Post Concessionary Thoughts: Do’s And Don’ts

I quoted Sam Bergman in yesterday’s article as saying:

“Agreeing to this contract was the right thing to do, simply because many of the messes that exist in our organization are not the fault of the current upper management team, which has been on the job for only a year. It seemed only logical to allow a new group of managers an adequate period of time to reverse the years of mismanagement that preceded their arrival.”

And that’s a very wise and reasonable point of view.  But what happens if an upper management team fails in their attempts to improve the organization’s situation and, as a result, can not deliver on their part of the contract?

That’s where yesterday’s article left off.  It’s a genuine catch-22 scenario, not just for musicians but for managers too.  How do you convince a group of musicians who have already given their management the benefit of the doubt and agreed to concessions to do exactly the same thing for you?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer but there is six good points managers can follow which will help:

1) Don’t sell the organization to donors based on what will happen when there are too many outstanding variables
This is a trap a number of managers fall into.  They arrive on scene at a troubled orchestra and hit the ground running, they pull together some of the stronger board members and put together a multi year plan for financial recovery.

Although they’ve looked into every option they conclude that more artistic cuts are necessary.  So they tighten the operational belt to show their sincerity (“again” in the eyes of the musicians mind you) and go out soliciting large donors based on their sound plan for economic recovery.

They’re usually successful at pulling in some initial support and just when they think things are going the way they’ve planned the players have decided that they’ve shouldered the financial responsibility for too long so they refuse to accept any more cuts in pay, benefits, or working conditions and they’re willing to go on strike over it.

And just like that, the financial support coming into the organization begins to crack.  You get phone calls from your donors saying “you said the musicians were going to take these cuts, what happened?”  And no matter how hard you try to reassure everyone that everything will be fine it all falls apart in a matter of weeks.

The moral of the story is include the musicians in your financial planning in order to gauge what’s acceptable and what isn’t before you go out selling it to donors.  And don’t assume you’ll be able to convince them to take the cuts because of the brilliance of your plan or your skill as a negotiator. In the end no one wins.

2) Ensure that your staff is doing good work & put your house in order
Some managers are great people; they truly care about the musicians, the art, and the community they serve. And some managers are jerks; they’re opportunistic ladder climbing bullies that enjoy reveling in their deviant behavior.

If you’re a senior executive, you had better make sure that you don’t have any managers in your fold that fall into the latter category.  Don’t judge your new staff merely by how they behave in the office, many of the best “bad managers” are superficially nice people and talk a good talk.

Review your orchestra’s grievance records, talk to the musicians, and find out if there are any bad apples in the bunch.  If you don’t, these parasites will thwart your attempts to create good will with the musicians before you even start.  Every twelve good acts on your part are all undone by one improper act from your “bad manager”.

You’ll be left sitting around wondering why the musicians hate you so much.

3) Lead from the front
If you’re going to ask others to take a cut you’d better be willing to share more than an equal share of the pain.  Although having everyone take an equal percentage pay cut may seem like a fair solution, more often than not it isn’t.

A senior executive who earns $100,000 a year and takes a 10% cut doesn’t feel it the same way as the twelve year veteran musician who earns $32,000 a year or one of the administrative assistants who earns $19,000 a year.  The more a manager or music director earns the more they should be willing to sacrifice for the organization.

If you’re asking the rank and file musicians to take a 10% pay cut then you had better be willing to give up 25%.  And your return in pay should only come about once everyone else has had their concessions returned.  Take a clue from the old Marine philosophy and be the “first one in and last one out”.

And may God have mercy on your soul if you’re dealing with the board behind closed doors for extra perks or “quiet” bonuses for yourself.  Even if they approach you turn it down right away.

4) Make sure everyone else is leading from the front
It’s crucial for everyone leading the organization to make additional sacrifices.  The music director needs to be included in this scenario too.  Many music directors have a bad habit of taking a pay cut but it also comes with a reduction in actual work; so essentially they aren’t really loosing anything equally compared to everyone else.

The senior executive shouldn’t go out and praise their willingness to take a pay cut (when in fact, they’re actually working much less) as some sort of generous act on their behalf.  Someone will eventually point this out and you’ll look like a jackass.

They have to lead from the front every bit as much as the senior executive should.

5) Are your actions motivated by humility or pride?
If you want to give donations to the orchestra instead of taking pay cuts then keep it to yourself.  Your charitable donations are exactly that, charitable.  You shouldn’t make a donation with the expectation of trotting it out like a circus animal to make you look like a “nice guy”.  If by chance someone else slips it out unwittingly then play it down and let that person know it’s something that should be kept quiet.

Worse yet, don’t send out a press release about it.  If we can all learn something about how not to handle this sort of situation then we can all look at Joe Kluger.  He actually had the Philadelphia Orchestra board chair, his PR manager, marketing manager, high priced PR consultant, and himself all out telling the world how great of a guy he was because he was giving money to the orchestra.

Right. My hero.  Fortunately, just about everyone in the country who knows the difference between right and wrong saw though this as the shameful self promotional sham it was.

Here’s how you make a donation to your organization: anonymously.

6) Blackmail is still considered evil the manager’s purity test
A senior executive should never ever approach the musicians and staffers and tell them that they must take a pay cut because if they don’t the organization won’t get this huge financial gift that Donor X wants to give.

In order to determine if you’re guilty of this transgression you’ll have to look into your soul and ask the following question: “Have I really exhausted every possible effort to get Donor X to give the gift without having to have the players and staffers take cuts?”

If you answered “no” then you’re not evil and you’ve got some more work to do before you talk to the players and staffers. Get busy.

If you answered “yes” but the donor still won’t budge on those conditions then you’re not evil but your conscience will cause you to have trouble sleeping at night.

If this question never occurred to you and you actually asked Donor X to attach those stipulations then yes, you are committing blackmail, you are evil and in the afterlife you’ll be damned to spend eternity as a low level civil servant whose job is to untangle an endless drawer of rusty, sharp edged, knotted paperclips (the small ones).

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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