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Playing to the same tune: When SBI bosses learnt biz lessons from Mozart, Beethoven symphonies

The SBI top brass at the bank headquarters in Mumbai. Rajnish Kumar was most interested in understanding how the movements of the baton guide the orchestra.
In an orchestra, it takes one person to be off-key and out of tune to ruin a performance. This holds true even for big businesses, as SBI’s top bosses found out recently.

Music and finance make unlikely bedfellows. After all you are either right-brained or left, or at least that’s what conventional wisdom suggests. And no points for guessing what’s the dominant side for a room full of India’s top bankers.

In a unique management session recently, the SBI top brass got a chance to engage with the arts and explore the commonalities between conducting a traditional symphony orchestra and running a finance organisation.

The session was conducted by Alexander Briger, the artistic director and cofounder of the Australian World Orchestra (AOW) , along with inputs from the other cofounder, Gabrielle Thompson, at the bank’s headquarters in Mumbai. In attendance, were the bank’s chairman, MDs and chief general managers. Apart from learning how to wield the baton, quite literally, and creating some spontaneous music, the evening’s lessons included:

Drawing parallels
Establishing the similarities between a symphony orchestra and a bank, Briger explained, “An orchestra is more than an example of an artistic structure. It’s an example of a social life because to play together, players must intimately co-exist towards perfection and excellence following a strict discipline of organisation.
In a unique management session recently, the SBI top brass got a chance to engage with the arts and explore the commonalities between conducting a traditional symphony orchestra and running a finance organisation.

“In an orchestra, every part has a specific function, without which the total sounds hollow. Just like a business, there is expectation of a certain standard of delivery and excellence [when an orchestra performs].” To help make the point better Thompson, who has a banking background, said that putting an orchestra together is much like putting a deal team together. “All of you are specialists in your area of knowledge.

But you have to work together to put a deal together. So, while some of you may be more senior in your positions, if you are putting together a deal, you have to bow to one another’s expertise. It’s similar in an orchestra. Each one is an expert at their instrument and there is a set hierarchy,” she said.

Preparing to perform
To begin, it is essential that everyone be on the same page. Or as Briger put it: tuning. Start by tuning the orchestra to one single note, so that it all sounds coherent. In an organisation, that roughly translates into a common aim, mission or vision.

Then come the rehearsals. Much as rote learning during rehearsals can’t help you prepare for the surprises of the final performance, any amount of preparation may prove insufficient when the moment of reckoning comes in the business. So, while one must factor in room for surprises, rehearse to keep the team in sync with the final goal. Begin by “understanding, respecting and establishing the hierarchy”.

In an orchestra, it is the role of the conductor to carry forward the hopes and expectations of his diverse group of players. At the bank, it is the chairman’s job to manage internal as well as external expectations. It is the conductor’s personality that finally determines the outcome. Is he autocratic or is he collaborative? Does he only dictate or does he pause to hear feedback? And ultimately, how does it all translate into music?

Briger explained all of this with his group of musicians, including two violin players and a viola and cello players, performing some famous western classical music pieces by masters like Mozart and Beethoven.

In an orchestra, players with different levels of experience and expertise come together. As is the case with a deal team. But once together, there is a certain sense of equality. At moments, for the performance to excel, even the most accomplished, senior player in the orchestra may have to step back to let a more junior colleague shine. There is no room for ego there.

“Orchestra is like teamwork. In music, and in any organisation teamwork is very important. I follow only a bit of western classical music. [But] it was good for me because the first piece that they [the orchestra] played was Eine kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart. The movie Amadeus starts with that piece.” - PK Gupta, MD, retail & digital banking, SBI

“What they wanted to say is that an orchestra is a very complex organisational structure. And the lessons that you can learn from managing an orchestra are very relevant to the corporate world…And the key point was about each individual player being a key performer but [the challenge] of bringing them together to play a common beat.” — Arijit Basu, MD, corporate client group & IT, SBI

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