TAQ in dialogue with Tzeitel Fernandes, Partner at Aon and gifted choral singer.
Shuttling between Hong Kong and Mumbai, Tzeitel wears her many roles lightly – business leader, international consultant, rewards and compensation guru, D&I champion, culture enthusiast, avid reader, vegetarian, cricket fan, wife and mother of two! And through all of this she remains committed to her music. She has been singing ever since she can remember and continues to perform, even as she manages her intensely demanding career. So we caught up with her to understand the interaction between her practice as a singer and her life as a leader at a global consulting firm. In this interview, she talks about her journey, finding balance between the different aspects of her life and what her training in music has made possible for her.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
On journeying in opposite worlds – business and music
I was born into a family where music was a way of life. My father enjoys singing and his father used to perform in choirs, concerts as well as on All India Radio in the 1950s and ‘60s. My mother still tells of the time when I was about 20 months old – I was a very slow eater and my father had to sing one nursery rhyme for every morsel I ate. Even then, I had a keen ear for music. One day, the tape recorder malfunctioned and in desperation, my mother (who is completely tone deaf) decided that she would sing instead. My 20-month-self listened to her for half a song and then said quietly – ‘Never mind, I’ll eat without the songs today’. And so started my journey in music! My first performance was when I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at a school play, and I joined my first formal choir at the age of 8.
My entry to the world of business was more traditional – while studying economics at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, I took a course in Industrial Relations, got interested in the subject and decided to pursue an MBA at XLRI, Jamshedpur. The rest is history!I don’t see these as opposite worlds. I believe that hobbies and interests help people be more productive and effective in their ‘day jobs’ and I always encourage people to invest the time to pursue them.
On identity as a business leader
What I enjoy the most is the variety offered by a job in consulting – while being employed with the same organization, I’ve worked with firms in different countries and industries. There is also a sense of purpose when we partner with organizations to help them change and grow. I’ve been a people manager and leader for over 15 years now – most of my team describe me as knowledgeable, confident, empathetic and a good leader – also someone who does not suffer fools and is not shy about saying so! My bosses would say that I am a safe pair of hands into which they can drop the most complex and challenging goals.
On identity as a musician
Being a musician means being able to retreat into a world full of magic and wonder. I’ve always believed that the ability to appreciate and make music (or to participate in any form of artistic expression) is a gift and should be nurtured.
Music has given me the confidence to perform in front of an audience, broadened my circle of friends and exposed me to ideas and ways of life that I would not have ordinarily encountered.
I joined my first choir at the age of 8 and my first professional choir at the age of 13. The latter included people of all ages (my father and many of his contemporaries sang there) and I got to know people whom I would have considered ‘grown-ups’ from a different side. As I matured as a singer, the respect I earned made a significant difference to my own self-esteem.
And music is a very good stress buster – something that is always an advantage in the business world. It continues to be a way to meet new people and make connections outside of work and family.
On bringing together the different parts of the brain – the creative and the structured
The question assumes that the two things are separate. But I’ve never seen them as such. My job involves meeting new people all the time and presenting to a large group. A lot of the confidence for that has come from my music training. If you’re on stage for a large portion of your life as a child, facing an audience is not a big deal.
Also, as a performer, and certainly in music, you are asked to be very much in touch with your feelings and you portray them through whatever it is you’re doing. Traditionally, in the business world that has been seen to be a liability. You’re always expected to be a professional, etc, etc. We, that is the firm that I’m in, but also me, personally, believe that that’s not necessarily true. And increasingly, especially after COVID, but even before COVID, I would say that your ability to connect with someone depends on your ability to connect with them as a human being as well.
In both places you require a certain level of reliability, a commitment and a certain level of preparation. I learned the meaning of hard work and the joy of seeing it pay off at a successful concert. But you also need that at work. When you go into a meeting you need to ensure that you’ve done your homework.
In my first year at work, a colleague pointed out to me that whenever I was thinking through something I hummed to myself – apparently the theme of Phantom of the Opera was my favourite tune! I have found that is helps me focus, though it may be distracting to others in an open office.
