Creating a World Class Culture: Burn the Floor

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By Mike Conway, CEO & Founder of XVenture

On a rare occasion in business life, you get the chance to participate in something unique and special. For the XVenture team, this happened in the first half of this year. Our business focus is working with people to help them be the best they can be so we are in the fortunate situation of constantly seeing people grow, develop and improve more than they could ever imagine. Working life has also taken me to all corners of the globe and from this, I have had the benefit of observing many great, good and poor leadership, team interaction and non-interaction and organization cultures.

It's well documented that a strong culture can have a significant impact on performance when compared to 'unremarkable competitors.' (James L Heskett: (The Culture Cycle: how to shape the unforeseen force that transforms performance. FT Press 2012). However, it's difficult to imagine that I would find one of the great examples and contemporary models of organizational culture in a ballroom dance show. This isn't 'Dancing With The Stars', or 'So You Think You Can Dance', or 'Strictly Ballroom'. It's a brand that's been around longer, taking it's origins from Elton John's 50th birthday party when Harley Medcalf saw a group of young dancers captivating all the party goers. 'Burn the Floor' was born. Together with World Champions Jason Gilkison (now known as one of the World's great choreographers and TV judges in ballroom dancing) and Peta Roby, Harley has quietly created a dance company that is without doubt the World's great ballroom dance company.

Tasked with creating a documentary about Burn the Floor, I travelled with the XVenture team from January to April this year, interviewing and filming every element of Burn the Floor: staging; rehearsals; planning; preparation; scheduling; performance; expert observers; fans and the stars of the show, past and present. On locations across the World: Los Angeles, Miami, the Caribbean, New York, London, Perth and Sydney.

Much has been written about culture, particularly in the last three decades: Handy; Johnson; Deal & Kennedy; Kotter; Hofsted; Schein; Harris; Senge; Peters and many others have all contributed to the subject. Most recently John Coleman wrote an excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review blog network in 2013 on organisational culture. This provides a useful template for a commentary on Burn the Floor. (http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/05/six-components-of-culture/)

Coleman observes six 'common components of great cultures': Vision, values, practices, people, narrative, and place.

Vision - This guides a company values 'and orients every decision employees make'.

Burn the Floor set out to provide the best dancers in the world a place to show their art. From the outset, Harley committed to only the best. His first action? Bring into the fold the World champion ballroom dancing pair, Jason Gilkison and Peta Roby. Setting the bar at the highest possible level has been a fundamental element of Burn the Floor culture.

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Values - The core of an organisation's culture, setting out the guidelines for attitudes and behaviours of how employees treat each other, their partners, suppliers and clients.

Burn the Floor has set out to provide a home for World Class dancers. The Company is called a 'family', with the focus on making Burn the Floor the very best in the World. The Company's show sets the standard. The run on Broadway of over 190 shows is still legendary, not necessarily by the number of shows which is considerable, but by the energy and intensity of performance. Every dancer has to be able to achieve the same level of performance at every show, on every occasion. Not even being a world champion can guarantee the physical and mental toughness required to cope with the regime.

When we interviewed past and present dancers to confirm if the values that had been set by the Company's principals had been embraced, there was 100% connectivity. Language, emotion and experience of each were so consistent. As significant as this, were our interviews with several of Burn the Floor's key partners, expert observers and fans. Absolute clarity on what Burn the Floor represents and presents was consistent amongst everyone we spoke to.

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Practices - This is where the values are translated into specific practices and procedures. 'If an organization values 'flat' hierarchy, it must encourage more junior team members to dissent in discussions without fear or negative repercussions.'

Critical to the success of Burn the Floor is the belief that the show and the delivery of the show is greater than any one dancer. Big named dancers known on TV's biggest shows around the World often spent a number of years with Burn the Floor prior to their TV careers. 'Dancing with the Stars' judge and dancer, Kym Johnson started with Burn the Floor. As did US 'Dancing with the Stars' Peta Murgatroyd, Sasha Farber and Sharna Burgess. BBC 'Strictly Come Dancing Stars', Kevin Clifton, Joanne Hauer, Robin Clifton, Janette Manrara and Alijaz Skorjenac have all been with Burn the Floor prior to their tv celebrity status. As has Australian 'Dancing with the Stars' performers Jessica Raffa, Ash-Leigh Hunter and Trent Whiddon.

To be a Burn the Floor dancer requires an acceptance and commitment to practicing to perfection; of twelve hour rehearsal days sometimes even on show days; of long busy touring schedules and shows that are more arduous than a two hour high-intensity workout.

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People - The people employed need to embrace the values of the business fully and hence the choice of people is absolutely paramount.

Burn the Floor only recruits the World's best. Most of the dancers who are offered contracts have either been national or World champions in ballroom dancing but have also proven their work ethic, dedication, and commitment to their art and have got the attitude and spirit to work in a team rather than as an individual. They have to be flexible enough to travel and perform often for weeks at a time in different parts of the World. Despite each performer being at the elite level, they are all grounded and level- headed with a 'low ego'. Sometimes they could be living with little down time and personal space. All the performers need to have the highest levels of physical fitness and mental toughness to survive.

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Narrative - Every organization has a unique history and story. Unearthing this and delivering this is fundamental to the creation and continuity of culture.

The Burn the Floor story is very much connected to its culture. Every dancer knows that Harley Medcalf started the organization to provide a platform for the greatest dancers to be seen. In the next year, Burn the Floor will play to somewhere around 750 thousand people. The narrative is so important to the culture that Harley commissioned a special documentary connecting the story to the dancers from past and present. The process was fascinating with the doors thrown open with no holds barred. Such a positive outpouring of support and belief in the Company was seen at first hand. This documentary, released firstly in Japan in May 2014, is now given to every new member of the Company as a source of how the culture and organization are shaped.

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Place - Place certainly shapes culture. Financial sectors live and breathe in New York and London, and tech organisations reside in the thousands in Silicon Valley.

Burn the Floor's home since its inception is wherever the audience is. On the stage at: Broadway, the West End, Korea, Japan and Australia. Wherever that stage is, is where Burn the Floor resides. Providing a location for the greatest dancers in the World to be seen performing their art form at the highest possible level.

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(Acknowledgement: J Coleman HBR blog May 2013)

By Mike Conway Founder and CEO of XVenture © 2014

Burn the Floor provides a fantastic model in creating a World Class culture. The documentary will soon be available for release globally. You can register your interest at www.burnthefloor.com

Feel free to make contact with the author: to discuss this article or any other matter relating to XVenture: mike@xventure.com.au

http://www.xventure.com.au


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