It's nine a.m. on a weekday in midtown Manhattan. I'm at work, but not at my desk. I'm surrounded by hundreds of women—each of us with handmade djembe drums between our knees, beating out intricate rhythms, while one member of the group performs an impromptu and unchoreographed tribal dance in front of us all. I haven't even had a cup of coffee yet.
And no, I haven't chucked my career in journalism to audition for The Lion King. This was a corporate teambuilding event, held in July as part of Working Mother Media's third annual Multicultural Conference. New York City-based Working Mother Media, which compiles a prestigious list of the 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers, has also put together a list of the Best Companies for Women of Color. This year's winners, highlighted at the conference, were Allstate, American Express, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, JP Morgan Chase, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and IBM, which sponsored the event that kicked off the 2005 conference.
The theme of the conference was "Trust: A Business and Cultural Imperative." Event organizers enlisted the Drum Cafe, a teambuilding company with troupes around the world, including this New York City-based group, to create the "Sounds of Trust" event to reinforce the theme, according to Working Mother Media's director of conferences, Luci Knight. "I thought that it [the Drum Cafe] was a very good metaphor—these are women from very diverse backgrounds who come in with their own backgrounds and their own expectations and they leave having all had the same experience. It is especially important with this year's theme of trust," says Knight. Attendees "had to trust each other—to play as a group, and that they wouldn't look silly."
Executives also had to trust Knight that the idea was a good one. "I had a tough time selling it at first," Knight admits. "I had to say, 'Trust me!' " But once IBM came on board as a sponsor of the event, it was smooth sailing.
Knight's eagerness is what helped make the idea a reality. "Working Mother saw this as a wonderful and engaging opportunity for the conference attendees and after hearing [Working Mother's] enthusiasm, we were anxious to see it come to fruition," says Marilyn Johnson, vice president of market development for IBM, based in Armonk, NY. "After seeing the group in action and the audience response, we were thrilled with our decision to be a sponsor."
Small Sounds, Big Impact
"Each drum is as unique as you are," says Aviva Nash, Drum Cafe director, to the audience about the handmade drums set before each participant. No two are alike and the craftsmanship is startling; the drums are made out of goatskin and tropical wood and come from Ghana, according to Nash.
Drums have historically been used as communication tools before battle, in celebration, and to bring people together; for professionals, "Nonverbal communication levels the playing field," says Nash, because it doesn't matter what corporate level someone has reached, or what other distinguishing trait different people have.
During the course of the event, Nash hands out a number of other percussion instruments (tambourines, finger chimes, and wooden "frogs," among others) to show what an impact a little bit of something different can make. Nash likens the percussion to individual voices within a company and how much weight each can carry.
"When we included the other percussion instruments, those distinct voices also melded in with the team, but did not lose their unique identity," says Johnson. "The key message is: We all share some common characteristics, but even when we all come together, our unique voices can still be heard and can add to the beauty of what we produce together."
The attendees were pleasantly surprised by their collective talent; the post-event attendee comments were the kind planners dream of: "I feel so motivated!" "Boy, we're going to have a good day today!"
"You would think that when we hand out the tambourines and tell people to come to the front they'd say, 'No way; there's no way,' " says Nash. "But you'd be surprised. Because we have time limits, we have to beg for the tambourines back. People go crazy. And at the most conservative companies—insurance companies, financials, pharmaceutical companies—it's a big release for them. They just dance and have a fabulous time."
"It was great to be in the audience and see all of the attendees come together as a team of percussionists," says Johnson. "I was personally so proud that IBM sponsored the conference and the drumming session. I know that my 30 other IBM colleagues shared in these sentiments and from what I observed, so did the hundreds of other conference attendees!"
Though participants often start out awkward, unsure, and a bit disorganized, within moments everyone has the basics down. "What happens is, even if you're not rhythmic, you become rhythmic by the power of the group," Nash explains.
Get into the Groove
During the session, the Drum Cafe facilitators first drum by themselves, then everyone drums together to show collaborative teamwork. The professionals then drop out so it is just the audience; finally Nash has the audience "facilitating each other's success," which involves clapping patterns.
According to Nash, an event like the Drum Cafe works because it takes people out of the work mindset. "It's quite the opposite of the general office environment where rational, analytical thought dominates our thinking. What we're doing is switching off the rational, analytical mind and working on a deeper level—working on communication and listening skills."
"When we leave the audience alone, it's so empowering for them. They cannot believe that this is them," says Nash. "Once you're cohesive, and once you're listening, you can do anything. This was demonstrated well with call-and-response rhythms. If I'd sat down with one person and gone 'baddrrrup-baddrrrup-baddrrrup-bup-bah,' that person probably would have turned around and left the room. But with a group of people, we're doing it together and everyone's perfect. It's all about developing the group dynamic."
Nash believes in working closely with the objectives of a program and she deftly incorporates the theme of the conference into much of her teambuilding activity. As she explains, "As long as we have parameters we can go wild. Without parameters we're all over the place."
Attendees took to the message. Kathie Nelson, an attendee who works for Omaha, NE-based Union Pacific, comments, "I really got a lot out of it. The different voices; how to listen. [I] can use this in my work."
Nash explains that her teambuilding sessions often include two-minute performances from individual Drum Cafe members in which they demonstrate "high-performance teaming," wherein "just by listening to each other and by keeping integrity to the base beat, they can play their own intricate rhythms, but together, make incredible music," says Nash.
"And then the people realize that in their professional lives, they're doing the same thing," she continues. "That as long as they keep integrity to their parameters, which is generally their company mission, and they're listening to each other, then they can innovate, they can be creative, they can express themselves, they can play their own very intricate rhythm, and together they will make incredible magic."