The Globe and Mail
March 11, 2002
Lessons to Master Business
LOLA RASMINSKY writes that a pianist’s advice
can apply to management practices
While attending a master class in piano performance by well-known Vancouver pianist Robert Silverstein recently, I was struck by how transferable his advice was to non-musical settings. Had I not been sitting in the concert hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, I could have well imagined myself taking in a lecture on leadership or strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
I have always been intrigued by how much business executives can learn from artists about how to conduct themselves within a corporate context. In the business world, there is a premium on the ability to “think differently.” Who could teach us better than the people who spend their time creating, namely successful artists of any kind?
Mr. Silverman’s master class could easily have been a lesson in how to make sure your business goes forward productively. His first questions were: “Where are you going with this piece? Why are you interpreting the piece in this way?” Many management consultants insist that the first order of business for any organization is to clarify and distill exactly where the company is going. What is the vision? What are the important values driving senior management? What will move people to want to come to work in the morning?
Often, companies get into trouble because they oscillate between competing values. Let’s say, for example, they make a commitment to innovation. Developing new products and new ways of doing things becomes a stated priority. But the moment things stop going exactly as anticipated, senior management pulls the plug on the innovation priority and goes back to focusing on the bottom line. And then the cycle begins all over again, leaving everyone confused about what the company is really all about.
Tempo is another theme that crosses over. “Think about your tempo before you begin the piece,” Mr. Silverman insists. “Look at the most difficult passage in the work and assess how quickly you can manage that tempo.” He’s talking about sustainability. There’s no point bursting out of the starting gate at a breakneck speed if you can’t keep it up. How many businesses get into trouble because they cannot keep up with the pace they ambitiously set at the outset?
In this master class, Mr. Silverman often invoked the “imagine” priority. “Imagine a dialogue within the piece,” he suggested. “Imagine a different instruments playing the melody and the inner voices.” When our imagination is engaged, the result will have more energy.
Engaging the imagination is probably the most empowering activity any of us can participate in. The imagination is the one place we have unlimited possibilities to choose from. When we brainstorm to come up with new ideas, we use our imagination. When we go out on a limb to consider new ways of doing things, we use our imagination. When a musician plays a piece of music, it will be much more colourful if the imagination is involved.
Many of us want to pursue excellence in business as well as art, but don’t really know how. Mr. Silverman’s piano master class gives us a good start.
Lola Rasminsky is director of the Avenue Road Arts School in Toronto. She is also director of Beyond the Box, a corporate training program that encourages executives to “think differently” by employing strategies used by artists.