What companies can learn from orchestras

What do top musicians in evening gowns and tuxedos have in common with software engineers in jeans and trainers? What can a CEO learn from a maestro? And how can you manage to work with a diva on the team? Surprisingly pragmatic answers to these questions and more from a great conductor and producer.

The Austrian maestro and multiple prize winning producer Christian Gansch has conducted top international orchestras and founded the orchestra-business transfer trend.

At age seven he had better hearing than the rest of his musical family, and his life continued on in an unusual manner. At 17, he was concert master of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, then a manager at the Munich Philharmonic and later a conductor for top international orchestras. When he turned 29, he traded his baton for business tactics: an idea about how to better produce CDs turned into 14 successful years at Universal Music and four Grammy Awards. Both as a conductor and a producer, Christian Gansch must master one discipline to perfection: the cross-functional collaboration between soloists and instrument groups, respectively, be-tween production, marketing, sales and controlling. In the process he has learned that professional orchestras function like a business and that companies can learn a great deal from top orchestras.

Mr. Gansch, as an internationally successful and multi-award-winning conductor, producer and coach, you have met many major artists. Who was the greatest diva among them? 

I must make a clear differentiation here. Is one a diva externally in order to establish a certain image, or while working? The greatest of the great do not act at all like divas, even for a second, while working. When they are working, all great composers, conductors and singers are very focused, humble, mod-est and hard workers – otherwise they would never have become so good in the first place.

Were you a typical maestro?

You need to let go of the image that an orchestra depends on the conductor – it is actually the opposite that is true. An orchestra has the power to fall flat on its face if he acts stupidly. It is just like in business. That is why some managers experience burnout, because they do not know how to lead, that leading does not mean commanding, but convincing – and because they don't understand the power of groups. I come from a generation in which there were still a few fossils around who had a dictatorial conducing style, but were laughed at like relics from an epoch long past. These times are over in the orchestral field.

What parallels are there between orchestras and companies?

There is a motto in orchestras that goes: “listen to one another – work together.” That is the prime rule: above all responsibilities, above all matters small and large – it is everyone’s duty. Then I entered the business world and thought that there things would be approached quite pragmatically and soberly, not so emotionally. But I soon realized that everyone of the top people in sales, marketing and controlling was just out for him- or herself! Each of them was concerned only about his or her own area. I became aware that no one had ever analyzed the structure of orchestras – in terms of designing something together – and made it available to the business world. This involves appreciation, respect and an attitude in which solidarity that goes beyond instrumental groups is everyday business.

What can companies learn from orchestras?

To understand what a company can learn from an orchestra, first you have to understand the structure of an orchestra. It consists of up to 15 instrumental groups, five strings divisions alone – nearly 60 people – along with woodwind and brass instrument players, bassoon and oboe, flute, clarinet, and percussion groups. All of them are specialists who ultimately have no idea of the technical problems the other instrument groups are confronted with. A woman who plays the oboe does not know how to play a violin and a violinist does not know how to play a horn; but each nevertheless permanently attempts to understand the difficulties of the others through dialogue. This involves a communication process during rehearsals so that they can join together as one during the concert. Musicians organize an interactive interchange of skills. In music there are joint, intensive outbursts, then lonely solo voices, quiet moments in which just two groups play while the others have a break for 30 bars. It is a permanent dance of giving and taking. This only works because people not only care about their own area, but the coordination of all areas. That truly is something that companies can learn from orchestras.

“Harmony requires a daily wrestling over the details, a permanent coordinating of diverse interests.”

Christian Gansch, conductor and producer

How do you create this consciousness?

Everyone talks about change management. As an artist, I have a somewhat different perspective of the topic. When you do 300 performances each year in an evening dress or tuxedo, then this intrinsically means more than understanding change as a fated everyday reality. The audience does not want to be aware that today is just one of 300 performances. The audience wants to have the feeling that this is a special, celebratory moment to which the orchestra is passionately committed. Hence, change is part of the everyday structure for me. But in many companies change is a type of concept that management thinks up, forces on the employees who then ask themselves: do I really have to still change something 20 years before I retire? That is incomprehensible for artists who have to start from scratch every day. “Reset and restart” is the motto. When it comes to this, artists have a leg up on many corporate men and women in terms of attitude and approach.

Isn’t that similar with love?

That is precisely the point. For example, harmony in a relationship doesn’t mean: “I have such a harmonic marriage because I haven’t spoken to my wife in ten years.” Harmony requires a daily wrestling over the details, a permanent coordinating of a wide range of interests. In an orchestra and in a company this means: each individual must be a fruitful source for joint development and an obstacle-free, smooth interplay of strengths. Classic neurotics are not needed. You wouldn’t want to go to a concert in which the first trumpet player stands up in the middle and says: “I completed the symphony in half the time.”

