Take This Job And Shove It

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here at the [fill-in-the-blank] Symphony Orchestra but it’s just my time to move on to new challenges. I want you and everyone in the organization to know that I’ve helped contribute to a wonderful group with an important mission”. Throw in a few more warm and fuzzy adjectives, make a mental note to swipe some last moment office supplies, duck out a few hours early on your final day, and you have a tidy little Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It package…

While wandering around some of my favorite weblogs I came across a wonderful entry from Butts In The Seats, the arts management blog hosted by Joe, a theatre manager of a presenting house somewhere where the sun is warm and the ocean is transparent. The article examines some of the issues surrounding retention rates among nonprofit organizations and orchestras are certainly no exception.

Granted, over the past few years the ratio between Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It speeches compared to the Don’t-Let-The-Door-Hit-Your-Backside-On-Your-Way-Out conversations has bulked up a bit for the latter, but that doesn’t indicate the overall high turnover rate is any better.

Why do so many people float in and out of orchestra positions? There’s no single answer as much as a variety of reasons which conspire together to make Murphy’s Law look like a good time.

To begin with, most of the jobs are difficult and don’t carry as much prestige or pay as much as their for profit counterparts. Does that mean the orchestra positions need to offer “competitive” pay? No, although that answer is apparently becoming more popular every year for executive and middle management positions while the poor folks on the bottom of the totem pole continue to feel the effects of “trickle down” theory first hand. As such, a similar position in another orchestra which promises slightly better pay and pocketful of promises is usually enough to lure workers from one outfit to the next.

Then there’s reality waiting patiently to blindside those who carry around a “doing a good deed” ideology upside the head. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I’ve seen or heard about meetings where senior managers simply break down and cry; in front of staffers and/or musicians no less. You usually hear the phrase “I only took this job because I love music and I work so hard” somewhere during the awkward unpleasantness.

The other contributing factor to the high turnover is the standardization of the business. By that I mean the crystallization of a clearly defined career ladder. This business is now full of fast tracks and stepping stones to add the necessary bullet points which allow individuals to get from one point to another and ideally land a VP or better position at one of the top 10 big budget orchestras. All you need is an AA degree and say “I’m here because I love music” and you’re all set (just don’t cry).

It’s the last point which tends to confuses me more often than not. Why, if this is such an ungrateful and low paying business, is it worth so much effort to rocket from one position to the next if the prize isn’t worth that much when compared to the for profit sector to begin with?

Unfortunately, managers who fall into any of the above categories don’t tend to do as much good as they could, or should, for the organizations which employ them. What this business needs are more cultural warriors; managers who move into this business because they are adrenaline junkies who thrive on the challenge and don’t measure success by bullet points.

These individuals seem to be too few and far between to fill the number of positions which need them. Nevertheless, you can clearly spot these managers, even if they are out on the farthest point of the horizon. They tend to skirt outside the normal ranks of ladder climbing ring-knockers and are not usually featured in the trade journals. But they still seem to possess an innate ability to attract and retain top notch managers to their organization.

Here’s some homework; take a few moments of your day and think about the managers in your office and others you’ve encountered during your career. Which category(ies) do they fall into?

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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