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Ryan Starr

Street performers


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There's something oddly entertaining--yet a bit unnerving--about an ensemble of 50 middle-aged men belting out a cappella show tunes and dancing in perfectly choreographed step. But while their perma-grins alone could turn Ronald McDonald sick with envy, Toronto's MegaCity Chorus is nothing to laugh at. Believe it or not, this group of barbershop singers could teach you a trick or two about managing your business. "I think businesses would be a whole lot better if their people used this chorus as an example," says MegaCity performer Michael Stern. He should know: Stern's not only a three-year member, he's also the CEO of Michael Stern Associates Inc., a Toronto-based executive search firm. "It's a wonderful combination of teamwork, focused objectives--and having fun."

Tonight, like every Monday, this motley crew-- a few managers, some construction workers, even an auctioneer--gather at an east-end community centre to rehearse. Their mission: a little dance, plenty of song, and oodles of vaudevillian camp. (Think West Side Story meets the Nylons, add a splash of Eddie Cantor, and you get a pretty good sense of the show.) The boys call it "barbershopping," but there ain't no straw hats or candy-striped vests here. There is, mind you, a fair bit of electricity in the air. At various points during the rehearsal, two guys on opposite ends of the risers wage a vigorous battle over who gets to sound the electronic tuner for the group (effectively asserting concertmaster status).

Their zeal is forgivable; these merry minstrels are seriously devoted to their craft. They're not alone--there's actually a Society for the Preservation & Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA, for short), which boasts more than 32,000 members across the continent. The MegaCity Chorus began in late 1997 and these days is a driving force in the barbershop community. But the fellas aren't just whistling "Dixie." For those who do business by day, the chorus is like a mini-management seminar swathed in four-part harmony.

Control freaks be warned: in barbershopping you have to play well with others. You may like to sing your own tune, but fail to listen and things can get pretty hairy. "There's so much in the chorus with regards to having common goals and bringing everyone together as a team," says MegaCity lead singer Dave Dodds, a marketing manager at DaimlerChrysler. "Working with guys who have totally different lives than me and being able to relate--you can use that in the business world for sure."

Power-trippers also take note: your slavish obsession with hierarchy isn't welcome 'round these parts, either. With MegaCity, bossy isn't better. "It's really the commitment to the objective and the fun that keeps people coming back," says Stern. "Just like in business, the feeling that my contribution is really important is what will keep me here, just like it will keep me working in the office at midnight."

It's a stretch, but perhaps if more corporate types got hip to this hobby, there might not be so many tedious team building sessions or nagging efficiency experts at work--or, for that matter, so many lame assertiveness training seminars. After all, enthusiasts say, there's nothing better than barbershopping to quell performance anxiety in boardroom bumblers. "The chorus develops confidence in being able to stand up in front of an audience and get your message across," says crooner Tony Martino, vice-president of human resources at Xerox Canada Ltd. "You're doing the same thing when you're in front of a group of customers pitching an important proposal. You're telling them a story."

In either case, you'd better hope they like what they hear.


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