Rehearsing to be an entrepreneur

Some of the most successful are sullen, near-teenage misfits in T-shirts and sneakers
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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE A job description that calls for creativity, flexibility, good team-working and networking skills, and the ability to make leaps of imagination that transcend cultural boundaries. It would call for a training in accountancy, of course, or perhaps a Master of Business Administration degree - not. Yet this is the mismatch between what it takes for business success in the modern economy, and the training we give our future business leaders.

Just think about the language we use to describe the way business is changing. Wealth-creation is what successful companies do. The economy, thanks to changes in technology, is undergoing a wave of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction, with old industries dying and exciting new ones being born. That C-word crops up all the time.

It is so ubiquitous, in fact, that business people have started to pay nervous lip-service to it. It is hard to miss the fact that some of the most spectacularly successful entrepreneurs are sullen, near-teenage misfits shunning the regulation suit and tie for T-shirt and sneakers. Whatever they have that makes them worth millions of dollars, it is not a Harvard or Stanford MBA. They hire a finance director with one of those, to deal with the bits of the business that are not creating wealth.

No, the star entrepreneurs have something really essential in what people trained as accountants like to tame by describing it as the "knowledge- driven" economy. They may have knowledge, certainly; true knowledge about gene technology, computer science or linguistics. More important still, they have a kind of wisdom that has been learnt through experience rather than in the classroom. And they have creativity.

No less an eminence than Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, has started to emphasise the importance of creativity and the higher skills of civilisation. In a speech to this year's graduating class of students at Harvard University, he opined: "Viewing a great painting or listening to a profoundly moving piano concerto produces a sense of intellectual joy that is satisfying in and of itself. But, arguably, it also enhances and reinforces the conceptual processes so essential to innovation."

He was spelling out the merits of the classical liberal education to which his audience had successfully subjected themselves. That, rather than vocational training with narrow horizons, is what post-industrial societies must ensure their schools deliver. But what about all those would-be businessmen and women who have put themselves through the higher- level vocational training of accountancy and business qualifications?

The London International Festival of Theatre (Lift) has one answer. It has started a business-arts forum in which senior managers meet with young theatre groups. Julia Rowntree, its organiser, argues that the theatre's traditional role as a place for all sorts of people to come together and be challenged in their ideas and emotions makes the forum a powerful vehicle for prodding managers into creativity. Piers Ibbotson, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, recently told the London Business School much the same thing. Running a complex organism like a business was similar to the experience of rehearsal, he said.

Theatre is a compelling model for wealth-creators. It demands ensemble working as much as individual genius, encourages in its participants flexibility of character, and fosters powers of imaginative understanding. In the modern globalised world, business executives need to be able to make cultural leaps to operate in countries across the world. What makes it easier to do business in Asia - an accountancy degree, or some cross- cultural experience? That's a trick question; the answer is both.

There has always been a need for creative skills, and it has always been the case that some of the best entrepreneurs have not had conventional business training. But it is more important now, when the way economic value is created is changing so much. Information technologies have altered the wealth-creation process fundamentally, by putting a much greater premium on higher-order cognitive skills, on the manipulation of symbols and on ideas and emotions. IT has made creativity the principal component in wealth-creation.

Economic success also depends increasingly on other strengths in a society. Economists and sociologists call it social capital, the jargon for a healthy and vibrant civil society. The legal system, traditions of tolerance and quality of schooling are part of that. So, too, are the arts; thriving business depends on the theatre in more ways than one.