Business & Real Estate

Poetic business lessons: UCD, Arts Commission team up with artists to help business managers

Sacramento Poet Laureate Jeff Knorr never expected to be teaching business lessons on employee engagement. But last week, the guy with the master of arts degree in English led a workshop for managers at Cache Creek Casino Resort on just that topic.

As you might expect, he started with a story – taking his audience back to the 1960s and a Chicago skyline that did not yet include the Sears Tower. He introduced them to structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan and architect Bruce Graham, two American immigrants who were trying to figure out how to build the world’s tallest building in the nation’s windiest city.

Everyone knows they found an answer, but casino shift supervisor Linda Adams and about 20 other managers couldn’t take their eyes off Knorr as he told the roughly 55-year-old tale of how they did it.

“Everything that came out of his mouth was a story,” Adams said, “and it was told in a way that kept you engaged. It wasn’t just being in a college lecture hall and listening to a biology lecture for an hour. … He made me feel like this was something I could do.”

Knorr’s workshop showed how the power of storytelling can be used to motivate, teach and connect with employees. His seminar is one of several being developed by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and UC Davis Extension. The two organizations are tapping into artists’ creative juices to find new ways for businesses to tackle such challenges as instilling workers with passion, sparking innovative thinking or encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

“Our research opened my eyes to pockets of this approach happening all over the country and all over the world,” said Sharon L. Huntsman, director of management and leadership at UC Davis Extension. “For instance, DaimlerChrysler gets ideas from working with Orpheus, a conductorless orchestra. To me, if it’s in the Fortune 100 companies, this is something that is really popping up in many places.”

The automaker, now known as Daimler, and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra filmed a number of YouTube videos capturing how executives studied the musicians to see how they managed to make great music in the absence of a hierarchy. The chamber orchestra members actually seem to choreograph leadership, deciding who’s responsible as conductor, depending upon where they are in the musical score. In a sense, the musicians say, the musical score is the conductor.

Erika Boardman Kraft, arts education director at the Sacramento arts commission, noted that the UC Davis medical school also has used actors to train students to diagnose patients’ problems.

“They started out with a few, just as an experiment,” she said, “and now it is totally integrated into their med school. They use hundreds of actors for all sorts of stuff, and it has ended up being a steady source of income for actors.”

Huntsman and Kraft have been developing their workshops since early 2013, asking business leaders and artists for input. Knorr’s class was the first of two test-runs before UC Davis Extension will begin offering the courses.

Today, concert musician Elizabeth Barton will do a pilot run for her workshop, “Creating Value Through Collaboration,” with employees from the City of Sacramento. Participants will practice problem-solving in teams.

“She doesn’t really speak about instruments and music, though she is an excellent horn player,” Kraft said. “She brings in found objects, and she gives them to the teams. Each of the groups has to solve a problem with these found objects. One aspect of the problem is that they have to create something that makes a … sound, but then she steadily changes those instructions slightly.”

In Knorr’s class, Adams and her co-workers got to describe the first time a story captivated them and the first time they realized they were doing work they loved.

“People went back and touched on the core passion of their job and found how the story of their job, what they do now, relates to that core passion,” Knorr said. “That allows them to communicate what they do with that same passion they had when they started. That passion we have when we start a job is always what keeps our momentum going.”

After the Cache Creek Casino workshop, Adams said, she went back to her desk and recrafted the talk she gives to new hires, adding personal anecdotes to describe her department’s role and why she’s passionate about the work she does.

If managers like Adams can imbue new hires with their passion and an understanding of the company’s goals, then business will benefit, experts say. Research has found that companies with high numbers of engaged workers report higher shareholder returns.

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.