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Motivation, Mockery and the Power Business Ballad

May 5, 2008
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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More than a year after the video was uploaded to YouTube, it is still drawing viewers. In the clip, an audience of Bank of America credit card division managers listen as a bank employee, clad in a crisp white shirt and tie, strums the familiar chords of U2’s "One" on an acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, his partner, clad in similarly businesslike attire, grabs the mike stand and belts out a revised set of lyrics, which convert the original’s tortured lament into a celebration of the bank’s acquisition of former rivalMBNA:

Integration never had us feeling so good
And we’ll make lots of money
Forever I can sing
About trusting and teamwork
And doing the right thing
We’ll live out our core values
While the competition crawls
’Cause they want what we’ve got
But it’s only here
At Bank of America

    When the video somehow ended up on the Internet, what probably seemed to the corporate audience like a clever team-building exercise inspired a distinctly different reaction from U2 fans.

    "I am going to vomit," ranted one YouTube commenter. "I am sure Bono is thrilled to have his song revamped by a huge corporation," another wrote.

    Yet another sarcastically suggested additional classic rock songs that Bank of America could rewrite, such as "House of the Rising Fees" and "(Customers Can’t Get No) Satisfaction."

   Comedian David Cross reprised it at a Manhattan nightspot, to uproarious laughter from the audience. A Bank of America spokesperson did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, but a consultant who has worked for the bank says that employees still write and perform team-building songs on occasion—with no video or audio recording permitted.

    Bank of America has plenty of musical company. Increasingly, businesses are using rock songs as team-building and motivational tools. Some hire professional musicians to create corporate anthems, but more often, they’re turning to the workforce itself to write and perform them. At least a half-dozen consulting outfits—with names like Groove Labs, Song Division and Face the Music Blues—offer to guide employees through the process of writing songs and then assist them in performing their musical efforts.

    Their fees range from a few thousand dollars for a studio session to as much as $100,000 for staging a concert hall performance backed by a professional band, in which accountants and quality-control managers in longhaired wigs and oversized shades get to play Sting or Bono for an evening.

    To be sure, the results are often outré, fusing guitar pyrotechnics and a thunderous backbeat with lyrics that extol the benefits of a merger, or express enthusiasm about productivity goals. But while nobody is rushing to create a corporate rock channel on satellite radio, proponents insist that creating and performing songs can be a surprisingly effective team-building exercise.

    They say that writing lyrics about work issues, especially if it’s done with a sense of humor, gives workers a way of communicating feelings that would be difficult to express in a PowerPoint presentation. Beyond that, says one business-blues impresario, the process of collectively coming up with pithy lines and catchy rhymes is a telling diagnostic tool for understanding how team members collaborate—or how they don’t.

    Nevertheless, power business ballads are viewed with skepticism by many in the human resources and team-building fields. Naysayers note that because musical tastes can range drastically from employee to employee, a tune that some can’t resist humming might seem excruciating to others.

    And if there’s a discrepancy between the sentiments espoused in song lyrics and the company’s actual practices, they say, it may inspire derision or even outright hostility among employees when they hear it. Finally, they warn, in the age of YouTube and MP3 trading, there’s always the possibility that what seemed like harmless fun at last month’s management retreat is destined for Internet ignominy.

Core principles, set to a backbeat
   
Some find the phenomenon of corporate music a bit puzzling.

    "Wow, how weird," commented Peter Cappelli, a management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, after being sent some examples. He likened them to the anthems about intrepid railroad builders and love on the collective farm that were composed to motivate workers in the old Soviet Union.

    "Generally, I think an effort to get U.S. employees to sing company songs would be resented," he says.

    Actually, capitalism was the first to have workers set words to melody. IBM, which started an employee orchestra in 1915, once published a company songbook that included stirring ditties like "Ever Onward" ("There’s a thrill in store for all/For we’re about to toast/The corporation that we represent") and "Hail to the IBM."

    Inspired perhaps by Big Blue—and successful Japanese companies’ traditional practice of having employees sing to build shafu, or company spirit—scores of companies large and small across the globe have created corporate music, in styles ranging from saccharine, synthesizer-drenched soft rock to heavy metal.

    Some, such as auditing and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’ soft-rock ballad "Your World/Our People," which reportedly originated in a late-1990s team-building exercise, and competitor KPMG’s "KPMG (As Strong as Can Be)," were wholly original efforts. (The song "is something we’re not involved with at this point," according to KPMG spokesman Dan Ginsburg.)