“The conductor, the management and the orchestra are permanently engaged in a lively dialogue.”

Christian Gansch, conductor and producer

What in your view is the most important aspect for success?

Leadership. Since the time of Aristotle we know that motivation is intrinsic. However, to be able to motivate yourself you need information about why you should make the effort – understanding the why is essential! In 35 years I have never met a great conductor – and I hope that I have not missed one – who has said to an orchestra: “Play more quietly.” But instead: “The cellos should play more quietly so that you can hear your colleagues playing the oboe and harp.” Without the “why” the individual cannot motivate him or herself.

Recruiting is also one of the most important elements of the talent promotion system. This is something that companies can learn from orchestras. A total of 140 employees from 27 nations play together at the Berlin Philharmonic. They all have different educational standards, languages and mentalities, and yet they manage homogeneity and never lose themselves in trench warfare. Because right from the beginning management makes sure that they hire competent employees, who at the same time consider themselves to be a fruitful contribution to the whole.

The third important aspect is time. A professional orchestra has three rehearsals that are 2.5 hours long for a concert that will be broadcast live in 20 coun-tries. This stands in stark contrast to a church choir that rehearses for half a year on Wednesdays after work. An orchestra is a very efficient meritocracy.

How does a conductor keep 100 musicians in check?

The image of a conductor leading a group of people with a baton is anachronistic and somewhat martial. While we may offer this type of image to the audience, things proceed very differently in rehearsals. The conductor, the management and the orchestra permanently conduct a lively dialogue. The conductor sometimes even moves among the musicians, coordinates with them and bows to their wishes. It is sometimes worth noting that in the contracts of all orchestral management staff it states that they must conduct their departments with their movements. This means there isn’t just one conductor! The oboe player doesn’t move because she is an artist and has emotional outbursts, but because she conducts six to eight woodwinds with her movements. The conductor only has two hands. It is not possible for him to organize each and every detail himself. He relies on his management staff. And this trust signals appreciation. I would like to see more of them from some CEOs.

What is the most important duty of a CEO – the conductor of a company?

He must have a vision. Orchestras want someone who can shape a homogenous vision from 80 visions according to his style. But you cannot just juggle vi-sions, you also have to live and work on what’s there. A vision is not a lofty, esoteric image that you long for with your tongue hanging out. A vision must be embedded in the everyday reality of an ensemble. The great conductors have always managed to fine-tune a vision so that it can be executed by an orchestra. Karajan achieved a different result with the same piece with the Vienna Philharmonic than he did with the Berlin Philharmonic, because that orchestra had a different everyday reality and tradition. He adjusted his vi-sion to the here and now – like a skier who uses a different wax on ice than he does on coarse snow.

Is there a strict hierarchy in an orchestra? And isn’t this inconsistent with the common goal?

There is discipline, but hierarchy only exists in the sense that who makes the final decisions is predetermined. The violin managers must set the bow strokes. That is a job and they are paid for it. Discipline, perfection and excellence also demand a concentrated attitude. An orchestra is not a pottery course but a performance-oriented society.

Can a company without departments be at all successful?

No instrument group can ever play alone. The rich orchestral sound arises from many different instrument groups that must organize themselves perfectly. But that comprises just 10 percent of the success; 90 percent is down to how these groups can contribute to the overall context, so that they are not perceived in isolation, but instead flow into the other areas in an interplay of strengths. A perfect department is useless to the orchestra if they just act for themselves and thus end what is orchestral. Symphony means the rich fullness of various individual strengths working together in a wonderful manner. Lone wolf types or people with a purely soloist attitude can completely destroy an instrument group. You can hear that within two minutes during a rehearsal. That is why there is ruthlessly open feedback in an orchestra. In such a case the music is immediately halted and a reaction provided. Within companies I have often experienced that such issues can be swept under the table for months with the hope that the problem will solve itself when the person in question retires in five years. That doesn’t work in an orchestra – we know that we have to perform that evening.

What happens where there is conflict between departments?

