thinking creatively
Storytelling Innovator Series

Interview: How Miha Pogacnik Empowers Business Leaders Through Music

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In 1992, a train was steaming through the steppe along the Trans-Siberian—the famous railway that runs from Moscow to the Russian Far East and the Sea of Japan—en route to Ulan Bator, across Russia and Mongolia, with artists, journalists, and joyriders from both sides of the former East-West divide.

The organizer of the journey was Miha Pogacnik, a Slovenian classical concert violinist and activist. Pogacnik was bringing not only his music with him, but also innovative ideas that Eastern Europeans desperately needed back then to reinvent their societies.

Pogacnik has lived three lives so far: In the first, he was a consummate master of the violin. Then he became a political and cultural activist in crisis areas all around the globe. His third life arose from the same urge to make an impact through music where he feels it matters most—which now is the business arena. As a leadership consultant, he has given acclaimed talks to companies such as Microsoft, Nike, and Porsche, collaborated with UN agencies and such gatherings as the World Economic Forum, and taught at leading business schools from Havard to IESE in Barcelona, CEIBS in Shanghai, and the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.

I recently spoke with Pogacnik about the effect music can have on leadership. For him, classical masterpieces are the central theme that threads together all the spheres of his career, and he is passionate about the potential of art as a force of transformation in business.

How do you do connect music and management skills?

I developed the interruptive method because I was convinced that if your audience is not really with you in the intense changes that take place in a masterpiece—in all this journey of transformation—then your work becomes mere entertainment. Art needs an active listener.

That’s when I decided to work more closely with the audience, and, over years of work, developed my method.

When I talk about interruption, I mean that I play, I stop, I paint, I perform, I stop, I paint again, I talk. This way, I can show the inside of a masterpiece. At first, people hate it, because no one likes interruptions when they are listening to music. But in this way, they begin to perceive the changes that underlie the piece.

I guide my audience through the score using their own language. In the case of managers, I do this through the language of business and the language of a particular company, to help them grasp the connection with their own journeys of transformation. In the end, I perform the whole work—and they listen in a different way, because now they’ve seen it from inside. They understand the archetype of journey: the hero starts the quest, then goes through a crisis, and at the end makes some sort of comeback. Every mythical story contains these three steps.

Interruption is key in my method. But another crucial element is that I take people, the managers I work with, on what I call ‘productive detours.’ Working with a masterpiece helps people to forget everyday issues and dilemmas; that said, as we work through this method together, I have a precise report about what my audience’s problems are. As we work with a fugue or sonata or concerto, I translate the musical gestures—what the music does—into their language for them to see that music not only exposes the same problems they’re experiencing, but also offers solutions. At the end, I don’t give the solutions to them; rather, they find them in the music. They can make their own connections.

I meet people 15 years later, and they are excited about all the productive changes they made. It’s very effective to have them walk through this detour and then bring them back to deal with their own stuff.

The Journey of Leadership

An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: leading without words. How can that experience help business leaders?

In my method, I don’t put words away completely—I use them to take my conversations where I want them to go. But yes, the real key is the experience. That’s what is going to help business leaders through a Monday morning dilemma. You could choose to explain a process to them using PowerPoint, but when they go back to work, they’ll have a problem: the force of habit is so strong that they’ll forget about the new idea they learned and go back to their old routines. But thanks to the experience, they don’t forget. When the problem appears, they laugh. “I’m back in that part of the journey,” they think, and they know how to go about thinking creatively.

I used to compare the business organization to an orchestra. People in the business community are very often truly brilliant, and they are also quite good at putting together great teams. The problem is knowing what to play. Musicians play masterpieces; the minute they start playing, they forget their personal, ego-driven problems. They’re immediately drawn into the sphere of the masterpiece and there is an automatic click that changes their mindsets. They are now at the service of something meaningful and profound. But in business, sometimes the score lacks the capacity to motivate the players. The click does not occur. That’s why some companies talk now of corporate responsibility or corporate sustainability. It’s the beginning of the composition, of the score.

Given this ability of musicians to put experience first, what can marketers learn about storytelling from music? What may be the better way to tell their brand story to the world?

A masterpiece is built around a theme, and that’s the brand. [Here Pogacnik intones the unmistakable G-G-G-Eb of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.] In this brand, a concentrated message unfolds in half an hour. You have it at the beginning, but if all that’s there is the brand itself, the experience will be incomplete. The journey of transformation that we talked about before must be there too—the story—and that is missing in most brands. There is no life around them, because life is the result of going through crises, enduring ups and downs, and then returning to the original statement, only enriched and revitalized.

This kind of inner evolutionary process is something that gives a brand power.

Leadership Workshop

In your own words, you want to take “executive learning beyond only information, striving beyond excellence toward genius.” What’s the secret to get business leaders thinking creatively?

Here’s how I work with a team of managers and how we can make progress together in a very short time, in a day or half a day.

The first thing I do is take them through this transformational journey. It takes about an hour. I play—or I use a symphonic orchestra, and they sit among the musicians. As I play and stop and paint, it emerges before their eyes: this journey, with a beginning, middle, and end. In the middle is the real transformation; the crisis. When you are there, you start feeling your audience open up to new ideas.

I have someone writing down all the ideas that come up—new and unusual concepts that they would not normally think about. Then the participants organize in groups of 10, and they get all these ideas on the table. Now they have to work as a team, under the guidance of one of their colleagues who is designated as a “sculptor,” to form a sculpture. They create movement, a moving sculpture which indicates where they want to go, without words. And finally, they put all that experience into a poem. It’s a double task: turning these ideas into a sculpture, then transforming them into poetry.

After that, all the groups get together and they perform for one another. They show their sculptures to the others, they perform for them, and the rest must guess what they’re trying to say before they act out the sculpture and read the poem at the same time. At the end, a member who was designated as the observer describes the process, so everyone there understands how they struggled to put together the sculpture and the poem. Together, the observers create one poem out of the 10 different poems they have. Then, of course, I offer a performance (without interruptions this time) which brings the event to a festive ending.

In this way, the concrete circumstances of a company, its values, mission, problems, and challenges are examined in the light of different forms of art. It’s hard to imagine how much people can change in one day. The participants completely liberate themselves—they feel so creative and have so much fun. Sometimes we end up laughing on the floor. They totally forget about pressure and corporate hierarchy. Everybody is there enjoying the music and the dinner.

An experience like that becomes a driving force for real change.

Your latest adventure in Egypt inspired an interesting concept. What can you tell us about “Human Resonance?”

HR. I call it Human Resonance and not Human Resources because that’s my idea to help HR people create resonant environments in their companies, which in essence, is what their jobs entail. If you are in resonance, many problems don’t even appear.

The reason I’m so convinced by this concept is because two and a half years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to play in the King’s Chamber of the Cheops Pyramid. For 10 minutes I played Bach’s Sonata in C major for solo violin, and it was a unique experience. There’s such a resonance there that it’s unbelievable—it must be the ultimate resonance on Earth. There cannot be anything more powerful.

Since then, I’ve come to believe that resonance is a concept that is going to be very helpful in many ways.

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Carlos García-Arista is a Barcelona- based journalist specializing in translation, language and marketing content. He has degrees in journalism and Spanish philology, and his work has appeared in blogs and media outlets both in Europe and the US. His publication credits include everything from copywriting to sports to inbound marketing pieces on how to translate bilingual newspapers. Carlos has worked in a few different fields, but the core task has always been the same: making complex ideas approachable.

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