    Others borrowed the melodies of familiar songs. Starbucks managers, for example, converted the 1985 Starship soft-rock hit "We Built This City" into "We Built This Starbucks" (sample lyrics: "Knee-deep in the mocha/Making coffee right/So many partners/Working late at night").

    Another 1980s pop relic, "We Are the World," written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief, was reinvented by Shell as "Growing and Winning," withlyrics that proclaimed: "We are the best/We are all winners/We are the ones who’ve made the change/We’ve grown the business/We are Shell’s tomorrow/B2B we’re one great team." (Starbucks and Shell, like many of the other outfits with corporate anthems, did not respond to e-mail requests for comment.)

    Eventually, enterprising organizational consultants with musical backgrounds began offering to guide corporate teams through the process of writing and performing their own rock or blues songs as a more creative and less physically demanding alternative to other group activities that companies compel staffers to participate in at off-site retreats to build solidarity.

    "If you’re shooting at each other with paintball guns or racing go-karts, it gets you out of the office," explains Andy Sharpe, an MBA and former global financing specialist for IBM’s Australian subsidiary who now heads Song Division, a company that provides corporate teams with bands of professional musicians who normally back up Sheryl Crow and Aretha Franklin.

    "But we’re into creating a situation where a 50-year-old manager can interact with a 20-something subordinate having a conversation that might not normally happen. They’re talking about things like, ‘Do you like the Beatles or the Stones? Should we have a drum solo here, or some guitar?’ They’re all equals, and the conversation starts to flow naturally, around the usual barriers."

    His accompanists can work in a variety of musical genres.

    "When we start out, we ask everybody what was the last CD that they purchased; it can range from opera to hip-hop to country to death metal."

    Sharpe says songwriting has another big advantage over paintball, because lyrics can be crafted to deal with specific business issues that a team is grappling with, such as a new product launch or policy implementation. "I’ve helped people write songs in which each verse is based on a core principle," he explains. "It works much better than sending out an e-mail listing them."

    Some of the messages are dry and serious, but when the songs are written, it works, Sharpe insists.

    "Our musicians are very good with people. They’ll help them to create a Johnny Cash-style love song, not some cheesy corporate jingle."

    Former venture capital firm staffer and guitarist Craig Nadel, who now runs Austin, Texas-based Groove Labs’ Corporate Rockstars program, says classic-rock standards readily lend themselves to being rewritten to convey a business message. One of his corporate clients reworded "Born to Be Wild," Steppenwolf’s circa-1968 psychedelic ode to thrill-seeking motorcyclists, to convey a passion for information technology: "Get your spirit running/Information highway/Looking for new business/And whatever comes our way." Similarly, Devo’s "Whip It" morphed into a song about achieving sales goals: "When an opportunity comes around/You must sell it!"

    "It really brings out the creativity in people," Nadel says. "And it really feels good for them to do something that’s fresh and hip. It’s a mini-talent show, and people get to get up on stage and show their stuff. That gets remembered, and so do the messages in the songs. I can’t point to any graph that shows increased return on equity over a certain period, but I see that it injects a certain amount of energy into a team."

    Paul Kwiecinski, a guitar-playing former Ford product manager and organizational consultant whoseFace the Music Blues program coaches corporate teams on writing blues songs, says the songwriting process also is a useful diagnostic tool for understanding how team members work together.

    "It reveals a group’s operating system," he explains. "Who’s leading, who’s following, how ideas get processed. Sometimes there’s a loudmouthed person who bulldozes through and doesn’t listen to anybody, and nobody’s willing to confront them. For a consultant, this is really juicy stuff. In two or three hours of writing a song together, I can learn what it might take me days to find out by visiting their office, if I was able to find it out at all."

    His program includes an optional second session in which the group can develop an action plan to remedy problems revealed by the songwriting process. Similarly, Sharpe extols the value of songwriting and performing as a sort of group therapy session for troubled teams. He cites the senior management team at Virgin Mobile in Australia as an example.

    "They’d been together working hard for three years, and there was an element of burnout," he says. "I got them into a recording studio in Sydney and helped them write lyrics about how they felt when they first worked at the company, exploring some of the issues in the business, and looking at where they would like to be now. We did that all in a three-minute pop song."

MBAs unlikely to top Mick and Keith
   Nevertheless, the Wharton School’s Cappelli remains unconvinced.

