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Rhyme with reason: poetry at work

Boardroom bards say it hones creative communication and lends

When Roy Williams first started writing radio advertisements in his late teens in Tulsa, Okla., nobody could figure out what made them so gripping.

His secret? Poetry.

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Not that the ads rhymed. But hundreds of hours spent reading the verse of Robert Frost, he says, made the copy he wrote snappy and persuasive.

Now the head of his own advertising firm, Roy H. Williams Marketing, outside Austin, Texas, Mr. Williams has stocked the company's libraries with volumes of poetry to inspire his staff. And he advises others to do the same in his bestselling new book, "Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads" (Bard Press).

"[We] sit around and read poetry to add the flavor of it into our writing," Williams says of himself and his staff. "In the world of advertising we've become extremely successful ... by studying poetry."

Other corporate leaders are also picking up on the power of poetry. By reading verse, consultants are building teams with group readings and discussions, and executive coaches are softening high-strung managers.

Business schools and books are showcasing Shakespeare as an authority on management.

Rajat Gupta, worldwide managing director of McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, reads poetry at the semiannual gathering of the firm's 700 partners.

"Over time, poetry has affected what we're doing," Mr. Gupta has said. "Poetry helps us recognize that we face tough questions and that we seldom have perfect answers."

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Three books published this fall link Shakespeare to effective management skills: Two are entitled "Shakespeare on Management" (HarperBusiness and Kogan Page), the other "Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage" (Hyperion).

An enormously popular management course at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, "In Search of the Perfect Prince," debuted last year and revolves around Shakespeare's plays.

Students watch a video of, or read, each play and glean its lessons on leadership.

After seeing the Earl of Kent tell King Lear he was wrong to divide his kingdom, students discuss whether they would risk confronting their boss if they thought he or she had made a mistake.

Each play has its lessons. "We use "Richard II" to look at what happens when a CEO becomes too enamored with the perks and privileges of the position," says John Whitney, who teaches the course with Tina Packer, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass.

Shakespeare's use of language is as important as his messages, Professor Whitney says.

"We try to get students to be as crisp in their writing as Shakespeare was," he says. "He gets an idea across in very few words. That's what poets do."

Sharpening language is the most tangible influence that poetry has on businesspeople. It can help them find, for example, more creative metaphors.

"Much of what we get from business people is clichd language," says Jim Laughlin, management consultant at Linkage Inc. in Lexington, Mass.

"Attention to poetry and the study of it can be an important exercise for leaders," he says. "You don't want them to turn into poets, but to pay more attention to their communication, just like whitewater rafting builds reliance on a team."

Ellen Windgard, an executive coach affiliated with Linkage, often introduces poetry in weekly one-on-one sessions and with executive teams.

One client complained to her that his style scared people and he wanted to learn to come across as more sensitive. Together they read some poems on leadership and also looked at philosophy texts.

He reported back to her that he recently got a standing ovation after a company presentation and that co-workers had commented on his metamorphosis.

"Nobody hires me to read them poetry," Ms. Windgard says, but some clients take to it.

"Emotional intelligence is a desirable trait in leaders, and there's nothing closer to the emotional than poetry," she says. "It's the quickest way to ... being more human in the workplace."

One pioneer of using poetry to cleanse corporate jargon is David Whyte, a poet and author of "The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America" (Currency Doubleday).

He has worked with top management of major corporations like Boeing and AT&T and says he "can't keep up with the demand."

"My work is to make the conversation more real," Mr. Whyte says. "It's an abstract notion to say, 'Read poetry and it'll really help you out,' " he says. "I don't go in and say the answer is poetry. I say the answer is the imagination and a heartfelt presence in your work."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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