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Musical practice as a source of management inspiration: a testimonial from Xavier Durand, COFACE General Manager


General Manager


Testimony collected by


Associate Professor in Management Sciences, Paris-Saclay University

Business Science Institute


Full Professor of Information Technology Management

Ecole des sciences de la gestion, Université du Québec à Montréal

Business Science Institute


The life of someone who leads a large company is often associated with complex challenges, making crucial decisions and managing a diverse team. Some of these leaders bring a unique perspective to their role. Such is the case of Xavier Durand, CEO of COFACE since 2015, one of the world's leading credit insurers. It is from his practice of music that he draws the inspiration to lead this century-old company with over 5,000 employees and a presence in some 100 countries.

The combination of music and management may seem improbable, but it offers invaluable lessons in collaboration, stress and risk management, and enables us to imagine other possibilities. In this interview, Xavier Durand explains how music has influenced his vision as a manager, his actions and his way of communicating. Beyond the metaphor, he shows how music can inspire management in our contemporary organizations in search of meaning and renewal.

Acting as in musical practice

Do your scales

Music is first and foremost a school of rigor, requiring patient and sometimes solitary investment. The apprentice musician must learn his or her scales. It is through assiduous practice and daily repetition that the musician progresses, overcoming the technical challenges inherent in his instrument. It is through this discipline that they acquire total mastery. As Xavier Durand points out: "At the outset, rigor and technical mastery of the instrument are essential. This is an essential prerequisite for access to the musical language. Once this musical language has been acquired and the technical phase mastered, music becomes a school for interaction."

Listening and dialoguing

Musical practice is rarely solitary. When a musician plays in an orchestra or chamber music ensemble, he or she is in constant interaction with other musicians, singers and conductors, as well as with a responsive, even participatory audience, as demonstrated by the emergence in recent years of participatory concerts. Music requires attentive listening to oneself, for it is essential to play in tune, and the tuning fork is there to remind us of this requirement. But just as important is listening to others, whether in their musical intentions, phrasing, nuances or the sound of the ensemble.

As some orchestral musicians wryly put it, playing in tune means playing out of tune together. Xavier Durand emphasizes this dimension of listening and interaction in his musical practice: "By practicing jazz, I've learned that listening is essential. In fact, it's more an exercise in listening than in playing. You spend more time keeping quiet than talking. And when you play, you have to interact with others. It's a constant dialogue. We find the same requirement for collective play in business, whether it's building an action plan, negotiating a contract... Everything is always the fruit of interaction".

Interaction and dialogue are fundamental to coordinating the organization's internal and external stakeholders. However, in musical practice, this listening and coordination reach such a level of finesse and precision that they transcend the technical approach to reach an aesthetic dimension, which can then touch an audience.

Dealing with stress

Managing stage fright is an essential skill shared by musicians and business leaders, both of whom are regularly called upon to perform in front of large audiences, and to cope with the stress this entails.

Xavier Durand evokes this dimension by pointing out that public performance is a particularly demanding experience, which he experienced as a student at the Conservatoire: "Performing in public is a difficult exercise when you're a student at the Conservatoire. You spend a whole year studying, and that year culminates in an audition lasting a few minutes. Facing you, an audience, and the examiners in the front row, often inexpressive and armed with a little bell they'll shake when they've decided they've heard enough (...), I found it terrifying and probably more difficult than speaking in front of 4,000 people on a business subject, or a subject you've mastered. It was a very good lesson in dealing with stage fright".

Beyond auditions, certain instruments, such as the trumpet, require a high level of exposure and risk-taking for musicians. Xavier Durand explains: "The job of trumpet player is quite difficult because you don't play much after all. Your speaking time in the orchestra is minimal. And you're very noisy. And you're usually asked to play strident notes cold. And you have to count 364 and a half bars and not miss the start. You're on a tightrope. (...) You can't be afraid of expressing yourself strongly, with the risk of making a mistake. It's very risky".

Daring to take risks is a fundamental characteristic of managers. Unlike an environment where every move is planned in advance, leaders must, like jazzmen and jazzwomen, compose in real time with their constantly changing environment.

Directing as orchestrating

Planning, coordinating towards a common goal

Within organizations, planning, organization and coordination are crucial to achieving a common goal. Xavier Durand underlines the fundamental role of leadership in this context: "Business is a school of leadership (...) And the leadership I've developed is very useful in music, because you often find people who are very competent from a musical point of view, who need to be coordinated, with an objective to pursue, on how to carry out this project. A leader is essential. There's this whole notion of leadership that applies to a musical group as it does to any other human group".

This notion of planning and coordination is just as relevant in collective musical practice. The person who orchestrates, who is invested with the role of group leader, must reflect on the meaning of what is to be accomplished and plan the necessary actions, even if the musical scene is often marked by the experience of risk and uncertainty, even of the unexpected.

Facing risk and uncertainty

Musicians on stage have all experienced unforeseen situations: a partner or instrument failing, technical problems with their equipment - there's no shortage of opportunities. Yet "the show must go on". Xavier Durand illustrates this reality using the example of jazz: "Playing in a jazz band means dealing with the unexpected. The pianist isn't there because he broke his face before arriving .... So you have to manage without the pianist. You have to call on resources you don't know you have. You have to improvise, and that can lead to some very interesting things."

