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Love, Music and Morale at IASA

One of the things that made the IASA keynote presentation of the Pike Place Fishmongers so endearing was that their story was largely about the suppression of ego in the service of the greater good, and how that breeds interpersonal harmony and success.

To call a performance "note perfect" is by no means a compliment: instrumental virtuosity without musical soul is pointless. However, one expects a reasonable degree of accuracy, phrasing and intonation from professionals. In this respect, the opening ceremony of this year's IASA Educational Conference & Business Show hit some false notes, both literally and metaphorically. However, it also delivered some beautiful music, both literally - in the form of some outstanding student performances - and figuratively, through the keynote lessons on morale from the fishmongers of the Pike Place Fish Market.In the spirit of last year's contributions to Sew Much Comfort, a group that provides adaptive clothing to injured service men, the IASA presented a contribution to the Music For Life Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps students who obtain musical instruments and instruction who otherwise could not afford those opportunities. Unfortunately, some of the music wasn't so beautiful. As part of the IASA's relationship with the group, student ensembles have been scheduled to perform at various times and places during the conference. One might expect that insurance professionals would be alive to the risks of such an undertaking but goodwill may have gotten the better of prudence in this case.

The idea of having students perform is a questionable one, depending on the available raw materials and their judicious deployment. In the case of the welcoming reception on Sunday evening, the results were fortunate. A very capable jazz ensemble livened up the atrium outside the main exhibit hall as attendees filed in. However, a jazz ensemble casually placed is one thing, a string quartet under a spotlight quite another.

As I ambled into the ballroom for the opening ceremony I felt a certain unease, caused by an unpleasant sound resembling a soundtrack slightly out of phase with a movie. I was surprised to see that the sounds emanated from a live string quartet - surprised, that is, until I remembered the IASA's relationship with Music for Life. While I wish these promising young musicians every encouragement, their competence was not up to the occasion. The imperfections of their tuning and technique seemed exaggerated to the extent one expected a certain standard for such an event.

Things went much better with a solo performance of "God Bless America" by a young lady with a lovely voice and an impeccable ear. Her sensitivity was such that even the imperfections of her performance added musical interest. Her nervousness gave her unwavering voice a pleasantly restrained quality and limited her use of those self-indulgent flourishes on the big notes that tend to mar the performances of anthem singers these days. Also, when she stopped before the song's characteristic final repeat, it seemed a deliberate expression of the singer's modesty rather than the product of stage fright.

The sublimity of her performance was contrasted by the choice of music for the entrance of IASA president and master of ceremonies, John Bauer. Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra (commonly known as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey") would have been grandiose for Jack Bauer of "24," let alone John Bauer of Prudential Financial. I had to wonder whether Mr. Bauer's friends on the management committee chose the theme as a practical joke.

Mr. Bauer did a creditable job, lending dignity to the occasion. My only quibble was with his inclusion of references to his own aspirations and accomplishments. Those things are better left to others. But I don't blame him: self-reference is the spirit of the age. A similar fault crept into the anthem singer's performance in the form of the Mariah Carey-like flourishes she put on the big notes.

One of the things that made the keynote presentation of the Pike Place Fishmongers so endearing was that their story was largely about the suppression of ego in the service of the greater good, and how that breeds interpersonal harmony and success.

The story began with Pike Place Fishowner John Yokoyama's commitment to convert from disliking his employees to loving them, on the advice of Jim Berquist of bizFutures Consulting. That change on the part of Mr. Yokoyama inspired the stellar work ethic of the working fishmongers who famously interact with both customers and workmates in a playful, highly motivated manner.

The reciprocity between managers and managed has helped Pike Place Fish to become world famous - the implausible object of a company vision suggested by an employee some years ago. The fishmongers have a music all their own, not entirely different from the improvisational interaction of the jazz ensemble of Sunday night. It has its own tone or mood, where an ethos of contribution eclipses the prevailing sense of entitlement.

Outside, on Pike Street, a robust young man begged for handouts, apparently without shame that he failed to shift for himself, let alone work in the company of others for the benefit of all (though he seemed uncomfortable when an IASA exhibitor later questioned why he was thus unemployed). But inside the convention center, IASA attendees enjoyed the spectacle of young men relishing their employment, humble by mercenary standards but rich in joy and team pride.

Nobody's perfect, of course, and the fishmongers showed their vulnerability to the fatuities of the age when articulating their next great vision: achieving world peace, as an idea whose time has come. Hearing that voiced by one of the enthusiastic young fishmongers, I clapped along with everybody else. Who can't clap in favor of world peace? However, I couldn't help noticing the phrase's similarity to Neville Chamberlain's notorious vision of "peace in our time." Nor could I help musing that perhaps the naivete of the vision might be more apparent if one attempted to visualize the end of crime, as an idea whose time has come.

Wishing for the end of crime is not inconsistent with a realistic appraisal of the probability of its ever happening. And committing to not to being a criminal oneself is consistent with affirming the utility of the police. By all means let us commit to being peaceful, while recognizing that the conversion of oneself is ambitious enough. Yokoyama and the fishmongers should have left it at that.One of the things that made the IASA keynote presentation of the Pike Place Fishmongers so endearing was that their story was largely about the suppression of ego in the service of the greater good, and how that breeds interpersonal harmony and success.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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