Mobile Managers: Super Managers For Tomorrow

One of the fastest growing problems in this business is the degree to which smaller budget orchestras are patterning their operational model after the big budget organizations.  When referring to “smaller budget orchestras” I mean all of those ensembles in the $250,000 to $1 million range who typically present between three and eight concerts per season.

Many of these organizations start life as a community based ensemble and, over time, grows into something larger. When they reach a certain level of development, either the founding music director and/or the executive board members decide they need a full time administrative team to run the organization.

Typically, these smaller budget organizations hire a full time executive manager and between one and five full and/or part time office employees.  In order to attract “qualified” candidates these organizations attempt to offer as competitive of a salary/compensation package as possible to prospective managers.

Add to that renting office space, related office expenses, etc. and the costs associated with full time managers becomes overwhelming.  In many cases these organizations are directing over 10% of their budget solely toward the executive manager’s salary and over 60% of the budget to the related benefits, additional office personnel and office expenses.

In the last 36 days, there have been five different orchestra executive director positions listed in the ASOL’s online job postings from orchestras with annual budgets under $1 million.  The average annual budget for these five orchestras was approximately $425,000 and they are offering their new executive managers compensation ranging from $36,000-$55,000; the average of which is more than 10% of their average annual budget.

I remember having a discussion with a similar orchestra a few years ago where I presented a radical solution to help them redirect much more of their revenue directly toward their mission statement as well as prevent the problems they were experiencing with the high costs of finding new managers every time their current manager left (which was about once every 14 months).

I put together a financial plan designed to cut their non artistic compensation and operations expenditures to below 25% of their annual expenditures.  In order to achieve this low ratio, I suggested that they need to change their perception that the executive manager must be a full time employee.

The notion that any organization with a budget less than $1 million and presents fewer than eight concerts per season therefore requires a full time manager is simply wrong.  Granted, the work related with such a position can involve periods of intense attention but it doesn’t require the typical 40 hours per week over 52 weeks associated with full time participation.

Ideally, a properly trained orchestra manager (I published an article about what constitutes “properly trained” back in November of 2003) should easily be able to implement the administrative duties associated to marketing, development, operations, outreach/education, artistic administration, and executive planning.  Part time personnel would be hired on an as needed basis or supplemented by qualified volunteers.  Even if volunteers or temp workers aren’t available you can always outsource certain tasks at a lower expense than maintaining a regular full or part time work force.

Naturally, there’s much more to this idea than just the points mentioned above as well as a number of questions which all have answers, but I won’t drag this article out by going into too much detail.  If you’re an executive board member for an orchestra with a budget below $1 million and sincerely want to learn more, just send me a note.

Suffice to say, there’s no reason why the work related with running a successful, efficient orchestral administration should require multiple full time employees when one talented self or multi employed individual who is already set up with a home office can accomplish the task for less cost.

If this concept begins to gain wider acceptance, there will be more positives for the business than just those enjoyed by the smaller budget orchestras.  These “mobile managers” will gain more experience with a wider range of operational facets and grow into becoming better equipped managers when and if the time comes when they decide to work for bigger budget organizations.  It’s a win-win scenario.

There’s no good reason a small budget orchestra shouldn’t demand the expertise of a professional level manager without having to pay outrageous full time salaries and benefits, the job market is full of qualified individuals capable of filling these roles.

After all, that’s what these organizations already expect from their musicians; professional level capability for part time compensation.

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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