Conflicts, competition and jealousies also exist in the orchestral world. For me, an orchestra is a reflection of human conflict – that it functions nonetheless is a major miracle for me. However: No one mixes it up with another during the concert. Everyone knows that this moment counts and that we will lose our customers if we don’t manage to deliver a top performance for our audience – regardless of personal sympathies and antipathies. The otherwise so emotional artists manage to leave their feelings outside of it. They know that they must sit together for six to eight hours with 100 people on the stage in order to bring out the best together. In stark contrast, in companies I have often discovered the forming of fractions and hidden emotions as the driving force for bizarre types of behavior. People may act properly in their business suits, but things are more honest in an orchestra. We address conflicts, though that doesn’t mean that you get more out of it just because they are spoken about directly. In an orchestra feedback is more direct and ruthless. Only in this way can we sit next to one an-other and play together the next day.

“Needed is the awareness that each and every one contributes to the company’s success.”

Christian Gansch, conductor and producer

As a producer, you too have acted cross-functionally between production, marketing, sales and controlling. What is the greatest challenge that arises with interdisciplinary interaction?

The greatest challenge was to break through departmental walls. My advantage is that I was socialized in an orchestra. I was passionate about saying: “Dear people from marketing, sales and controlling, we are all doing the same thing, each from his or her own perspective. We are trying to capture a recording that works.” I have produced nearly 200 CDs and there were hardly any real flops among them. For me, to break through walls means being in personal contact with people, to climb two floors higher to discuss something face to face or to pick up the phone. If the personal spark is conveyed, you can accomplish a great deal in an interdisciplinary manner. However, this means getting away from the orgies of e-mails! An e-mail fetish promotes encapsulation and then you vegetate under a glass dome by yourself. That is fatal.

How do you create a cross-departmental sense of community with overarching objectives?

The success of Apple, Google, Facebook and others is based on everyone cook-ing the same soup, that everyone has contact with everyone, that companies’ structures are set up so that everyone can communicate and meet with everyone else. If you take a look at the employee restaurants at some German companies, well, I wouldn’t eat there even with a gun to my head! People have to be inspired. The awareness that each and every one contributes to the company’s success is necessary. And conversely, it requires people who want to create something. The basis for this is a good corporate culture that attracts people who exhibit a sense of corporate spirit and entrepreneurship and not those with a bureaucratic mindset. I really think that we need fewer mission statements and more role models.

How do the management and team in an orchestra come up with new ideas and visions?

Visions require an unbridled interplay, which is not at all easy. I can only recommend holding so-called “nonsense meetings” in which everyone is free to spontaneously toss ideas into the room without hav- ing them be immediately assessed and checked for their economic viability. In the sense of a game in which stones are tossed in the water to see whether they form ring-shaped waves that meet the ring waves formed by other stones. I believe that the best projects have arisen because I have always attempt-ed to create an atmosphere in which no ideas were branded from start with the question, “have you already done the math for that?” Creativity means being able to dream! There must be a platform on which to allow something new to arise from the abundance of ideas and people. The more established a company is, the more channeled is its creativity. This must be broken through. And you cannot allow yourself to be immediately dissuaded from an idea – if you are seriously convinced, then you need to stand your ground, even if everyone doesn’t applaud you right away.

What does it take to win four Grammy Awards, which is the music industry’s most important distinction?

As a producer it takes a good sense of which artist functions with which piece paired with which orchestra. You can say that it is like putting together a puzzle. And then it also takes a lot of luck for a good production go out into the world and be liked by the audience.

Was that your nicest success experience?

I’m a bit different when it comes to that. For me, it was the work during the recordings themselves, the wres-tling over nuances, the settling of conflicts with the orchestra, conductors, recording team and my sound engineer – who is also my best friend – this process was ultimately better than the subsequent award.

Do you have a recommendation for us?

I really believe that the orchestral – lots of people who are very different but who nevertheless form a unit – is only possible if you question yourself anew each day. Everything that suggests safety is fragile.

“Symphony means the rich fullness of various individual strengths working together wonderfully.”

Christian Gansch, conductor and producer

The conductor

Christian Gansch born in 1960, is a classically trained musician, music producer and conductor. On the basis of his wealth of experience in the field of tension between art and business he has been a successful speaker for many years. He founded the orchestra-business transfer trend. Christian Gansch lives in Munich. www.gansch.de

The book

“From Solo to Symphony – What Companies Can Learn From Orchestras”

A functioning orchestra apparatus is a prime example of efficient management, leadership and conflict solution strategies. That is because nowhere else do top talents work so closely together for hours at a time in such close quarters. Who sets the tone? How many soloists can a team bear? What freedoms and areas of responsibility are there for individuals? How are decisions introduced? How are they communicated? How do the management and team process new ideas and visions? The book provides a unique look behind the scenes of the orchestra world, which provides answers to the fundamental ques-tions about company management and communication.