What We Need Is Another Henry Ford

In 1914 Henry Ford instituted his new process of mass production. His financial backers were insisting that he follow the industry trends and hand build cars designed for the elite in society. They wanted him to hire managers with “conventional” experience in this growing industry.

Henry told them to take a hike and put his money, reputation, and livelihood on the line to do it his way. He was on a crusade and his ideas turned out to be right. Ford’s greatest vision was not the product he wanted to build, but the way in which it was produced. That’s the part no one else believed in.

Orchestra management is in a similar situation. We need a Henry Ford. “Conventional wisdom” and academically trained managers have become so entrenched in the way the industry conducts its business that real innovation has almost become extinct. This business is so collegial that perhaps our Henry Ford may not even survive if he were to show up.

Apparently, too many arts administrators today don’t want to hear the rumblings of new ideas or to reinvent the way they do business. They seem to believe that they know what they’re doing and want the new blood to follow in their footsteps. Change is slow and you simply can’t catch up by changing too little too late.

The basic nature in which orchestras manage themselves has been relatively unchanged for the past 40 years. Turning around the way an orchestra operates from the inside out seems to be a fruitless endeavor. Too many people would lose their jobs, too many feelings would be hurt, and most board members simply don’t have the resolution to take the necessary risk to put a Henry Ford in charge and then support them.

But imagine the results. An orchestra that operates more efficiently with half the staff they currently employ, a marketing department that regularly brings in a new, diverse audience, vastly improved labor relations, and an art form that continues to evolve and touch millions of lives in a positive fashion.

I’m certain that it would take a new orchestra with the new approach to the process of operating business. So who wants to start a new orchestra and “reinvent” the way it does business?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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