or a leader, is showing up the night before. I’ll tell that to a client which communicates to that person, “This person cares for me.” If you plan to show up the same day, and something happens and you don’t show up, it can cause the event planner to get fired. When I show up, I’m locked and loaded because I was already in town. I don’t have to worry about delays. But in taking care of myself with self-leadership, I inspire people, and that’s what they came for. 


Register for the Lecture!

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Roddy Chong will speak on January 23, 2019 at 10:00am (Doors open at 9:30am). The lecture will be held in the FIU Graham Center Ballrooms at the MMC Campus. Be among the first 50 people to arrive and you will receive a copy of Chong’s book, “Ovation: Unlocking the Hidden Secrets to Influencing the Masses.” A reception and meet-and-greet to follow the lecture.

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About the Lectures Series

The Leadership Lectures series, “Beyond the Corner Office,” is presented by The Center for Leadership at Florida International University and in partnership with Mercantil Bank. The Lectures feature world-class, accomplished and influential leaders with expertise ranging from business and philanthropy to public service and academic research. The Lectures provide the South Florida community with access to the expertise, advice and best practices of some the world’s foremost leadership minds and are open to the general public at no cost. Registration is recommended to ensure seating.