May 18, 2012
How Business Collaboration is Like Dancing Tango

NOTE: The following article is authored by Sarah Martha Jacob, founder of Tangolia.

There are two kinds of people in the world. One looks at a new possibility through the eyes of fear. The other looks at a new possibility through the eyes of faith.

I should know. I worked with both kinds of people for four years at one of the largest private investment firms in the country.

So it really should have been no surprise to me when I heard their two polar opposite responses on the day I declared I was leaving my high paying job as a portfolio manager to travel the world and dance Argentine tango.

"You are making a huge mistake," said the fear group.

"You're a rock star," said the faith group.

The fear group thought I was stark raving mad to be leaving a well-paying career to go follow .... what? My dreams?

"Beware of the gap on your resume, you silly girl," was their mantra.

The faith group thought I was a genius to go exploring, at the ripe age of 29, given that I had no mortgage or kids holding me back.

"Go! Do it for all of us," was the excited whisper beneath their words of encouragement.

Whether you make career choices out of fear or faith, it's not every day you see someone gliding off the corporate cliff and onto dance floors in other hemispheres.

I didn't see it as a savvy career move as much as a campaign to save my soul.

Today my career is thriving as a result of the set of tools I picked up during my tango travels.

How are tango skills relevant to business?

For starters, dancing tango well requires collaborating with a partner to create something you cannot create alone.

Everything in business involves collaboration: with your customer, manager, colleague, subordinate, or team.

Today's complex business environment requires us to up-level our collaboration skills -- skills that are often overlooked and underdeveloped. And because they are, we end up going over and under each other -- drained and frustrated -- to get results.

What follows are nine tango principles that have made me a smarter, more nimble, creative, and engaged collaborator.

1. Be Aware of My Surroundings: I am not alone on the dance floor. I have a partner and a whole room of other dancers to take into consideration. If I whip out a bunch of kicks and turns just because I think it looks cool, I'm going to piss off a lot of people. I have to let go of my own agenda and use discretion to keep the harmony of the group. Indeed, a misplaced kick with a four-inch stiletto heel can have deadly consequences.

2. Maintain a Strong Core and Be Flexible: In order to move easily with a partner, I have to maintain strength and balance which emanate from the core of my body -- my power center. But I cannot be so strong that my entire body becomes stiff and rigid. That will only block the fluidity that creates beautiful figures. Mastering the duality of strength and flexibility allows me to maintain a powerful presence while still going with the flow.

3. Develop Impeccable Technique: There are fundamental skills I need to master in order to play my role with excellence. It takes discipline -- hours of doing drills in an empty studio wearing high heels with no one to hang onto. Why do all this work just so I can have fun? Because it allows me to play at a whole new level -- one that will allow me to be more subtle, spontaneous, and create a precise esthetic. This is what makes it the tango and not the funky chicken.

ECTM dart and me.jpg

4. It's Not What I'm Doing. It's How I'm Showing Up: What makes a tango partner want to dance with me is not how decorative my footwork is or if my kick makes it to his eye level. It is the experience of dancing with me.

I step onto the dance floor and face my partner. My spirit is open and lively and my whole being is committed, grateful, and ready for whatever is about to happen. This brings out the best in my partner. And we dance the dance of earth-shaking, heart-beating, breath-stopping oneness.

Wait -- isn't this an article about business? Yes it is! You see ... there is something transcendent about human connection, and when we're in the zone collaborating together, it is electric and alive and right. This is the business we're all in.

5. Appreciate My Partner For Who He IS And Forget About Who He Is NOT: Some leaders are more skillful than others. They are just better dancers. I can either focus on what my partner needs to work on or I can focus on what he does well. Either way, it is my choice and it affects my experience of the dance.

Amazingly, I have found that when I tune in to my partner's strengths, he naturally dances better and will even rise to new realms of his own greatness.

6. Don't Worry About How Good the Other Dancers Are: There will always be better dancers than I am. I can make myself crazy wondering what they have that I don't. In that mind space, I will never be enough and will keep tripping over my own feet as I mentally eject from my body and compare myself to everyone else.

Rebecca may be an incredible dancer, but in the contest to be Rebecca, she will always win. I have to be at the level that I am because there is no other place to be. I can look at the masters and be inspired or shut down. I have come to enjoy the discomfort of being "less" and enjoy the unfolding.

7. Surrender and Trust: When it's show time, I don't try to control every detail (or any detail). I don't think too much or try to get it to BE something. When the stakes are high, I have to put trust in all my training, everything I have ever learned up until this moment, my innate sensibilities, and just let the dance happen.

The studio is the place for practice. The lesson is the place for perfection. When the music starts, it is a moment to surrender and trust. That is the only way a truly engaged partnership can create something unique, special, memorable, and inspired.

8. Stay Curious: Who is the person that has decided to collaborate with me in this moment of dance? What does he want to experience? How does the floor feel beneath my feet? Can I hear the faint swooshing of dance shoes beneath the music?

I may have danced with the same person to the same song 50 times, but maybe it has never been in these shoes, next to these other dancers, in this balmy air. There is no space for boredom or complacency when I am attuned to all the fascination one moment can hold. When I am curious, I am open and present, and I somehow know just the right thing to do and say -- or not say.

9. Be Authentic All the Time:
It used to be that there were all these very different roles I played. There was the professional (uptight, serious), the daughter (suddenly helpless), the girlfriend (princess), and the salsa dancer (vixen).

Dancing tango required me to be so focused that my mind stopped and all the mental chatter about who I was and how to be just faded away. All that remained was pure essence. What emerged was a person who was creative, playful, disciplined, earnest, humble, and sweet. I came alive and others were attracted to that spark.

I now bring myself fully to everything I do, and I commit to being authentic in every situation. My clients don't hire me to exchange dollars for skills. They engage with me because they want to collaborate with someone who is real and awake and totally into it with them.

How would your business relationships change if you shifted into thinking about them as dance partnerships?

(By the way, these lessons apply to all relationships! Go home tonight and dance with your loved ones -- in socks on the kitchen floor, or simply in the way you show up for them. Can you be strong, flexible, authentic, playful, open, appreciative, and curious?)


Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at May 18, 2012 02:53 PM

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