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CREATIVE LEAPS - Journal of the Arts in Leadership and Organizational Learning

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Artistic Expression in the Workplace:

Comic and Corporate Consequences  

 by Kenny Moore

 

Bringing artistic talent into my corporate job was a recipe for failure. Or so I thought until I actually tried it out.

I work for a New York City Fortune 500 company and my CEO's a very busy man. But every month he takes time out of his hectic schedule to host an informal meeting with his officers and directors. A lot of things are changing in our company, and he's responding to the beleaguered pleas for more "face-to-face" communication. These monthly sessions are held in the auditorium at Headquarters. After the CEO welcomes  people, he gives them an update on present business issues. Then there's usually a PowerPoint presentation on some timely industry topic and we close with some Q & A's. Afterwards, we retire to the executive floor for food and drink, with a healthy dose of networking and camaraderie. I usually make it a point to attend these sessions and find them to be both personally and professionally rewarding.

I knew from whence he spoke. In my former life as a monastic Catholic priest I, too, spent time preparing my homily - only to deliver it to a largely absent congregation.

A while back, the CEO showed up for one of these meetings, but the auditorium was mostly empty. He waited for the crowd to arrive. It never did. While generally a mild-mannered man, his opening remarks were less than welcoming:  "Let me make a few things clear. The only reason I'm here tonight is because you requested it. I have a lot to do and could be working on other things. You wanted more face-to-face communication, so here I am. But I'm not going to waste my time coming if no one shows up."  I notice he usually behaves this way when he's pissed off. With steely glare, he continued:  "If you don't find these monthly sessions useful, let me know - and we'll end them. Or if you have suggestions on how to make them better, tell the President and we'll discuss making changes. But if the low turnout continues, the program will be discontinued."

I knew from whence he spoke. In my former life as a monastic  Catholic priest I, too, occasionally spent diligent time preparing my homily—only to deliver it to a largely absent congregation. I'm also well aware of the temptation to chastise the few that are present for the misdeeds of the many that are not.

Later that evening in the executive lounge, pondering over food and drink, I also gave some thought to his request for possible program improvements. As the fading sun set, the wine mixed with my imagination, and an alternative program design was in the making.

And now for something completely different

As I commuted home that night, the artist in me explored ways of making these monthly meetings more creative, inviting, and hopefully, more well attended. My first idea was to get us out of the auditorium: big screens within a dark room; bolted chairs; PowerPoint presentations that numb the brain and butt. I also wanted to challenge the bland corporate mentality about how we share information. My alternative plan was to move these sessions down the hall into our company cafeteria. I pictured small, intimate tables, with handfuls of executives sitting around listening and chatting about timely business matters. I also envisioned serving the food and wine at the beginning of the meeting, rather than the end: sort of like a dinner-theater motif, but focused on a corporate result.

Both our company and the industry were in the midst of significant change and I thought it might be productive to explore the impact on the company's evolving Vision.

Back at my desk the following morning, I walked down to our Corporate Communications Department that is responsible for hosting these events and shared my idea with them. They liked it. "If we moved the meeting into the cafeteria," the communications' director asked, "do you have any suggestions for a possible agenda?"  We both didn't want to make all those efforts in changing the venue and fall back into a staid PowerPoint format. "Why don't we bring in a graphic artist and have the group do a drawing of the Corporate Vision?" I said. Both our company and the industry were in the midst of significant change and I thought it might be productive to explore the impact on the company's evolving Vision. It could also prove to be interesting (as well as fun) to do it visually, especially with a few drinks under our belt. "Sounds fine with me," said the director. "I'll put you down for September's program."

Now that I had Corporate Communications' support, I composed an e-mail to the President. In view of last night's poor turnout, I explained, I'd given some thought to improving the monthly meeting: move it out of the auditorium and into the cafeteria; serve food and wine before the meeting, not afterwards; replace the PowerPoint model with something creative and interactive - possibly an artistic rendering of the company's unfolding Vision. I pressed "Send" and we were on our way. Or so I thought.