    "I think one could get the same team-building and diagnostic effect in other ways," he says. "I’m not sure that getting people to write songs is the easiest or most natural way to do this."

    The fiasco potential is pretty high, scoffs communications and marketing consultant Jon Warshawsky, co-author of the 2005 book Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide.

    "This is one of these team-building things that seems very forced, like being set up on a date with a co-worker. You wouldn’t grab Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and tell them to write a song in two hours. So how are a bunch of product managers going to pull it off? It just feels like you’re being made a fool of. And I don’t see how it is going to bring a team together."

    Warshawsky also sees the risk of discord.

    "People’s musical tastes are all over the place, so revealing them can be kind of risky—if you find out that the guy in the next cubicle is also a Prince fan, you might think, ‘Hey, I bet he has a closetful of purple clothes at home, just like me!’ But if you happen to hate Prince, you’re going to think, ‘Ewwww. He has no taste.’ "

    Team-building consultant Glenn Parker, whose 1990 book Team Players and Teamwork: New Strategies for Developing Successful Collaboration is being re-released in a new edition by Wiley, is concerned that songwriting has the same potential drawback as other team-building fads.

    "The key thing is the transferability between this experience and what we do back on the job," he explains. "That’s the payoff that you want from team building. Whether people sing and dance, or go rock climbing, or sit around and watch a film together, afterwards you don’t want them to just say, ‘Oh, that was interesting and fun.’ You want them to go back to the office and behave differently." For that to happen, Parker says, it’s essential to have a follow-up session of the sort that Face the Music Blues offers.

    "They’ve got to analyze what happened—how they broke up the tasks of writing the lyrics or the music, what worked and didn’t work, what they would do differently next time, what they learned from it. That’s where you get the payoff."

    Ken McGhee, a training consultant and author of the 2007 book Teamwork: Moving Beyond Teambuilding Exercises, thinks that corporate songs actually may have more potential as a tool for stress management.

    "Say you have a situation where people have spent months trying to switch over to a new computer system," he says. "You could make up a humorous jingle about the difficulty of all that. It could be a way for people to vent their frustrations and laugh about it, as opposed to keeping it all inside in a negative manner."

    Parker, however, worries that such an approach could also backfire.

    "With a serious imbedded problem in an organization, I’m not sure I would do this. It might work as a celebratory gesture, after you’re able to resolve the thing, but not as the main intervention. For example, I don’t think I’d want to make up a song about layoffs."

    Beyond that, experts warn, if a song that espouses core values that the company doesn’t actually practice, employees will dismiss it as propaganda, and may even react with outright hostility.

    Face the Music Blues’ Kwiecinski recalls a company whose new CEO and management team performed a song about their revenue growth goals, "Double Digit Blues," to an audience of several hundred sales and marketing staffers.

    "People didn’t like what they were saying," he says. "They stood up and turned their backs, and then they walked out, leaving the executives to finish the song to an empty room. My jaw just dropped. Fortunately, we could work with them for three days afterward, processing it all. What we discovered was they took the song to mean that management didn’t have confidence that the employees could do it."

    He adds: "That’s why we discourage corporate-anthem type of stuff. We want them to show their people that they know what they’re experiencing. It’s better to do lyrics that say, ‘We know the market sucks and you’re having a tough time, but we’re all in it together, and here’s what we’re going to do.’ "

Being in on the joke is crucial
   To that end, sometimes the best corporate music rises up from the ranks, rather than coming from above. When a Re/Max office in the Tampa, Florida, area held a retreat for agents to discuss how to cope with the real estate market’s difficult conditions in 2008, office manager Katie Lamore got the idea of driving home the message with a song. At the appropriate moment, she cued up a karaoke version of Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 disco hit "I Will Survive," and let loose with thenew lyrics emblazoned on her PowerPoint presentation:

Go on now go, walk out the door
Don’t turn around now
’Cause there are houses to be sold
Be sure to ask for referrals from those who used you once before
Don’t you dare crumble
Be sure to do your pop-bys
O yes it’s I
I will survive
As long as I know how to sell
I know I’ll stay alive

    "Everyone thought it was funny, but they also could relate to it," Lamore explains. "The lyrics were about getting back to the Realtor basics—that if you keep on writing your notes, getting in contact with people, you’ll build relationships and you’ll be OK. It was humorous reinforcement."

    And while most companies are wary of having their musical efforts leaked outside the organization, Lamore’s boss had the opposite reaction. "He was the one who said, ‘We need to get this up on YouTube,’ " she says.

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