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Business as Art

A few years ago I gave a speech to a group of MBA students at a local college. For the most part, these were students between 25 and 30 years old who were engaged in corporate careers and who were going for an MBA to advance already existing careers. Almost all seemed to be working for large companies, often at corporate headquarters.


Most of my speaking engagements are not really formal speeches. They often turn into discussions or question and answer sessions.  This one was typical – about 15 minutes from me followed by questions and dialog for an hour or so.


I remember there was one thing I said that confused the heck out of the group. I never understood their confusion because my point seemed obvious. That has bothered me since then and I have thought about it often. I now know why my audience did not understand what, to me, was obvious. Let me share it with you and see what you think.


I said then, and even more truly believe now, that building and creating a business is one of the most creative and artistic things that a person can do. It rivals traditional art; visual, dance, music, etc. as a creative endeavor. As we go through this discussion, let me defend that statement and then explain why I think my audience missed that point completely.


When we think of art, we think of a concept or inspiration followed by an artistic decision relative to a lot of variables and choices then followed by building and testing toward a final vision. Think about any art form and you will find an attempt to create an organic balance among a number of inputs. Two people drawing a bridge can create two wildly different images – Monet and Turner, for example. Two people writing music about the heavens can create two different works – Holst vs. Moody Blues comes to mind. The original goal, to paint a bridge, is the same but the way the artist uses the variables creates an entirely different final product. Also, please keep in mind that when we think of examples like the ones above, those are the art works that have reached public acceptance. There are thousands, maybe millions of works of art with similar concepts that were, sadly, not good enough to even reach the level of mediocrity. Part of the artistic attempt includes the possibility of failure and acceptance of risk. To give you a taste of where this is headed, substitute bankruptcy for failure.


Starting and growing a business involves the same creative process as any artistic endeavor. You have an idea, inspiration or goal; maybe a new type of product or a better way to deliver a service. Then, you must choose among a wide selection of variables to move your concept forward. All art has rules. Visual art has color theory and perspective. Music has defined tones and notes. Theatre has language and physical space. They all have size or time constraints.


Business has rules too, of course. Budget and financial issues. Competitor’s actions. Legal issues. These rules are similar to artistic rules. How can an artist create something fresh while working within these rules? How can a businessperson create a fresh business while working within business rules? Both the businessperson and artist want to separate their work from the pack.


And, what happens when we have that once in a lifetime experience where someone changes the rules? What is the actual difference between what the Impressionists did in painting and Apple did with the iPhone? They both changed the rules and created a new art form or product that, in turn, was changed and refined by others years later.


To me, the similarities between art and growing a business are obvious. I see it in my small part of the universe daily running Right Recruiting. I see it more clearly in our clients. Over the last year we have worked with a number of new companies nationally and, in talking to their executives and owners, I am always amazed at the creative process that goes into true business growth. This became clear when I did my annual client review to see if there were any common themes among our new business.


I found that 75% of our new clients had contacted us to work on projects for jobs that did not, at that time, exist in their organization. That was an epiphany for me and put the art/business similarity in clear focus. These were growing companies.  Growth required new functions in their organization. Since these firms came to us to help them define the new role, we were a part of the creation of the job and saw how it would fit into their organization. Maybe it is simplistic but, to me, there is no difference between a composer trying to get a specific sound or rhythm into a piece of music and a business person seeking to bring a new product or service to the market. Both know what the end goal is and both have to navigate a ton of choices to get there.


I used to consider Right Recruiting’s market to be small and mid-sized firms. I now think that is incorrect. I think Right Recruiting’s market is primarily growing companies of all sizes. A quick look at our projects over the last 12 months shows me companies from $5,000,000 in sales to companies that are over $1,000,000,000 in sales. It shows me companies in every part of the nation and some parts of the world and it shows me companies in every industry. The one commonality is that they were all growing. That, my friends, is more unique than you might think.


Going back to my earlier story about my speech to the MBA’s, I now understand why the concept of business as art was bewildering to them.  They worked for Fortune level companies and most had mid-management staff jobs. They had literally no experience with growing companies. Their entire careers had been in defined business structures and, to them, a career was about climbing a ladder that someone else had built.


If you really step back and think about it, that is a profoundly different viewpoint about business than my art/business analogy. Large companies rarely create. Large companies buy and then cut costs. To someone whose life has been in a large Fortune firm, your employer is actually more of a destroyer than a builder. Most Fortune growth comes from the purchase of smaller firms, which is followed by aggressive cost-cutting to make to numbers work. They buy ideas. They don’t build them. This is especially true at the corporate level, where my audience worked. Any growth or creativity tends to come at the divisional level, closer to the client, rather than at the corporate level. Think of the corporate staff of a large company as the art collector/dealer and the small company people as the artist, if that helps. They live in the same world but their functions are very different.


There is a word that recruiters use and is descriptive of a viewpoint. It is the word “careerist”.  Careerists plot career strategy within their corporation. They know who is retiring and what areas are hot and what areas are cold. They are the antithesis of business artists.  Careerists are very linear and live in a defined world. Business artists are inclusive people excited about new possibilities. Venus/Mars. Apollo/Dionysius. Chocolate/Vanilla.


My audience at that speech was composed of careerists and the MBA, to them, was to be a career tool. They were nice people and were smart and motivated. Their formative business experience’s all came from similar environments. They knew in some abstract way that if their employer did well, they should do well too. But, their metric was interesting. They cared about stock price rather than actual growth because stock price was reflected in their options. Stock price does not reflect growth as much as profits. That’s why cost-cutting can increase a company’s stock.


Perhaps that sounds like a harsh assessment of big-time corporate America. I don’t mean it to be. As adults, we are all children of our childhood. As professionals, we are all a reflection of our employers. Like Popeye said, “I am what I am.”


This analogy between business and art might actually serve as a mental tool to help you evaluate where you belong. If the analogy makes sense to you and you see the connection, think small and think aggressive. If it sounds nuts, and I freely admit it might, think big and think structure. There is one thing I can say though – there is nothing more stimulating and fun to be in a growing company and sharing that experience with peers who you respect. If you have done that once, you are hungry to do it again.


In closing, thanks for getting this far and please remember Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.

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