About an hour later, I got a call from the President's secretary asking if I had a few minutes to come upstairs to discuss my proposal. "No problem," I naively thought, "I'll come right up."  He was congenial but confused. "I read your note, and it's not clear exactly what you're suggesting."  So I did a quick executive summary: leave the auditorium, move to the cafeteria; serve the food first, not last; have the program be interactive, not passive; bring art off the walls and into our strategic thinking. It all seemed rather straightforward and simple to me.

His confusion grew deeper. "Kenny, I'm not sure that's what the CEO meant by his comments last night. Let me give it some thought, and I'll give you a call back."  I waited for the call. It never came.

 

The Plot Thickens

But I did get a call about a month later from Corporate Communications. "I have you down as the main presenter for the September meeting," the director said. "Is everything still on schedule for you?"  I gave him a quick update, "Yes, I had talked with the President. And, yes, he was giving my suggestion serious (?) consideration. I even had the promise of a return phone call. But as of today, I'd heard nothing."

"Well, we need to know one way or the other," he said. "If you're not presenting, then I need to find a replacement."

 

I wondered if all employee suggestions got this kind of solicitous attention.

Back in my office, I sent another inquiring e-mail to the President. And an hour later I got another phone call inviting me to his office - this time to talk to both him and the CEO. I wondered if all employee suggestions got this kind of solicitous attention.

So back upstairs I went. Once again I deliver the executive summary of my proposal. And now I have two corporate leaders looking a bit befuddled. It was the President who spoke first. "Unlike you, Kenny, most of our officers are not artists. I'm concerned that this design might be a bit too creative for them. The audience is largely composed of engineers, accountants and lawyers."

I think it was the term "too creative" that emboldened me. "Let me get this straight: our industry's undergoing radical change; we're in the midst of making a major acquisition - and you're concerned that this program might be 'too creative' for our corporate leaders?" 

Drawing in a needed breath, I continued on: "If they can't muster the creativity for this simple meeting, then maybe we have a much deeper problem on our hands."  I also took the opportunity to remind them of the origins of this discussion:  "By the way, I'm not the one who started this conversation: you did. You're the ones who asked for suggestions."

 

Mildly miffed, I told them that if this is how they planned on treating all future offerings, they shouldn't expect to see too many coming forward.

The CEO gently intervened, injecting a note of executive calm:  "Kenny. You need to continue working on your attitude. There are some on staff who might misinterpret it as being somewhat cynical." I told them that I understood their concerns, and appreciated that my proposal was a little risky. "But you're the ones out there encouraging employees to take more risks to help the company grow and compete." While I was as much concerned as they were that the new design might not work, at least I was willing to give it a try. As the conversation continued, we made some progress.  "We'd like you to work closely with Corporate Communications in giving diligent preparation to this event."

I agreed, and even gave a further offering to the CEO:  "I'm also willing to write up two sets of 'closing remarks' for you. In the first set of remarks, if the program goes well, you can thank me for taking some initiative and invite others to do the same. In the second set, if the program doesn't go well, you can still say something positive by expressing appreciation for my efforts and reminding them that failure is a necessary part of innovation - something we should tolerate."

Instead of "tolerate" I really wanted to have the CEO say "reward and praise."  But even I was beginning to learn when to back off.

They were feeling better about my proposal and agreed to proceed. I was feeling worse about the deal and was contemplating suicide. I was also remotely aware of some free-floating anxiety near the nexus of personal job security and my wife's desire for our family's financial advancement. Had my artistic sensibilities blurred my better business mind?  Unfortunately, it was a little too late to be asking that question.

I worked with the Communications folks to set up the event. The only thing still missing was the graphic artist. I approached one of our talented cartoonists in the Art Department and explained my plan. What was needed was someone who could artistically improvise: a person who could take the ideas of the audience and transpose them visually onto a mural. "Could you do something like that?" I asked. He was hesitant, yet intrigued. "Let me see if I understand you correctly: you're asking me to quickly compose scenes, hastily sketch them onto the cafeteria wall, and artistically map them to the company's future Vision - and do this all in front of the top 100 executives of the corporation?" 

His tone of voice was beginning to sound oddly similar to that of the President's. "Have you ever

done anything like this before?" I asked. "Not that I can think of. The only thing that's remotely close is when I do cartoon caricatures for kids at Bar Mitzvahs."  I assured him that working with executives was not all that unlike managing teenagers at a party. And if you were adding a few bottles of wine to the mix, Officer meetings could indeed feel quite similar. "You'll do just fine," I whispered, as I sought to gain his agreement. "In fact, you may be a bit over-qualified for the job."

