Dr Mark Powell, one of the co-authors of this article, is an unusual beast: a dancing management consultant. Mark has worked at partner level at several consultancies, including Accenture, KPMG and A.T. Kearney. He is also a world championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, winning the WDC Open World Over-35 Latin Championship for two years running while he was a partner at KPMG.
In the course of his dance career, which began when he was studying Economics at Cambridge University, Mark came to realise that the techniques and mindsets that he used as a dancer to develop winning performances were very different from those that he tended to deploy in the world of business, but that those techniques and mindsets were entirely applicable to the workplace, and were potentially transformative.
Performing artists develop a set of approaches and behaviours that allow them to master their own craft and to work with their fellow artists to develop a true ‘ensemble’ or ‘partnership’ mentality, encouraging and helping each other to deliver brilliant individual performances that come together to create an outstanding final performance. The absence of these mindsets from most people’s working lives accounts for much of the growing sense of ‘disengagement’ that is blighting modern business.
If you have ever taken part in any kind of creative endeavour – if you have sung in a choir, played in a band or orchestra, performed in a play or musical, or done a stand-up routine, for example – then you may understand what we are driving at. When you ‘put on a show’ of any kind, you are fully engaged; your energy goes straight into your performance; there is no ‘organisational stuff’ that gets between your personal energy and the energy of your performance.
If businesses could tap into even a fraction of the energy, focus and mutually supportive mindset of performing artists, problems of disengagement in the workplace would disappear.
If companies had the same single-minded dedication to delivering a winning ‘performance’ that leaves their audiences calling out for more, their financial performance would be transformed.
This article sets out five core aspects of the mindsets and techniques adopted by top performing artists. These take the form of 5 questions. They are not the kinds of question that we usually ask ourselves when we approach our work, but they have the potential to transform our workplaces.
5 lessons from the performing arts
1. What play are we in and what is our role?
This sounds obvious, but it is fundamental. Every top performer starts out with this question. We have phrased it in terms of the theatre, but it applies to every performance art and it affects everything that the performers do. Classical musicians approach playing Handel differently to the way they approach Mahler. Jazz musicians approach Cool Jazz differently from the way they approach Bebop. Performing tragedy is different from performing farce. Great actors change everything about themselves – in subtle ways – when they inhabit a role. Think about Tom Hanks performing as Forrest Gump, and then as Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 – everything about him is different.
The most successful companies know exactly what play they are in. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, knew from the outset that the play he was in wasn’t called ‘Selling nice coffee’; his play was called ‘Creating a third place for people between work and home.’
Steve Jobs turned Apple from a struggling computer manufacturer into the world’s most valuable company when he helped the company understand that the play they were in wasn’t called ‘Making great computers’ but ‘Helping people think different’.
Understanding what exactly is our individual role in the performance is also key, as is the need to adapt our role in the course of the overall performance. Sometimes we have centre stage; sometimes our job is to feed another performer their line and give them centre stage. When a company (pun intended) knows exactly what show it is in and when everyone knows what their role is in relation to their fellow performers at any given time, that company is on the road to success.
2. Where is our theatre of action?
Several kinds of operation are called a ‘theatre’: the place where the crucial action happens. The stage, the operating theatre, the theatre of war, for example. In all of these theatres, there is a clear recognition that the most important people are those closest to the action: the actors, technicians and stage-hands; the surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses; the soldiers, gunners and tank drivers. Everyone else, no matter how ‘senior’ they may be, is essentially in a supporting role to the people in the theatre. The managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has a very important role, which is all about enabling the people in the theatre to put on great performances.
Theatres of Action
Places where we interface with audiences
This is a useful frame of mind for businesses to adopt: Where is our theatre of action? Where is the beating heart of what we do? Where is the vital interface between us and our customers – where do we get to meet the audience/patient/enemy/consumer?
The key to finding the right answer is to focus on the essential outcome, the bit that really matters. A well-disciplined and perfectly supplied army that cannot win battles is not a good army. A brilliantly-run theatre group that cannot put on an audience-pleasing show is not a successful theatre group. A piece of software that is not user-friendly is not a successful piece of software. A shop that is not a pleasure to spend money in is not a successful shop.
Once we have decided where the beating heart of our operation is, it becomes clear who is vital to a successful outcome and who, no matter how senior, is essentially in a supporting role. Amongst those who are vital to a successful outcome, what matters most is their esprit de corps. When the people at the interface are inhabiting their roles and delivering great performances, good things happen.
3. Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?
This is at the very heart of performance. Top performers focus on their fellow players and ‘connect’, responding in the moment to a subtle reading of their fellow artists’ intentions. This is very obvious in dance, where we talk about the quality of two partners’ ‘connection’.