Training oneself to deal with uncertainty, to apprehend unexpected situations, is a particularly useful skill, not only for people running organizations faced with constant transformation, but also for those evolving in a constantly changing business environment. Dealing with unprecedented situations, whether musical or professional, helps forge an experience that builds confidence and enables us to see the unexpected as a source of opportunity and creativity.

Xavier Durand illustrates this perspective by sharing his experience: "I've already turned around businesses four or five times, I've worked in 30 countries during my 30-year career. I've lived through a tsunami, the real estate crisis, a financial crisis, a subprime crisis, COVID-19, etc., etc., etc.. So you start to say, OK, I can do this, and you know that you're going to find recipes, working with others, that will make it possible to manage. So all of a sudden, you're more focused on 'this is going to be interesting' than 'this is going to be terrifying'." Risk isn't just a threat, it's also an opportunity.

Creating a climate of trust

In the face of risk, in the role of leader, a person must be able to reassure his or her group. In moments of crisis or dysfunction, they must remain calm and inspire confidence. As Xavier Durand puts it: "The person who is able to reassure the group, because he or she has more experience or more composure or more self-control, is the one who becomes the leader."

The world of jazz, in particular, is conducive to risk-taking, with moments of improvisation. Occasionally, a musician finds himself in difficulty, and in such situations he naturally turns to the most experienced member of the group. A simple look or gesture can be enough to reassure the musician and give him or her the confidence to continue playing. This dynamic also applies in the context of organizations: the leader's responsibility is to know his or her staff well, to understand their strengths and limitations, to reassure them and, where necessary, to take steps to avoid putting them in difficulty. The leader has a responsibility to create this collective state.

Thinking like in music practice

Imagining alternative organizational forms?

The classic metaphor for improvisation is jazz, a musical form that grew out of the brass bands of early 20th-century African-American musicians such as trumpeters, trombonists, clarinetists and percussionists, who played together at public events such as parades, balls and funerals. Jazz is distinguished by its lively, flexible musical nature, in contrast to the rigidity of many symphony orchestras, where musicians "carry out" the conductor's instructions. Could jazz inspire new forms of organization for managers, based on projects and empowerment, rather than the hierarchy and control prevalent in our compartmentalized, bureaucratic organizations? Would it be possible to take the complexity out of organizations, freeing them from procedures that hinder work, refocusing on fewer and simpler management tools, and empowering employees by giving them greater confidence?

Xavier Durand evokes this idea with a reference to Bobby McFerrin and his collaboration with certain orchestras: "Look at what Bobby McFerrin has done with certain orchestras. He lets the orchestras off the hook and says, 'Go ahead, do something for me. And then you find things that are completely surprising. It's something else. With very vague gestures. We say, go ahead. You kind of get the idea that I want you to do something for me. And then something will come out that will be surprising or interesting".

In the spirit of jazz, might it be possible to simplify today's large-scale organizations and give employees back their freedom? In this respect, jazz could prove to be a source of influence for new methods of work organization, and advocate effective management based on insight, vision and intuition, as Peter Drucker (1966) emphasized decades ago with regard to management practice, and as Henry Mintzberg still insists on (1973, 2013).

Sharing emotions?

Since the publication of Daniel Kahneman's influential book (2011) Thinking, fast and slow, we've come to understand that our thinking oscillates between two systems: System 1 (fast, instinctive and emotional) and System 2 (slower, more reflective and logical). Playing music in a group, whether in an orchestra or an ensemble, can stimulate our emotional sphere and enable us to experience very intense group emotions.

Xavier Durand testifies to this experience: "The other phenomenon I've come to understand is that when you're in an orchestra, large or small, when you're in the moment of production, when the ensemble sounds, you have incredible emotional transports. When you're part of this machine and it sounds, whether you're playing Schubert's Unfinished or a jazz piece, it doesn't matter, there's really a tremendous group emotion. (...) Emotionally, it's a unique thing".

Could music, and the arts in general, inspire managers to develop approaches that go beyond pure rationality and integrate emotions, both for themselves and for their staff? For "musician managers", this could mean creating shared meaning and collective emotions that could strengthen the bond between members of their teams.


Music, and art in general, often offer an experience that confronts us with the unknown, that challenges our reference points. Even if the contexts of musical practice and management may seem far apart, a person confronted with these two worlds must call upon his or her sense of listening, judgment and emotions. At a time when the collective dimension is taking on crucial importance in the world of work, art and management may well be more and more intrinsically linked.


Drucker, P. (1966). The effective executive. Harper & Row.

Durand, X. (2021). The values of risks. Managing through uncertainies. Hermann.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. Harper & Row.

Mintzberg, H. (2013). Simply managing: what mangers do. Berret-Koehler.


Watch the interview with Xavier Durand in the IQSOG - Fenêtres ouvertes sur la gestion program hosted by Jean-Philippe Denis on Xerfi Canal.

Watch Xavier Durand's talk at the opening of the Rencontres Stratégiques  (2022-2023), with Eric Cornuel, Managing Director of the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD).


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