This post is adapted from a presentation given by Keri-Leigh Paschal, Executive Director of Nation Builder, at Nation Builder’s annual In Good Company Conference on 15 August 2019.
This year we have chosen to look at the art of business.
As most of you will know, the work of Nation Builder is to equip and inspire the business community to lead social change in South Africa and beyond. We work with both corporates and privately-owned businesses who are actively pursuing success and impact on both a financial and social level. As this ever-growing community of Nation Builder businesses navigate these seemingly different worlds, bringing them closer together and painting outside the lines that traditionally existed between financial gain and social impact — we as a team are privy to some incredible artworks. We see unconventional and unexpected ideas come to life as businesses and NPOs collaborate for the greater good, giving rise to beautiful solutions to complex problems.
As Andy Warhol put it, “Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art.”
Working with so many purpose-driven businesses, we can attest to this and have identified a few basic principles that form the basis of any “good” business artwork.
• Masterful Artwork is birthed from a deep conviction
Truly beautiful artwork is birthed out of an emotion or conviction of need, injustice, love or appreciation. This conviction takes the artist on a journey of discovery that peels away layers to give insight into the true essence of the subject matter. So many businesses find themselves staring at a blank canvas, not knowing where to begin. Today we will hear from peers on where they began — be it creatively crafting a redemptive culture, practically empowering the disempowered or investing in the future through quality education — each speaker has a personal story of how they embarked on their creative journey with a deep conviction that continues to invite them to continue on the road to greater understanding and insight. Ultimately, each of their works of art comes to life in an array of uniquely creative expressions.
While art is personal, it is also public and will always be subject to interpretation and criticism, which is why it is so important to know why you are — or are not — doing, so you can have the courage of your convictions and stay the course to keep working to ultimately paint your own masterpiece.
• Artists take risks
Art is risky — you are never sure of the exact outcome and whether it will be received well. Within the context of business, working with people and especially within social development, you can never predict what the outcome will be. So, to make an impact on society, we need to learn to be flexible and adaptable, and not to be resistant to change or new ways of doing things. We will be required to paint outside the lines (or even move the lines!) at times, to find new solutions to the complex issues our business and country face.
• Artworks are unique
No two original art-pieces are the same, even if painted by the same artist, with the same medium, in a similar time and context. This is true for business; each business’s approach to being a force for good is different. They use what they have at their disposal (be it time, money, staff, products etc.) within the context they find themselves in to craft their artwork. Just as artists will select their medium and tools depending on the desired outcomes of contrast, texture, turn-around time and mood, so a business leader must use their tools to craft their desired outcome.
• Art takes perseverance
An artist may be born with talents and gifts, but their excellence is shaped through hours of refining their work, experimentation, learning from the ‘greats’ that went before and persevering when morale is low. Using one’s business as a force for good is no different. Every attempt will not be a success; you will learn many valuable lessons along the way, and you will get better at it the more you give time to it. There are many ‘greats’ who have gone before you who from whom you can learn, and when morale is low — don’t give up — those are the moments that true beauty is distilled.
• Good collaboration makes for powerful art
Long-term social impact and business are underpinned by one key ingredient — collaboration or true partnership. A limited amount of impact can be achieved when working in isolation. Yet in collaboration, exponential beauty and impact is realised. Art is a coming together of competing colours, light and space. These contrasting element struggle for dominance and when one overpowers the other or has no consideration for the other, the artwork lacks harmony and balance. When these elements (say, colour) are in balance, they complement one another to create a harmonious image and artwork. It is therefore essential in both art and business to embrace collaboration at different levels and stages to ensure a powerful impact and timeless art.
So today you will hear about where to begin on your blank canvas, what mediums others have used, how they have painted outside the lines and connected the dots with others to create harmonious and beautiful art.
But what does this art accomplish in business?
Well, art build bridges. It brings different worlds together and finds a way for these to coexist and flourish. It brings people together and creates a commonality and human connection that fosters cohesion and unity. It finds ways to share in the experiences, relationships, networks and knowledge to enrich society at large. Art is dialogue ….!
Art brings life to barren places. It brings colour where there is darkness, it brings joy, a resonance and restores dignity to those who have forgotten that those words even exits. Art reminds us of our fragile humanity and reignites a passion to care for one another.
Art stimulates innovation. Taking risks, pushing the boundaries and trying new approaches ensures a culture of innovation — it prevents stagnation and redundancy.
Creativity is not limited to traditional art mediums… each industry requires creativity to looking at things differently to find new and better ways of engaging in business and with society.
Art inspires and challenges others. An artist’s ultimate joy is when their art moves people, shifts perceptions, makes others act or speak out. Artful business inspires others to give it a try, start somewhere, take risks and be courageous enough to try to shape society through one of the most powerful vehicles, business.
As Robert F Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work towards changing a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief the humankind is shaped”.
So today we celebrate the countless acts of courage, conviction and change that are shaping our history and we encourage everyone in this room and streaming across the country, to make your organization an art form and together shape our nation into a masterpiece.
Keri-Leigh is the Executive Director and co-founder of Nation Builder, an independent trust launched in 2008 that works to empower both for-profit and non-profit entities in their social impact endeavours. The Nation Builder platforms take many forms and emphasise cross-sector collaborative partnerships, peer-learning and knowledge sharing. In 2018 alone, 39 Nation Builder events took place across South Africa, working with companies with a combined social investment spend of over R500 million.