Stepping On Some Toes Part 1

In response to my article from 8/11/05, Stephanie from the SLSO sent in a comment which I think deserves the attention of being addressed in a main entry. It brings up a difficult discussion, one which won’t exactly endear me to the hearts of many managers but it’s a conversation which is in desperate need for open discussion…

Stephanie took to task my outlining a new direction orchestras should be moving toward without also offering specific solutions (I’ve edited her comments for length but you can find her unedited comment here),

“…where will the money and staff come from to do all these extra activities you propose? In a time when orchestras are downsizing their staffs, most of us are doing the work of 2-3 people as it is. The NEA gives one-time matching grants for a project, and there’s no reason to suppose that by supporting a community orchestra, the professional orchestra will gain new audience members or donors. So there’s no new self-sustaining revenue generated for the professional orchestra to offset the additional costs.

Partnerships and collaborations are great, and the classical community definitely needs to do more in that area. But these ideas are time- and money-intensive, and I believe it’s unfair to tacitly accuse orchestras of navel-gazing in these areas without suggesting solutions.”

Stephanie’s comments are welcomed and appreciated, and my following response certainly isn’t directed to her as an individual because I hear similar arguments from managers all the time. Nevertheless, I didn’t propose implementation strategies for specific courses of action because in order to go very far on that path, you must first examine a very delicate issue in this business (not to mention there are hundreds of ideas littered throughout the pages of Adaptistration – it’s turned into the single largest free consulting service in the business).

But since Stephanie asked, I might as well take the time to dive into this issue head first; should the business be doing this badly if it’s being managed well?

One of the greatest problems in the business right now is that many individuals within orchestra management believe they are working their best and enduring increasingly stressful conditions. An unusually long stretch of good years developed a false frame of reference regarding what is and isn’t an acceptable level of success among the management field.

That combined with the progressively inward looking mentality which has moved classical music out of the mainstream cultural consciousness and the over professionalization of arts management have stifled the entrepreneurial spirit needed in this day and age.

In short, there are too many managers who aren’t efficiently or creative enough to solve today’s problems. Unfortunately, the “working hard” attitude simply doesn’t cut it anymore.

For example, I hear middle managers regularly complain that due to downsizing they have to now do the work which was once distributed among two-three individuals. Woe are they for having such a great burden placed on their yolk.

(This next bit will undoubtedly step on a number of toes for administrators throughout the business; post your public hate mail in the comments section below and send your private hate mail here) What I don’t hear enough administrators asking is “How do we know the work being done by two-three workers shouldn’t have been done by one person all along?” or “Is the work worth doing in the first place?” (after all, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results).

Without going through the impossible task of examining each manager’s circumstances on a case by case basis, the reasonable conclusion is that the overall decline in the business is due to deficient work practices, faulty strategic plans, and inefficient implementation policies.

In the end, you have to evaluate the system based on the end results, if you don’t you’ll never be able to accurately evaluate the process or the original goal in the first place. The business isn’t in a decline cycle as a result of market forces; it created the decline due to flawed internal business practices. If you believe the former over the latter then all hope is lost; you might as well close the doors now, sell off the assets, and give yourself a good pat on the back for really trying hard.

Of course, none of that implies every manager is a terrible worker, which would be a silly thing to say. But it does indicate that there needs to be an industry wide reevaluation of what constitutes the minimum amount of effort needed to fulfill the requirements of a specific job. Furthermore, there need to be new parameters for determining what is and isn’t efficient business practices.

Unfortunately, the nonprofit business world is subject to the same ensuing problems of staff reductions as their for profit cousins. When a department loses a worker the work is distributed among the remaining employees. From the remaining employees perspective, they now have to do more work; likely with little or no additional pay to compensate.

Being accustomed to their previous work loads, those remaining employees have framed their maximum daily work routine around old parameters. As such, it’s not unreasonable to assume that when the have these new duties suddenly thrust upon them they’ll perceive themselves in a martyr colored light.

This is where the good employees separate themselves from the mediocre (or bad, who were hopefully were let go in the staff reductions). Good managers find better ways to utilize their own time to accomplish direct goals and identify previously unknown resources to assist the staffers within their responsibility. Good staffers find ways to improve their daily work routine to accomplish the new requirements without also becoming bitter and/or burnt out.

How do managers and staffers meet these expectations? The best advice I can offer is managers should have some successful experience at being self employed. Nothing is a better motivator than “sink or swim”. No blaming dried up grants, no blaming outside cultural forces, no blaming the decline in music education, no blaming anyone else but yourself for success or failure. The system is always stacked against you and you always work up hill.

That’s the best training program prospective managers should subscribe to.

Beyond that, try talking to the workhorse musician in the orchestra; section string players. They play the most notes and get the fewest days off compared to their peer musicians. They know all about the overworked issues managers like Stephanie are expressing yet they simply get the work done. And (on a business wide level) they’ve apparently done such a good job at it the overall artistic level among professional orchestras has never been higher; even through the recent years of rapid financial decline.

I would also argue that on a business wide average, the percentage of overall expenditures toward marketing and development initiatives have increased in recent years (and before you take the time to write in about how your budget for project “X” was cut, make sure you’re pulling out your department’s total expenditures for the last five years to send along with it).

I can’t say with certainty what’s happened in the SLSO, but if you take a look at the 75 professional orchestra budgets I’m willing to bet that you’ll see those departmental budgets increasing (too bad the ASOL won’t release those numbers since they regularly maintain a database with the information).

Part 2 will examine some of the specific issues Stephanie mentioned in her comment and, if I can borrow one of her colloquiums, we’ll see some of the many navels this business is gazing at. In the meantime, don’t forget to send in your comments, I have no doubt that musicians, managers, and board members alike have a wide array of fervent thoughts regarding these issues.

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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1 thought on “Stepping On Some Toes Part 1”

  1. Good thoughts, Drew. While it’s not by any means the total answer, perhaps part of the answer is found in a blog entry I made last April: “In praise of the lazy employee.” (I don’t want to seem like a shameless self-promoter, so I’ll summarize rather than linking directly.)

    The type of lazy employee I’m thinking of isn’t the person who doesn’t get anything done. This lazy employee is the person who can’t tolerate doing something in 8 hours that could be done in 1. This person doesn’t easily accept the “We’ve always done it that way” answer when asking about why processes seem so heavyweight. Of course, being a successfully lazy employee means one has to know what the important things to do are. As one good manager once told me (paraphrased), “The really effective people are those who put in a good six hours a day working and then spend perhaps another couple of hours observing and listening to what’s going on, not those who work late into the evening.”

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