Music also helps deal with mental blocks – as it gives you something else to focus on before you can come back to the problem at hand. So to me a lot of what makes be successful at work is what makes me successful as a musician as well. The two worlds are not separate.
On taking from one world to enrich the other
An agile mind-set
I don’t know that I would remember how I first learned to that because, you know, I was about eight or nine years old when I first sang in a choir. In a choir, sometimes a line is split into two or three – sometimes a piece is written in eight or 12 parts and then you split the line further. So there have been times where, you know, the conductor has asked us to learn two lines and then can ask you anytime, “I want you to sing part one or Part two’. That helps balance the choir a little bit and gives the group options to play with depending on what sounds best. Now, it has happened that while I was assigned a part, on stage the conductor signalled to me to pick up another she knew I had rehearsed. She simply made a sign to me on stage saying, ‘can you switch voices?’ And in the moment, I switched voices. This is something that you just get with practice – she knew that I had sung for over 20 years.
Music has helped me be a better listener at work. You also automatically pick up where there’s someone struggling with something. Sometimes between rehearsals you help each other with their parts. Or even on stage, step in when someone can’t do their piece.
I carry that back to work as well. I have a team of 20-odd people here in Hong Kong so when you see someone struggling with something you would ask for some time with them one on one and say, Okay, I find that this is something that you might need some help with. What kind of help can I give you? And how can we work towards it to make it better?
And sometimes I do it unconsciously. Recently, where we were discussing work that needed to be allocated across the team and I said “x – Would you be able to put the deck together? And then give it to Y? Because Y will, you know, Make it consistent, and so on and so forth.’ My boss was listening in to the call, and he said, Why did you do it like that? And I thought to myself, and I said, because I know X is not particularly good at PowerPoint, but Y is Yeah. I tune into my teams capabilities and concerns and am so familiar with the team that I automatically split work between people who are strong in something and people who aren’t strong. You begin to ‘know’ these things.
Working with diversity
I learned how to deal with strong personalities with tact, patience and how to see things from another’s point of view. Performing music from all over the world gives you an insight into different customs and languages and helps appreciate the cultural diversity in the world. Finally, putting on a performance required planning, project management and time management and everyone is expected to pitch in – this is a very important life skill. All of these help me in the business world, even today.
I find it relatively easy to relate to people of different cultures. I believe my experience with music had helped me deal with people whose views are different from mine and I see myself using my learnings from planning and organizing almost every day.
Management and music
Similarly, being a business professional has also informed me as a musician. I don’t think it has changed the way I practice music. But I have learned skills around things like time management, and project management. I’ve also learned much more about the music business. As a child, my orientation was very much to sing what I like. And it didn’t really matter whether the audience appreciated it or not. As a hobby that might be a good way to go about it. But as a commercial or presenting enterprise, you first need to know what the audience is looking for. And that is something that I don’t think I appreciated quite as much before I joined the corporate work.
On replenishing learning and growing
The advantage of singing in a choir is that you are constantly replenishing as you learn and rehearse a different set of pieces for every performance. I have been fortunate to work with music directors who are extremely well qualified and have had the ability to choose pieces which are challenging, interesting and rewarding.
At work too, I’ve always tried to take on new challenges in the form of new roles, new markets or ad-hoc assignments. These have been disruptive in the short term but have made for rewarding learning experiences.
On finding a balance
Committing the time to both these passions has been the most challenging part of inhabiting the two worlds. A job like mine requires me to be available at all hours of the day (especially since the US comes online between 8 pm and 10 pm our time!) and requires a lot of travel (the latter has been put on hold as we deal with the pandemic, but used to be a significant challenge). There is no rule that I have followed, beyond evaluating the situation and taking a call on how best to manage my time. When my children were born, it was not possible to attend rehearsals late in the evenings or on Sundays so I took a break from music for a little while and went back to it as they became more independent.
But music has certainly helped me keep myself grounded – with everything in chaos, particularly now. While singing in a choir is not possible, I have used the time to review music that I have sung in the past and listen to some of the world’s best music – much of which is available quite freely today. It helps to be able to go back to parts of your life that are familiar and bring you joy. Music is definitely my ‘happy place’!