Striking A Key
by Lyndall Crisp
22 April 2004
Australian Financial Review
2004 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited.
Not available for re-distribution.

Music, a conductor and a passionate orchestra won the hearts and minds of business leaders when they gathered to hear about leadership. Lyndall Crisp reports.

They came in droves from Ernst & Young, Gulf Air, Johnson & Johnson, Kessler Financial Services, 9MSN, Telstra, Westpac, Freehills, Mallesons Stephen Jaques , the NSW Department of Education, the Anglican Church, the University of Queensland, Aussie Home Loans, and a number of major arts organisations.

About 350 people turned up at the Sydney Opera House one sunny afternoon two weeks ago to sit in the choir stalls of the Concert Hall and listen to Benjamin Zander talk about leadership.

Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and an international speaker, was in Sydney to work with the Australian Youth Orchestra.

In his two-hour talk he used the orchestra ever so subtly to demonstrate empowerment, possibility and leadership.

Playing snatches of Mahler, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Elgar, he gently walked the audience through the idea of thinking outside the box, of the rewards of making every player feel important, and how passion can make the end product even better.

Businessman Daniel Ng flew to Sydney from Hong Kong just to hear Zander talk. He had discovered the conductor at a meeting of the Young Presidents' Organisation about seven years ago. At the time, Ng was a successful businessman who'd introduced McDonald's to Hong Kong in 1970. He also wanted to learn to conduct, so the synergy was instant.

"Whenever I am in the US I go to Ben's music appreciation class in Boston on Fridays," said Ng who owns several music companies.

"I am not a musician, but since my business is music I had to learn what was going on."

Other conductors have copied Zander's philosophy but, Ng says, Zander has more depth.

"Ben talks about the art of possibility. Basically it's about creativity in a business situation: to find a solution, you don't fix on one solution and then go for it. You look at all the possibilities, maybe 100, and you might find more than one solution, and one you don't really expect. That kind of application in the business is very useful.

"I don't apply it as a method. You absorb what he says and do it. It's not a recipe."

He points to his experience with his McDonald's Hong Kong franchise (which he sold in 1995). The fast food chain uses the number of customers a year per restaurant as its universal measure of success.

Rather than focus on beating the US results, Ng looked for other possibilities, of other ways of working towards the best result.

"We found our average, at one point in the '90s, was 2.5 times the average of the US," he says. "It was astonishing.

"The first time I went to Ben's music appreciation course he had a French horn player play a piece, then he told him to analyse the music. Then he played it again, and again. The third time his playing was so astonishingly better that I could tell the difference.

"Afterwards I said to Ben: `That's a really good trick, you set this guy up to play ordinary then he plays the real way'. Ben said: `No I didn't'.

"Ben induced him to understand the music better and the result comes out in the performance."

Kevin Skelton, country head and chairman of investment banking at Merrill Lynch, went straight home after the talk and read Zander's book (written with his psychotherapist wife, Ros), The Art of Possibility.

"It was interesting to see how someone of his calibre led the orchestra, from a leadership perspective," says Skelton, who admits to a "zero music background".

"Most times when you hear about leadership it's in a business framework and it gets a bit stale and repetitive."

He found Zander's method of using music to get his ideas across "fantastic, an easy way to learn. It took away the boredom factor, time went very fast".

"What I'm going to do is incorporate it into everyday management of the business, bringing out the best in people and being passionate about the business, and motivating your staff to be passionate and to know they're good."

During his presentation, Zander had the 113-member orchestra play a piece by Elgar. He broke it down to seven "voices" strings, brass, wind etc getting each to play on their own then adding another voice.

Peter Urmson, national sales manager north, Sensis, looks after a sales force of about 90 managers. The message he got was that if you are motivated then the people you are conducting will be motivated.

"The use of the orchestra was a great medium, it really hit home the difference you can make by the passion you put into something. The Elgar piece showed in a quite dramatic way the impact that you have as leader."

Zander's comments about people who spend too much time trying to be successful, as opposed to contributing, also struck a chord with Urmson.

"I've already gone to my sales management team and walked through with them the impact, and used the analogy that they are conductors conducting their teams and each person within their team plays an instrument. How they conduct their team is how their team will perform. If they aren't motivated then that will come through, in the organisation, in their sales results."

Urmson left feeling inspired and said if Zander repeated the event next year he'd like to take his whole management team.

And there's a chance he will come back, says AYO chair Virginia Henderson, who discovered Zander in Los Angeles last year.

His impact on the orchestra has, she says, been "huge".

"A master communicator, his ability to actually reach people and demonstrate the processes of putting together a great piece of music with an orchestra can relate to what people are doing in the commercial sector. He was able to articulate that in a way that people heard for the first time.

"I have always been a supporter of the notion of possibility and that is what anyone does who is building a great company. You have a vision of what's possible but it is absolutely the way we relate to other people, the nature of our collaborations and what we put out there that's going to determine to a large extent whether or not we will achieve our goals.

"The issue that's come out most strongly is it must not be at the expense of other people. The relevance to an orchestra and a highly creative team like the AYO, is that we can never do it alone, we're always going to need to work in collaboration."