Building trusting, connected partnerships
This kind of connection is sometimes described as ‘looking and seeing’. The theatre voice coach, Patsy Rodenburg, calls it ‘being in ‘The Second Circle’, as she sets out in this video. Looking and seeing demands effort, but it leads to highly functional relationships – and great performances.
A good connection also creates complete trust – at least in the context of the performance. In business, we tend to throw a group of people together and declare that they are now ‘a team’. Building a real ensemble takes time, but if a group of people accept a challenge and are allowed to work their way to their own solution under the guidance of a ‘director’ – someone who is in charge but not in control – they will quite quickly begin to function like a real ensemble. Many managers still approach work in ‘command and control’ mode; we argued in an earlier article that much business thinking is still unthinkingly stuck in an ‘industrial’ mode. If leaders approached their work like a conductor approaches a choir, or in the way that a theatre director works with an ensemble, we would find it easier to forge ‘the connection’ and to build real ensembles of people, working together energetically and creatively to put on the best show they can.
4. Are we rehearsing creatively?
Rehearsal is not the same as practice.
Practice is about running over something many times – one small element of a dance routine; a difficult musical phrase; the lines in a play – until it is committed to memory and can be performed without thinking. Our bodies take over and deliver the physical actions, which leaves our minds free to decide, in a live performance, exactly how we want to deliver that action or phrase; its weight, its timing; its accent. To discover the most impactful way of delivering that action or phrase in live performance, performers stop practising and start rehearsing.
In business, we practice many different routines until they are near-perfect, but we tend not to rehearse in any meaningful sense – which is why we complain about the lack of everyday innovation and creativity in our workplaces. Rehearsal is a process of collaborative co-creation. Everything is allowed; nothing is prohibited. One player offers something to the ensemble and it is taken up and played with, not criticized. Performers adopt a mindset of, ‘Yes, and…’ They accept what is offered, add something of their own, and offer it back, until a point is reached where everyone is happy, or it is accepted that this is a blind alley. Rehearsal accepts that all ideas are ‘half-baked’ when they are first proposed and that the job of rehearsal is to try to fully bake the ideas. In business, we tend to be resistant to ‘playing around’ with ideas. There is no spirit of ‘yes, and…’ Ideas that are not yet fully baked tend to be shot down in flames and dismissed.
The possibility of real rehearsal also presupposes the existence of a genuine ensemble: the group of people who are involved in rehearsal must leave their egos and their social or professional status outside the door of the rehearsal room. In business, ego and status normally get in the way. We hardly ever ‘rehearse’ – small groups of people decide what will happen and try to ‘implement’ this. It tends not to work very well.
5. Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
All performers know that what the audience sees and hears is the result of precise, much-practised behaviours – inputs – that often have no direct or obvious connection to the perceived result: the output. Successful dance moves begin from the feet, or the spine, or a tilt of the head. The right musical tone is created by a precise combination of breath, lip and tongue, or of pressure and vibrato of finger and bow stroke. Performers focus on the inputs that they know will produce the right outputs.
Making Beautiful Music
The quality of inputs dictates the output
In business, we tend to focus almost entirely on the ‘results’ – the things that can be easily measured – and we lose focus on the inputs that are producing those results. It is perfectly possible for any project or organization to have a near-perfect set of results for a succession of quarters, but still to have unresolved problems at its heart that doom it to eventual failure. The quality of the inputs matters far more to our long-term business health than the more obvious outputs.
Another way of seeing this is to recognise that intangibles are more important in business than the simplistic things that can be easily measured. The outputs that we can put numbers on all matter, but they are the result of other, far more important inputs, nearly all of which are effectively intangible: individual flair and flawless ensemble work; levels of trust, energy and commitment; creativity, inspiration and esprit de corps.
To be able to assess these intangibles, the modern leader needs to have his or her finger on the pulse of the organization; to assess its physical and emotional health. Today’s successful leader is (or should be) less like an engineer, monitoring various dials, throwing levers and adjusting valves, and more like a director, choreographer or conductor, able to spot the false note that renders a performance unbelievable; a subtle change that could transform the mundane into the marvellous; a new pace and rhythm for the overall performance that could deliver a wonderful experience to the audience.
Great directors do not carry clipboards and tick off the various measures that have been achieved. They know what play they are in and the make sure that everyone understands the roles they are playing. They know where their vital theatre of action is: the place where their performance is judged by the audience. They create working environments that engender trust and connection. They work at the inputs and forge true ensembles that are rehearsing creatively. They nudge the team in the desired direction with confidence that the final result (over which they can have no real control) will be a winning performance.
Do you know what play you’re in and do you know your role? Have you built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble? We look forward to your thoughts and comments on social media.
Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford
A full account of Dr. Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.
An account of a four-year arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run by Mark was given in a series of previous articles, beginning with ‘Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts’.
The authors acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to the authors’ book Perform To Win (see below) on which this article is based.