What Corporations Can Learn From a 4,000-Person Parade Extravaganza (Seriously)

The samba schools that compete in São Paulo’s annual Carnival parade are big, complex organizations. Mocidade Alegre, which danced away with first place in the parade this year and in 2012, brings almost 4,000 people to the parade. They show up on time, dressed in exuberant costumes and arranged in 25 wings, singing and dancing in a tightly choreographed display that they’ve been practicing for nine months. There’s also a 250-man percussion orchestra (known as a bateria) and five floats interspersed among the wings.

Winning or losing the carnival parade contest is decided by a cohort of referees who assess each samba school on 10 criteria that resemble key performance indicators (KPIs) in the corporate world. Over the next year, all the samba schools seek to improve their performance on those KPIs. The result is spectacular, and Brazil’s carnival parades have become a world-class show transmitted by TV to over 100 countries.

It is also, for the great majority of the participants, a volunteer show. Less than 5% of samba-school members (mostly those such as seamstresses and float builders whose duties coincide with normal working hours) receive any pecuniary reward. This last must be especially aggravating to managers of multinationals in Brazil who pay people to work only to have them arrive late, leave early, and ask for sick leave when they are not sick.

What is that the samba schools have that corporate organizations in Brazil don’t?

In search of answers, I studied Mocidade Alegre, interviewing people of all ranks in the organization, from dancers with no managerial authority, to the wing chiefs who cajole the dancers into compliance, to the many directors, to the school’s president. The metaphor for samba school that came up most frequently in these interviews was “family,” which fits the group-orientation of Brazilians. Members identify with the samba school, feel they belong, that the school is theirs. They cry when they lose out and they cry when they win.

“Winning or losing the Carnival Parade is part of the game,” says Daniel Sena, 31, Mocidade’s Director General of Harmony. “But treating people nicely is the core of our business; that is what makes them come back for the renewed challenge, even after losing a parade.” Sena, a supervisor in a company that sells credit to the upcoming Brazilian middle class, thinks corporations underplay this element and rely too much on the motivational power of financial incentives.

Many Mocidade members see big contrasts between their corporate day jobs and the atmosphere at the samba school. Fifty-year-old Márcia Uzam is a wing coordinator with Mocidade and a mediator in a large corporation with 400 lawyers. Márcia says she has seen “corporations discarding people as if they were garbage when they are past their prime,” while at a samba school, “the oldies are recycled.” Indeed, despite tight time limits in the Carnival competition, the samba schools take pride in parading with their older members, who have helped build the schools’ standing. That sends a powerful positive signal to the younger ones, who will not feel “used” and liable to be discarded; it also contributes to the sense of community which Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones argue is what corporate workers desire the most.

Not only does Mocidade nurture the relational dimension of the organization, it also handsomely recognizes contributions with titles.  I have never been in a business organization with so many “directors.” Ariane Camilla, 27, a journalist by day who is Mocidade’s Director of Carnival, believes there are more than 30 directors at Mocidade. Titles at Mocidade carry no financial weight, because people are not paid. But the people bestowed with such titles and ranks carry them with pride, wearing shirts with their rank and name embroidered on them. Rank is matched with empowerment. Leaders have a large degree of autonomy and consequently develop the sense of ownership crucial to success. Ineffectual wing leaders may lose their dancers to another wing leader at the samba school in the next Carnival parade.

It’s a bit like 19th century Latin American independence armies, which had so many colonels one might think they were top-heavy. But no, everybody knew then who the real boss was, as they know today that the boss at Mocidade is Solange Cruz Bichara Rezende, the 43-year-old president, seen weeping in this video clip after learning that her samba school had won the 2013 parade.

Mocidade Alegre, then, is a 4,000-strong organization led by a 43-year-old woman, with a 27-year-old woman as a sort of second-in-command, and a Director General of Harmony, Daniel Sena, who is black (or Afro-Brazilian, as Americans would have it). All this in Brazil, a country where women are known to have much slower and shorter corporate careers than men, and where black directors are vanishingly rare in larger corporations. Mocidade is a community, and family, but not one built along standard ethnic or hierarchical lines.

What can large corporations operating in Brazil learn from all this? Mainly that building and maintaining community is crucial to success. This is especially true in emerging-market countries where the workforce has experienced great change and dislocation. In Brazil, the rural share of the population dropped from 50% to 15% over the past 40 years. China and India are in the midst of similar transformations; Africa will follow soon after.

Recent rural migrants end up in the slums of Rio, São Paulo, Mumbai, or Nairobi. Their houses are not only poor but also unsafe, subject to landslides, floods, or forced eviction. With each onslaught, migrants may see their affective bonds severed. Samba schools are a place to find a lost sense of community. Newcomers are easily accepted because they are recruited along affective networks rather than by education or experience. At corporations, on the other hand, recruiting emphasizes competence over affinity, and leaders are appointed from above, frequently without considering the views of those to be led. Workers also usually cannot drift away from a poor leader unless they leave the organization.

A successful samba school such as Mocidade Alegre is a closely knit organization with a strong focus and great teamwork. The corporate workforce in Brazil tends to become a collection of individuals with a low level of engagement. The corporation responds to this low engagement with controls, which further removes the autonomy of individuals, undermining their sense of belonging and forcing them to work under unfamiliar rhythms. It is no wonder that corporations in Brazil suffer from high absenteeism and turnover. They need to learn from the samba schools, whose members parade even in the pouring rain, for no pay at all.

Foreign multinationals in Brazil and other emerging markets should consider recruiting at places like the samba schools that concentrate large numbers of people desirous to belong and engage. I would also recommend that corporations recruit by affinity where possible, particularly where teamwork is important. These workers might require more training, but the cost could be offset by lower wages, stronger teamwork, and, eventually, higher productivity. Besides, by recruiting in this way corporations may also contribute more to social cohesion in emerging markets, becoming an agent of modernization in societies where discrimination is still rampant — except at the samba schools.

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