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A businessperson's guide to the orchestra

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

By: Bryn Bailer for the Czech Business Weekly

When businesses are progressive enough to analyze and adopt operating principles from other professional disciplines—including the music world—the results can have the sweet "sound" of success.

That is the view of classically trained violinist Bibi Pelić, who will share her findings this Feb. 27 at Music and Leadership: The Search of Excellence, a two-hour seminar co-sponsored by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Pelić, a noted recording artist and soloist, has performed with the Chamber Orchestra of the Czech Philharmonic, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Belgrade Symphony Orchestra, and played at venues throughout Europe, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Italy and Switzerland. Her father, the former general manager of a Yugoslavian import-export firm, moved the family from her birth town of Belgrade, to Australia, then to Austria, and eventually back to Yugoslavia. She moved to Prague in 1988, shortly before the Velvet Revolution, to study the violin. "We live in a certain age when people are searching for new creative inspirations. Music is one of the options." Pelić said regarding the mixing of the musical and commercial worlds.

Just as the chief executive officer of a large corporation can be compared to the conductor of a classically organized symphony orchestra, Pelić says, the organizational and cross-departmental challenges faced by corporate employees can be compared to the dynamics between musicians who play different instruments but must harmonize in performance.

Pelić adds that she has already taught these principals to executives within international companies such as mobile telephone network operator T-Mobile, logistics firm DHL International, hotel operator Hilton Hotels Corporation, and banks Komerční banka and Československá obchodní banka (ČSOB), as well as to staff members at the British, Canadian and U.S. embassies.

A glance at the well-stocked bookcase in Pelić's Prague apartment reveals the breadth of her interests, from the sheet music to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Sonaten und Partiten" to a recent hardback copy of an autobiography by American industrialist and former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca.

"Whether you're interpreting a Mozart symphony, or giving a presentation on a new product or your vision for the next year for a company, the same rules apply," she says. "It all boils down to thought process."

Q: Why do you think people are interested in this concept?

A: Music is natural, universal, very closely connected to our human nature. Business can be more distanced, more technical. Business is basically about figures, about making sure everything adds up ... but if you think of all the really great deals and great products out there, they happened with a bit of inspiration.

This is one of the areas where music can actually help—to enable this moment of inspiration to come. It is as if you were unprepared for it, but you are not. We can all do it, it's part of all of us, and this inspiration is what the business world really needs. ... What music can bring is another way of thinking—change, development, progress, creating new possibilities.

Q: Coming from a business family, how did you develop an interest in music—and why the violin?

A: My sister [Ivana Pelić, now a concert pianist] is three-and-a-half years older, and she started the piano, and my parents asked me if I wanted to play an instrument. I told them I wanted 'that one that you hold in the air and has such a nice sound.' As a child, I watched [New York Philharmonic conductor] Leonard Bernstein's youth concert series on TV. … I heard the violin and I just wanted that instrument.

Then I had the influence of my father [Zvonimir Pelić], who was a very successful businessman. I didn't understand it at the time, but he always used to say his biggest inspiration was listening to a Mozart symphony. … And the next day he would go to his office and negotiate deals.

Q: As a musician, how do you connect with a less artistically inclined audience?

A: What I'm lecturing and presenting is the common knowledge and understanding that musicians have between each other. I see how this can be transformed into a language that the business world can understand. When I give seminars, I deliberately do not use many musical terms, as they will not be comprehensible to the audience I am speaking to. I begin with the organization of the orchestra, and the hierarchy within. I look at the conductor and the kind of manager he is, and the leaders of the smaller departments within the orchestra, the first violinist, first clarinet etc. I also discuss the purpose of each section, in terms that non musicians will understand.

Q: How can a live musical performance help someone back in the boardroom?

A: Currently, business people are interested in teamwork and the dynamics of teamwork. That is happening in a chamber or symphony orchestra. Chamber music [for example] has very specific dynamics within it; it is like a small company. ... You have the first violin, second viola, cello, but [performance] responsibilities travel between them. Depending on the music, they know when to step in, and when to go back, how to adjust and how to interpret the music. In business terms, they know how to produce a good product that will incorporate the best of all those who work on it.

Q: The conductor is often regarded as the star of the show. How important is he or she, really?

A: All members of an orchestra know the basics; they know the professional or trade side of what they do. Putting it all together and making something extraordinary that the public will love and approve is an art. In the end it is up to the conductor to make it a better performance.

[The question should really be] "Where is this magic, or appeal of these great conductors, and how does a conductor help make an extraordinary performance?" It comes down to the human relations between the conductor and the orchestra.

The business world can learn from conductors as leaders. Take, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic. They had a certain CEO [renowned Austrian orchestra and opera conductor] Herbert von Karajan, from the 1950s up until the '80s. He had this very autocratic way of leading the orchestra, but at the same time, he built the orchestra up and succeeded in modernizing it.

All great conductors and CEOs are people with a strong vision. They hear the music before it happens, and their employees recognize that.

Q: Can you think of a current example of that kind of corporate leader?

A: I was listening to CNN a couple of months ago, and in an interview Steve Jobs [co-founder of U.S. computer company Apple] said the Beatles were a good model for business: Four guys who kept each other's negative tendencies in check and balanced each other. The total was much greater than the sum of its parts.

Q: Some business people would reject the Beatles as a business model.

A: There are and will always be two types of people; the people who are closed to an idea—and they will be closed to many ideas—and others who give things a chance, who understand that doing business is also an art.

Q: That's the CEO. How does the music making process effect lower-level employees?

A: In music, even though there is freedom and inspiration, it is very disciplined. Great order is present, and it's very clear who does what. Certain instruments give ideas, but other instruments are there to create stability and structure. That's also important to business—that we do the work that is closest to our natures.

Q: Are certain roles in the orchestra similar to roles in business?

A: First violins have a more projected personality. In the business world, they would be in sales, public relations, leaders of their departments. They usually have the vision, and take absolute charge. But if you have an orchestra made up only of first violins, it wouldn't get you anywhere [In contrast], the bass players and the cellos have to be very stable people. Their duty is to keep up the rhythm, and to keep the creative side in check. The business equivalent would be the accountants, who are concerned that things run smoothly, and make sure that all the figures are correct.

Flautists are, if you like, the 'violinists' of the wind section. They bring color to the orchestra and flutter about with ideas. But these ideas have to be kept in check, and that's why they need support from the oboes, which have their own beautiful but more realistic voice. Oboes are not the top management; they have to be open to both sides: gravitating toward the CEO but also tuned to the stability of the company.

The trumpet has a leading role, makes a statement, [and is balanced by] the tuba, very similar to the bass, but in the brass section. If I by nature am the bassoon, why should I be made to play the trumpet's part?

Q: Is this concept widely known?

A: Right now, this concept is revolutionary in business, but its time is coming. People need creativity, which will lead to innovation. This won't change the business world, but it can be an important part of the mosaic.

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