 

Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight

The big day arrived and in a cafeteria-turned-bistro, the CEO welcomed the audience. "Many things are changing for our company, and it's going to require that we change a bit as well. Tonight's program is somewhat different and I invite you to get some more food, refresh your drinks and participate fully." He then turned the evening over to me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the President reach for what I believed to be his fourth drink of the evening.

I spoke for a few minutes, reminding them of the business challenges before us and that we'd be well served realigning our Corporate Vision to more accurately reflect these changing realities.  "But rather than writing up another 'Vision Statement,' tonight's program will give us a chance to use the medium of art to sketch it out. In a few minutes, we'll be drawing a mural on the blank wall behind me."  They peered back with a bit of reserve, but some interest. Instructing the waiters to keep refilling everyone's wineglasses, I continued on. "The first part of our drawing is going to focus on the question: 'Who do we want to be for our employees?'  And to help us prepare, I'm going to lead you through a brief meditation exercise."  As a former man-of-the-cloth, I told them not to worry. I would walk them through the exercise. I started off by playing one of my old tapes of Gregorian Chant, and then invited them to close their eyes for a few minutes of directed meditation. As I scanned the room, executives who were on their second or third drink seemed to be the more willing participants. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the President reach for what I believed to be his fourth drink of the evening.

After we spent a few moments reflecting on the question, I invited them to pick up their drinks, leave their tables behind and join me in front of the blank wall to begin sketching out our mural. As they came forward, I perceived an air of energy and excitement. Maybe the wine was working its salubrious effect. I quickly intoned: "What I'd like you to do is share with me the thoughts and images that came to you when you were meditating - and the artist will draw it on the wall."  I was greeted with blank stares and an eerie silence. One of the advantages of living in a monastery for many years is that my comfort level with silence is greater than most, so I waited - for what seemed like an eternity.

Eventually, one female executive in the back of the group raised her hand and spoke. "When I was pondering how we might invite our employees to join us in facing the challenges ahead, I had this image of climbing a mountain and we were all working together to scale the precipice.."  Before I had time to comment, another executive spoke up: "For me, I pictured us traveling along a wide road, and it was our job to offer encouragement and support to the marching troops."

As I listened, our resident cartoonist was well on his way to sketching out a picture: looming mountains, with a road winding through a hilly pass, and employees marching forward in cooperative harmony. The quick-drawn mural showed supportive executives among the crowd, offering assistance and clearing obstacles away. The wine seemed to be making even the more reserved members appear loquacious. I was also coming to realize that the best thing I could do to facilitate this part of the program was to step aside and let the executives talk directly to the artist. Within ten minutes, the first half of the mural was created on the wall.

Trying to effectively manage the remaining time, as well as re-establish my authority before the crowd, I invited them to refresh their drinks and return to their seats for the second part of our evening reflection: "Who do we want to be for each other?"  On again went the Gregorian Chant, and I led them through another meditation. This time, returning to the wall they bypassed me completely and started talking directly with the artist. "Draw a picture of a big ear," said one forceful director, "I think we need to do a lot more listening around here."

The second part of the mural quickly started to appear before us. They seemed to require very little facilitating. Ownership of the evening had somehow slipped away from me and onto them. Not exactly sure how that all happened, I suddenly realized that time was running short and the CEO still had to give his closing remarks. Feeling more than self-satisfied with the outcome, I sought to bring the artistic side of the evening to a close.

 But they wouldn't let me. "Is there any connection," one officer shouted out, "between the earlier drawing we did and this second one?" How was I supposed to know!  I was still dumbfounded that the evening went as well as it did. I hadn't given any thought to making a connection between both drawings. But my lack of foresight didn't seem to matter. The executives began to debate the question among themselves and quickly reached consensus: there should be a "=" sign between both parts of the mural and they instructed the artist to draw it in. As one director summed it up: "I think the way we want to be with our employees is the same way we want to be with each other. We can't treat our staff any differently than the way we treat one another."

