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What Are the Arts For?

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I started my career as a producer for the BBC: producing dramas and documentaries first in radio, then in television. I had the good fortune to work with some of the finest writers and performers in Britain: Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Simon Callow, Bill Nighy, Nick Bicat, Simon Schama, Peter Barnes, Janet Suzman, Elizabeth Spriggs, the London Chamber Orchestra.

I went on to run four companies: one here in the U.K. and three software companies in the United States.

Back home near Bristol, I now write plays and non-fiction.

This trajectory regularly strikes people as peculiar. I'm frequently asked: am I a businesswoman or an artist? The implication is that I can be one or the other, not both. My interrogators routinely fail to see that there could be any connection between the different parts of my career.

But to me they're obviously connected. Because whether you're making TV shows or music videos or running software companies, you're doing fundamentally the same work: hiring the most creative people you can find - and trying to create the conditions in which they'll produce their best work.

I've always needed the skills of an artist to get anything done. I needed to be able to 'cast' my companies, with the right blend of skills, talents, personalities, mindsets. I had to direct these gifted people in ways that inspired them to bring and give of their best, to take risks and use their imaginations to create something nobody had yet seen. We all had to tolerate the nights and weeks of not knowing whether our ideas would work or the risks would pay off and we had to exercise patience in listening to each other try out new thoughts and experiment with different ideas. Running a business was no less creative, terrifying or adventurous than making movies or music videos or writing plays. What made it possible, and occasionally successful, was the rich interplay between all of us.

Increasingly I've come to think that the world of work has an immense amount to learn from the arts: specifically around how great collaboration evolves, what it requires and how you develop it. Nothing we do in organizations these days is done alone but the single biggest problem that most suffer from is how to get their people to work effectively and creatively together. They can hire great talents and put them to work together - but very few have figured out how to realize the value and originality of that combination. Ask any CEO and they'll tell you: their biggest worry is why their armies of clever, educated, motivated individuals can't get anything done.

Last week, I spent a day with leaders of a FTSE 100 company, packed with brilliant individuals who are fired up with a sense of purpose and mission. What gets in their way is lack of trust, an inability to share real ownership of their projects, the absence of closeness that real collaboration requires. It's no exaggeration to say that this failure threatens the entire multibillion dollar business. But this company is far from unique and its problem is ubiquitous.

These well-paid, secure executives can't do what artists do all the time. When I sat in on auditions at RADA, I was struck by the fact that the teachers were not looking for is competitive superstar behaviour - far from it. They were looking for actors who could give generously to each other, respond and give and take, accepting responsibility for the exchange. When I talked to music producers they were clear about one thing: that the musicians who have enduring careers are those who collaborate best. Adele's great voice and songwriting skill is a big part of her talent - but so too is her ability to get the best from the hundred musicians who contribute to her albums. Everyone's exposed so everyone feels responsible.

Many in the business world trivialize the arts as an optional extra. They think of the arts as 'soft' and tiptoe around artists they imagine to be fragile, weak or prima donnas. But they've got it all wrong. Successful artists are the most tough-minded people I know, able to contain and manage uncertainty, risk and experiment. With no guarantee of success, they work night and day to create something no one's ever seen before for an audience or market they can't be sure of. They do so unstintingly, tearing down what they've done, rebuilding, revising, reworking, pushing to make the work better, funnier, more moving, clearer, more challenging. They don't stop until they're satisfied and even then they're driven to improve, often without reward, incentive or applause. They're experts in what all of us need to do: pay attention to the thoughts of others, pick up and elaborate on them, experiment with them, take risks with ideas and own the task of making them better. All the great artists I worked with did this and did it with resilience and respect: for the activity and for their colleagues. Fearless in the face of the unknown, they persevered until they had made something infinitely better and richer than it started.

When I teach in business schools around the world, I'm reminded how much they have to learn from the arts. These institutions largely grew out of engineering faculties and mostly still purvey an image of business that is mechanical and quasi-scientific. Many companies still treat people as widgets, fondly imagining that greasing the cogs with a little competition is all that's required to make them innovative and productive. It's no wonder they're disappointed. Chamber orchestras and theatre groups fully appreciate that no one succeeds unless everyone brings of their best, that it is from dependency that excellence flows.

The arts teach us how to work and to think better, if we're open to the lessons they contain. Art isn't something trivial, to fill the gap between leaving the office and going to bed. It can - if we let it - show us how to do everything we need to do better. Strengthening the social fabric and developing our capacity to communicate with one another, it is an essential source of all successful work. As I struggle to explain to executives and MBA students how to get smart people to work together, it is to the arts that I routinely point, because that's where the best examples are to be found. The old antithesis between art and business isn't just eroded; it's destructive.

I know there's an argument that the arts represent tremendous economic value and I agree; this is an area where Britain is a world leader, respected, envied and admired. But I do not believe that the only argument for a vigorous, rich and well-resourced arts culture is the vast amount of cash it brings into the exchequer.. Everything we do as humans - building businesses, making things, serving others - requires the skills that the arts teach, hone and inculcate. Practice of the arts gives us the endurance required to dig deep for new ideas, possibilities, talents and gifts in ourselves and each other. They take the best of us and make it better. At a time in our history when we're confused about what that might be, we cannot do without the means to find out.

Margaret Heffernan will be speaking at No Boundaries: A Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture in Bristol on 25 February 2014.