Centres of Excellence

A Visual Dialogue created by workshop participants

Over the past couple of years, I have been invited by some of the most successful companies in the world including BASF, DELL, and INTEL, to introduce the arts as a catalyst for developing creativity, leadership and innovation. This experience has given me some insights on the leadership qualities that create a culture of excellence in an organization.

My experience has been with specific business units of these global organizations, and I would describe these units as centers of excellence with an entrepreneurial appetite for creativity, innovation and the willingness to try something new.

The leaders who run these business units, track what’s on the leading edge, and invite “best of breed” to learn from. This approach, combined with sufficient resources, and sound management practices, contributes to creating a culture that fosters innovation as well as excellence in business performance.

Why is business interested in arts-based learning?

Being a leader in the 21st century requires creativity, artistry, empathy and the ability to cope with complexity. Executive leaders know they cannot rely solely on logic, analysis and problem-solving skills. These are crucial but insufficient if the goal is to innovate and compete on value rather than price.  Executives charged with producing continuous high-value innovation must also develop the emotional and cultural intelligence to bridge cultural divides and achieve optimal sustainable results –without exploiting people—or the planet.

We need more humanity and fewer algorithms.

One of the best ways to develop emotional intelligence and empathy is through the arts because the arts awaken us to our humanity. (Technology can make us forget.) I like to pose BIG questions and challenge groups to answer non-verbally (at first) with clay or paint, to access aesthetic ways of knowing and creative insights. Image-making, sculpting and storytelling help people experience the art and craft of creating.

For example, I might ask what a centre of excellence looks like, and the abstract painting above, done by ‘non-artists’ in dialogue with each other might be the response. Art experiences provide insights into resolving real-world business challenges and give people the courage to venture into the unknown.

As organizations worldwide experience the value of arts-based learning, the arts are being incorporated into training curricula and integrated within organizational cultures. A simple example is to adopt theatre improv rules: Build on the ideas of others by responding with a ‘yes and’ rather than with a  ‘yes but;’ listen as well as talk, and play team-win. These rules are easy to learn and very popular with my clients, who say they listen better and pay more attention to each other.

How does arts-based learning apply in cross-cultural global situations?

Now that I have engaged leaders and their teams in arts-based learning, from every continent around the world, I can say that the arts transcend cultural differences and bring people together. When we communicate non-verbally through music, or visual imagery, and discover our shared values, we are more likely to trust each other. Art is a universal language that empowers creative conversations, invites multiple perspectives, and helps people overcome cultural boundaries.

This year I worked in China for the first time. I was mindful about some of the beliefs Westerners have about working with the Chinese, and after seeing The Trouble with Experts, a documentary by Josh Freed, about how wrong experts can be,  I took great care in checking assumptions directly with my clients. I’m glad I did because what is true generally in a country may not be true for a business unit.

I worked with a group of 60 scientists facilitating idea generation sessions designed to seed ideas for new product development. By way of introducing creativity as a prelude to innovation, I gave the group a three-hour whole-brain workout, using art and improv, along with design-thinking frameworks. A colleague led them through a musical process involving composing. These activities were all designed to stimulate imagination and prepare the way for conceptualizing new product inventions.

At the end of the session I invited everyone to ask questions, and one person after another took the mike to speak. So many people had questions and comments we went overtime. Their boss was astounded because normally the group is reluctant to speak up in a large group. I believe the arts helped them relax with each other, laugh together and open up.

Ditching PowerPoint

The more I integrate the arts in leadership training the less I use PowerPoint. When introduced a seminar by saying we were now in a PowerPoint-free zone, the entire audience clapped! It’s clear people have PowerPoint fatigue.


I had an opportunity to experiment with arts-based learning and technology at a corporate global learning centre in New York. It was the first time I’ve been asked by a client to experiment with her and it was so refreshing not to worry about a perfect outcome. We could take a playful and experimental approach to learning — which is what learning should be when we are charting a new course.

Inspiring Excellence

A global technology company invited me to be on a team of experts for a leadership development project. The process was both a challenge and a pleasure; a challenge because of the scope and complexity of the project, and a pleasure, because the client inspired excellence in everyone on our team. He knew when to lead, follow and get out of the way. He provided the resources we needed, a sense of humour and encouragement. We felt comfortable strategizing, contributing ideas and opinions, and questioning everything. We could speak our truth without having to second-guess others or tiptoe around politics. We also had a team lead who was adept at mining the gold within our team, coaxing out brilliance and weaving together our individual narratives into a cohesive whole.

In cultures where it is the norm for managers to tell people what to do and how to do it, I challenge people to lead by asking questions. I’ve had young managers resist this idea; because they think asking questions would make them sound stupid. Not true. It’s much harder to ask a compelling question than to give an answer. What is a powerful question? It’s one that causes you to consider a perspective outside the norm, and one you don’t know the answer to.

Within cultures of excellence, leaders create the conditions for people to do their best work. The best leaders are good listeners. Not only do they call upon the expertise of their employees (that’s why they got hired, right?) they also acknowledge input and consider employee suggestions. When the group is invited to help find a solution or participate in co-creating the future, you create a dynamic and engaged workforce.

As Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE has said,

The best companies know, without a doubt, where the real productivity comes from. It comes from challenged, empowered, excited, rewarded teams of people. It comes from engaging every single mind in the organization, making everyone part of the action, and allowing everyone to have a voice in the success of the enterprise.

The arts play vital roles in helping us find our authentic voice and remembering who we are as human beings. People trust and respect leaders who show their humanity and I believe when we are in touch with our humanity, we envision better futures and make wiser decisions. I also believe that the purpose of any business innovation, beyond making a profit, is to improve the quality of life.

So, please, make your life and work a work of art.