Pushing to close the discussion and turn it back to the CEO, I got interrupted once more. "What are you going to do with this mural, Kenny?"  Further embarrassment rushed across my face. The reality was that I didn't have any future plan for the mural. I was merely trying to expose them to a more engaging program design. "Why don't we keep it up in the cafeteria for a few more days," someone said, "So our employees can see it. They might even want to make further additions to it." And the crowd was quickly immersed in another conversation about how we might use our corporate Intranet to explain these murals to staff and invite their participation. At the end of the discussion, the Chief Information Officer even offered to coordinate the effort for the following day.

 

 I finally got the CEO to deliver his closing remarks (i.e., the more favorable speech that I wrote up for him) and the evening came to a close. As I went to the bar to get myself a well-deserved drink, I noticed that many in the crowd stayed behind discussing the mural and planning next steps. I remember leaving the cafeteria with a sense of wonder.

 

The Final Outcome

No, I didn't get a big promotion for hosting the event. And no, the CEO didn't personally come to my office singing my praises as a role model for corporate risk-taking. But I did get a few favorable calls. I even received a brief (but warm) e-mail from the President. And more quickly than I would have liked, my mundane business life continued on. I was pleased with the evening's success and worked hard to remind my over-salivating ego to keep things in humble perspective. Then, two months later, something odd happened. I got a phone call from the company's Chief Engineer. "Come up to my office, Kenny. I want to show you something."  As I stepped inside, he presented me with a smartly bound booklet. "It's next year's Operating Plan," he said "and I thought you might enjoy seeing it."  He believed that I would be particularly pleased with the sections on "Employee Commitment" and "Innovation."  Then he came over and took the booklet from my hand.

 

"I want to show you these two drawings that I placed on the front and back covers," and proceeded to point to a copy of the two murals from my earlier session. "I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but a few months back at one of our executive meetings we drew out our Vision for the company's future." I stood there confused: he's explaining all this to me as if I'm completely ignorant about it. Questioning him further, he had no recollection that I was even at the meeting, no less that I facilitated it. I was livid!  As he continued talking about the murals and how they connected to his Operating Plan, I remember having two distinct thoughts. First, I was reminded of a quote from the Zen masters of old: "The bad leader: all the people despise. The good leader: all the people praise. The great leader: all the people say 'We did it ourselves.'"  O my God, I thought, I might be a great leader!  The second thought was more troubling. I feared getting screwed at my next performance review. There seemed to be no corporate memory of my business contribution. Upon further reflection, I realized that the evening event was neither owned nor connected to me. It belonged to the corporate community.

 I think that's how meaningful change is supposed to happen. Sort of like the work of a midwife: you help the birthing process, but when it's over, the child doesn't stay within your possession. It goes on to live its own life. This all made good business sense to me. But my smarting ego was having a hard time accepting it. With the passage of time, I've had chances to stage similar artistic events: a corporate funeral, with me reverently presiding at the burial of my company's "past"; a wildly entertaining program with an improv comedian, leading 500 managers through an insightful use of humor and improvisational skills to support corporate change. I even hosted an agenda-free "Open Space" event with the entire I/T department. While I would have preferred getting the promotion, the artist in me remains thankful for the chance to use my creative gifts in an increasingly receptive corporate environment. The artist Sally Warner said: "It's very possible that your life in art - your 'successful' life in art - might be a struggle from start to finish."  I think the woman is right on the money.

-- Kenny Moore

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please E-mail me at kennythemonk/@/yahoo/./com.

Bio

Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Company's Journey to Profit and Purpose" (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 energy company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.

Kenny has over 20 years experience with change management, leadership development and healing the corporate community. He's been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning News, and interviewed by Tom Peters, The Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. His business practices are based on Louie Armstrong who said: "I am here in the service of Happiness." Louis died a rich and beloved man; his voice still rings in the ears (and hearts) of millions.

Prior to his work in corporate America, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Several years ago, he had the good fortune of being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. Kenny came away from that experience recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us."  Kenny's lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music.  Having dealt with both God and death, Kenny now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.

Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of "Art for the Anawim," a not-for-profit charity which works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children and the inner city poor. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest. Kenny lives in Totowa, NJ and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising 2 growing boys.

 

Kenny can be reached at kennythemonk/@/yahoo/./com or (973) 956-8210.

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