The Hollywood Guide to Better Business

Hollywood guide to better business

You can never afford to stop learning in business, but where do you go to get cutting edge insight into effective negotiation, team building or entrepreneurship? Do you really need to invest time and money in an MBA program? Or should you just grab a Coke and a bucket of popcorn and head for the movies?

While the latest Tom Cruise franchise of ‘Mission: Impossible’ is a slick lesson in marketing and product placement, the Brad Pitt portrayal of the Oakland A’s general manager in ‘Moneyball’ shows how strategic decision making and staff performance can be reduced to some astute number crunching by your IT team.

Given the mood of the times, the return of Gordon Gecko to our screens in Wall Street 2 was unlikely to assert that greed is good as he did in the first film, but don’t expect him to be signing up to the Harvard oath of ethical behaviour any day soon. However watching the Gecko in action doesn’t really tell you much more than how to get on the fast track to a federal penitentiary. To find the really effective teachers you need to look in slightly less obvious places…

Want guidance on how to negotiate the best deal, for example? Watch Don Corleone use a beautiful mix of subtlety and steel in ‘The Godfather’ as he talks his way out of the corner the other crime families have backed him into. Notice in particular his insistence on team solidarity at all times, reinforced by slapping heir apparent, Sonny, around the face when he steps out of line. Or for simple steel you could opt for the new Don, Michael, taking a strong line with a difficult senator (although it’s perhaps best not to try framing your opposite number with murder as a matter of day to day business policy).

In fact once you get away from obviously business oriented films like Glengarry Glenn Ross, Citizen Kane and even The Devil Wears Prada, cinema can pretty much show you how to get anything done. Need to shape a team from scratch to tackle a formidable challenge? Then shave your head and dress like Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. Looking for tips on how to make best use of radically new technology within a restricting corporate environment? Why not consult billionaire magnate, Tony Stark, for the cost of renting ‘Iron Man’ from your local DVD store.

Of course the problem about doing this on your own is that it can be all too easy to get carried away. You catch one too many screening of ‘Casino’ and the next thing you know you’ve put the head of your client in a vice because he won’t sign a new contract. Wait to be rapidly invited to clear your desk and vacate the building. So it may come as welcome news that guidance is now on hand from academics at some of the world’s top business schools.

The Harvard Business School, for example, has decided that classic films can teach almost as much as a traditional case study. Professor of Management Practice, Michael A. Wheeler, uses the courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men, to teach effective negotiation strategies looking at how the main character played by Henry Fonda, gets his way by avoiding open conflict, building alliances and picking off opponents one by one.

At the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Europe, Professor Marc Buelens puts his MBA students through an even more dramatic cinematic experience with a course based around the Tom Hanks film, Apollo 13. Buelens shows how Gene Kranz, the flight director on the mission played by Ed Harris, assembled and managed a team which achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing the stricken spacecraft and three highly paid actors home safely. “The movie shows how leadership and decision making interplay with each other,” he says. “Kranz moves from pure rationality, clinically analysing what the problem is and what has caused it to motivating the team through emotional intelligence, focusing everyone on the single goal of saving the crew.” The film also demonstrates how powerful language can be as a leadership tool. No-one who has heard Ed Harris proclaiming that failure is not an option is likely to forget it in a hurry. Not bad for embedding a lesson in students’ minds.

In Australia the Melbourne Business School also employs fact-based movies as teaching aids. One of its professors uses the film Cool Runnings about the Jamaican Olympic bobsleigh attempt to illustrate what can be achieved with few resources, whilst another shows the power of collective bargaining through the WW2 classic, Bridge on the River Kwai. However some of its academics have abandoned cinema verite altogether to get students thinking well and truly outside the box. Bladerunner, The Bourne Identity and even the animated film, Chicken Run, have all been used to get creative juices flowing on campus.

Whether shrinking attention spans will undermine the use of lengthy movies remains to be seen. Perhaps the next development will be to learn business lessons from TV. The Apprentice and HBO’s How To Make It In America would be obvious candidates, although those preferring a more aggressive approach might prefer one of the station’s earlier hits, The Sopranos. And if you just can’t wait to get the job done and believe that delegating is for wimps there’s always 24. Jack Bauer as corporate CEO?

Let’s face it, there’s nothing that man can’t achieve, and he’ll only need one day to do it.

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