Making Performance Pay

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When Stuart Hendry embarked on a corporate communications course last August, he didn't expect to wind up conducting a symphony orchestra. Awaiting his turn on the podium, the Logical Networks managing director was unsure how waving a stick around could improve his leadership skills. But at the helm of the Sydney Sinfonia-the training arm of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra-Hendry felt "omnipotent," he recalls. "If I moved the baton slowly, 50 musicians slowed down. When I sped up, they sped up." Like most people who undertake the Presentation Mastery program run by executive-training company Rogen International, Hendry can't read music, so he couldn't follow the score. That's not important, says Rogen managing director Gerald Tapper, because "conducting and running a business require similar skills. To succeed, both leaders must use the three Cs: connect, command and compel."

For cash-strapped Australian arts groups, forging partnerships with business has become a survival skill. But companies want more in return for their sponsorships than free tickets and the cachet of being seen as good corporate citizens. "Sponsors are getting hard-nosed," says Bell Shakespeare Company artistic director John Bell. "In the old days it was about corporate largesse; now it's about what's in it for them." To win scarce funding, arts groups are striking novel partnership deals. The buzzword is synergy: executives are exploring their creative side, and arts companies are learning to talk business.

Corporate Australia has traditionally been wary of the arts, which receive about one business dollar for every $10 lavished on sport. If you have a brand to promote, "in terms of mass penetration, it makes more sense to support a televised sports broadcast than a play," says Winsome McCaughey, head of the government's Australian Business Arts Foundation, which promotes links between business and culture. Unable to deliver a mass audience, arts groups are promising business more personal payoffs. "Chief executives are most interested in staff development," says McCaughey. The arts are helping out, with programs ranging from "ballet dancers showing miners how to lift weights to actors teaching engineers how to bid for tenders with passion."

Long adept at attracting corporate sponsorship, The Bell Shakespeare Company-which derives a third of its $A3.65-million-a year turnover from business-is building on its "Shakespeare brand" with leadership workshops based on plays like Henry V and Macbeth whose protagonists are presented as examples of different styles of leadership. Donating her time to oversee the workshops is Melinda Muth, a corporate trainer with accountancy firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. "The actors will stay in role, offering participants the chance to ask, Why did you do it?" she explains. "That's as close a simulation as we're going to get to the executive leadership task."

Across the Tasman, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has also been embracing business-at the point of a baton. Last year, it ran the U.S.-devised Music Paradigm exercise, in which executives sit among instrumentalists and learn about leadership, teamwork and communication by observing them in rehearsal. "We ended up with a Who's Who of New Zealand," says NZSO chief executive Ian Fraser. "It was an extraordinary opportunity for us to find issues in common." Unearthing similarities is also the aim of a mentoring program the SSO is establishing between principal oboeist Diana Doherty and senior female staff of its sponsor Alliance Insurance. SSO development director Louise Walsh says the executives will discuss issues they encounter in their work. These "may be foreign to Diana, but she'll look at her own situation and offer advice to inspire and motivate them."

Not all sponsors are convinced that audience participation is the best way for executives to learn about creativity and innovation. "I doubt I could learn how to run a company by attempting to conduct an orchestra," says ceo Michael Chaney, who has made his Wesfarmers conglomerate Western Australia's biggest arts supporter. Melbourne Arts Centre chairman Carrillo Gantner says some arts workshops are "just plain silly. There's lots to be learned from arts managers, but I don't think a Shakespeare recitation will make a mining company more profitable."

While businesspeople probe Elizabethan tragedy, artists are learning to talk business. The SSO's Walsh, who used to manage sponsorships for Sydney's Olympic Games organising committee, hopes her musicians will become household names and "be treated like sports stars and feature in our sponsors' advertising campaigns." To that end, 20 of the orchestra's staff have taken a course in self-presentation skills run by Rogen. In New Zealand, principal flautist Bridget Douglas is one of several musicians expected to attend corporate functions as a "face" of the NZSO. She doesn't mind the toll on her time. "A couple of years ago the orchestra was fighting for its existence," she says, "so I don't think we are in a position to quibble."

For companies that make large contributions to Bell Shakespeare, artistic director Bell will address business meetings or, in the case of cell-phone operator Orange, provide a voice-over for television ads. "I don't find [such commitments] onerous on the whole," he says, "but they can eat into our time and concentration." The extent of sponsors' influence on what is seen on stage is hard to gauge, but "corporations don't tend to seek out risky and controversial work," Gantner says. "That's the problem with corporate sponsorship."

Corporate logos are becoming as visible in performing arts foyers as they are on sports fields. But though they won't penetrate the SSO's concert halls, says Walsh, "we'd consider corporate colors for our players, depending on the venue." While the NZSO's performance space is festooned with sponsors' banners, musicians' clothing is free of logos. But "if someone came to me with a lot of money," says chief executive Fraser, "we are always ready to negotiate." Wesfarmers' Chaney says he "thought about pre-concert [corporate] announcements but decided against it." Product placement is also out: "Putting a couple of bags of fertilizer or a pile of coal on the stage is unlikely to be very popular."

In the meantime, art continues to win new business admirers. Before he fronted the Sydney Sinfonia, Stuart Hendry thought the conductor was "almost surplus" to the performance. But seeing the "impact I was having [on the players] and feeling the power of the music so close was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life." A jazz fan, Hendry has acquired a taste for classical music. His company, Logical Networks, doesn't yet sponsor the arts, but the SSO has courted another enthusiastic ticket-buyer.