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Just a song at twilight

Observations on team-building

Now I love a bit of gospel as much as the next bathroom diva, but I wasn't expecting it from 20 besuited City executives when I turned up recently in London's Berkeley Square one evening to witness the newest thing in management training techniques.

There they were, a motley crew of lawyers, consultants, investors and PAs, arranged in seven little groups, swaying their hips and belting out spirituals to the beat of a West African djembe drum.

"Singing is very powerful as a team-building exercise," says Susan Digby of, the company running the show. "Everyone is levelled to the same starting point and feels part of a team. If you fail, the group fails. If you do well, the group does well. And if, as a result of that bonding, shares go up, or a company outperforms another, that's great."

Team-building is a lead feature of the summer season for big companies. But forget paintballing or adventure weekends kayaking in the Lake District; the new corporate bonding exercise involves vocal chords and stage fright, not mud and fatigues. Lovells, BP and Allen & Overy are among the corporate converts, ditching running for humming when it comes to management workouts.

"The process is very confidence-building," says Digby. "Eight out of ten people think they can't sing, are fearful and sceptical. But within an hour, I have them performing seven-part harmonies."

One of the newest recruits is Louis Elson, managing partner of Palamon Capital Partners, there in sober pinstripe and with E1.1bn under his management. Claiming he is usually so bad at singing that his children try to jump out of moving cars when he attempts a vocal flourish, he was surprised and delighted that a group of total strangers "produced a very exciting and not far short of seamless performance".

His summer's main staff event has already been and gone - a sports day featuring volleyball inside a bouncy castle (yes, inside a bouncy castle) and clay-pigeon shooting. Last year's was a trip to a theme park, where the roller coasters were so frightening that many didn't dare go. And that's exactly why Digby rates upbeat tunes over competitive sports for encouraging team spirit.

"People are getting sceptical of outdoor training," she says. "Competitive sports are not inclusive. People who can't do them hate it. It's not good enough to reach 80 per cent. It's got to be 100 per cent."

What the execs might not know, however, is that this unlocking of their inner Julie Andrews came about from teaching unruly children. Digby started putting her choral skills to good use back in 1993, when she set up an educational music charity called the Voices Foundation. That proved highly successful, and taught her a lesson: "It boosted communication, listening, respect for peers. It bonded staff and everyone learned new skills together."

As for Elson, he's considering abandoning sports days for singing sessions. Beneath it all, the suits and other office alpha-types need just as much reassurance as the rest of us. Where better to find that than in the shared responsibility of carrying a tune?

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world