Two days ago, I rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. One source said, “Many consider the act of ringing the bells to be quite an honor and a symbol of a lifetime of achievement.” This experience triggered a reflection on ceremonies in business life, and why we cling to them.

Several Darden colleagues ((Several colleagues joined me on the balcony: Susan Chaplinsky, Frank Warnock, Elizabeth Hupert, Michael Schill, Marc Lipson, Peter Rodriguez, and Wei Li.)) and I got to the balcony overlooking the trading floor by virtue of a conference that we were co-sponsoring with the NYSE, World Bank, State Street Global Markets, and Research Foundation of the CFA Institute. Our NYSE hosts, Catherine Kinney (President) and Paul Bennett (Chief Economist) invited us to open the trading on the final day of our conference. As Don Corleone might say, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

You are advised to show up early. A handler meets you at the curb in front of the exchange; another handler escorts you up the elevator to a waiting room. There, your hosts and more handlers brief you on the gravity of your responsibilities. You wait and swap small talk. Then a door opens and a handler says “It’s time.” Catherine Kinney takes charge, leading you on another elevator ride, then a walk down two flights of stairs and out onto a small ornate marble balcony above the main trading room. Ten minutes to go. You face a rather large control board. Exuding confidence, Catherine Kinney tells you exactly which button to push, and when—at 9:29:50 a.m. you must push the Big Green Button and hold it for ten seconds. This seems simple enough until you look out into the room: staring at you at eye level 20 feet away are three television cameras; down on the floor is a photographer snapping flash pictures at stroboscopic speed; hundreds of specialists are kind of milling around waiting for you to tell them to get to work. You psyche yourself for the Big Task. Suddenly, it’s time: you press the button. The bell, a 16-inch mechanically-driven item (circa 1903), makes an enormous noise—it is hard to know whether the adrenalin rush you feel owes to astonishment or gratification, the kind known to every five-year old who discovers the ability to make such a racket. Anyway, there can be no doubt throughout the massive trading rooms that the world’s largest stock exchange and heart of the capitalist world is open for business.

What was that all about? The little group of people on the little balcony pales in comparison to the thousands of people at the exchange and outside whose job it is to move money to where it is needed. One exerts maybe two calories in the act of ringing the bell. And honestly, no one on the floor needs you to tell them what time it is—there are exact digital clocks everywhere. The bell-ringing wouldn’t survive a good dose of business process reengineering. One might think that it’s done only to humor the tourists and TV networks, like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Not so fast. Healthy organizations need rituals and ceremonies. And whether the skeptic of ceremony realizes it or not, most organizations have them. Consider the way organizations open for business. For firms on Wall Street the 7:30 a.m. “squawk box” conference call aligns the outlook of traders—the ritual signals the importance of being informed. Uptown at the sushi restaurants, the chefs go through a careful process of laying out knives and supplies—the ritual signals respect for dangerous tools and for product quality. Over at Lincoln Center the artists may spend an hour or two on warm-up drills before the curtain rises—this ritual respects the human body and the extreme demands of world-class performance standards.

Universities are loaded with rituals and ceremonies. The pre-eminent example is graduation at which the degree recipients are honored for their hard work and achievements. At Darden, we gather for “morning coffee” each school day from 9:25 to 10:00 a.m. This ritual respects the bonding that creates a true “Academical Village.”

The NYSE’s opening bell ceremony honors the Big Board’s deep relationships with organizations around the world. And the opening and closing bells respect the work ethic of the floor specialists: be awake, make haste, your time is fleeting.

Honor and symbol indeed. Your organization’s ceremonies say a great deal about what you value.

Now the epilogue to the story: the Dow Jones Industrial Average ticked up four points at the opening bell on March 21st and closed the day up 156 points, the second largest one-day advance so far this year. I like the symbolism and implied honor of that for Darden.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 03/23/2007 11:55:18 PM