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Songwriting bonds

June 21, 2010

A challenge often facing global companies is how to bring together staff from around the world, energize them and keep them "on message." How about a bonding experience like writing catchy tunes with top musicians?

Employees vote on song as shown on screen
Employees vote with the help of a virtual applause meterImage: Susan Stone

It's your typical hotel conference room at 8:30 in the morning - bleary eyed workers chugging cups of coffee and grabbing an extra croissant. Some 165 employees from the cardiovascular division of medical technology company Medtronic aren't quite sure what to expect when a band takes the stage and starts playing "Soul Power" by James Brown.

These are top musicians who have played with big names in the music industry, including Seal, the Temptations, AIR and Chaka Kahn. An energetic man with long blond hair, a leather wrist band and black jeans takes the microphone. "Here's what we're going to do," he says. "You guys are going to write us a song! Are you up for that? Who wants to write a song?"

"Does anyone here play the guitar?"

Today's master of ceremony is Angus Clark, US music director of Song Division, which organized the event, and a rock star in real life. Clark, who plays guitar with the symphonic hard-rock group Trans-Siberian Orchestra, has been known to enter the stage surrounded by pyrotechnics and laser lights. Today, he's in the company of casually dressed middle-management employees - some with hidden talents that only come to light with a little prompting.

Song Division founder Andy Sharpe
Song Division founder Andy Sharpe is a musician with an MBAImage: AP

Also in the audience is Song Division founder Andy Sharpe, a musician with an MBA who discovered that songwriting can bring out the best in people. His mission in Berlin starts with finding a musician in the Medtronic throng to bring up on stage. A bassist named Jad, who hasn't played since high school, finally volunteers. He's given a bass guitar and plenty of encouragement. Picking out a few notes, he instantly spurs the band to create a driving melody. The crowd cheers for one of their own.

Now the attention turns to the words. Angus Clark gives the group a theme provided by Medtronic executives -- "What is going to be different this year?" – and two minutes to write four lines. A few brave souls bring their lyrics up to the front where they must read them out for the group. Among their suggestions: "We are going to rock the market and be far above our target"; "Going to drive to number one – we won't rest until we're done"; and "Medtronic people get up and groove."

Clark instantly declares the latter to be the group's new chorus. And the best of the bunch suggests a novel rhyme: "The name of the band is cardiovascular - at the end of the night you'll find us at the bar. " All of which provokes roars of delight from the crowd.

For the performance of the finished song, the stage fills up with about 60 people smiling and laughing. Most of the people in the room are on their feet clapping and singing along, and it's still only 9:15 a.m.

"Music is a universal passion"

And so another successful Song Division gig wraps up for Andy Sharpe. It's just one more to add to his corporate top of the pops, which includes Coca Cola, Microsoft, KPMG, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Virgin and Conde Nast, as well as government agencies in many different countries. "Music is a universal passion for people," says Sharpe, "so when they get a chance to write a song with an amazing band, it does something strange like you saw, like they actually come out of their shells – they get involved."

Sharpe started out as musician, playing in a signed rock band in his native Australia from the age of 13. After 15 years of music, he added an MBA and corporate work to his repertoire. He was once asked to do a song-writing workshop for Aboriginal school kids – and then for a friend's company, later a big Australian bank and eventually Virgin.

The process of creating a song resonates with people from all walks of life, he says. And that's proven to be an attractive tool for big global corporations searching for ways to liven up annual meetings, conventions and conferences while still getting their message across. "As everyone knows, you get a song stuck in your head," Sharpe says. "If you write a song about the key themes of the conference, (it's) going to stick in people's heads for months after the conference. It's also a very powerful communication tool as well as being fun and an icebreaker and a team-building event."

Song Division keeps things positive, too. The crew gently nixes negative or snarky lyrics, guaranteeing companies a return on their investment in the Song Division experience, which starts at about 10,000 euros for a short session.

Every kind of people on stage

Arnaud Delhaye, a vice president in Medtronic's Cardiovascular division, was impressed by his team's participation, including a few surprises. "On stage we had every kind of people -- sales. marketing, doctors, people in reimbursement," he says, laughing. "The bassist is a finance guy! So you don't imagine him with a guitar on the weekend."

Deep Purple performing
Who says managers can't rock like Deep Purple?Image: picture-alliance /dpa

Delhaye says the event helped Medtronic employees work in harmony, and talk comfortably and casually with co-workers they may only know formally at the office. His only critique is that his colleagues could have been a bit freer in their lyrics, and less goal-oriented. "I was thinking they could be more creative out of their daily practice like 'okay we have to achieve the target but let's be creative and let's be a little crazy as well in what we write,'" he says. "But people are serious and they want to stay very focused on what they have to do."

And for the Medtronic employees attending the Berlin event, that meant rocking the house.

Author: Susan Stone
Editor: John Blau