The Professor Speaks

My AJ Blog colleague, Andrew Taylor, posted an entry last week in which he shares his views from the mock negotiation session I conducted with the students from his MBA program (I posted a series of articles about the experience, the first of which you can find here). Andrew took a wonderfully hands-off approach to the mock negotiation session and his 3rd party perspective presented in his blog is worth the read. I was particularly intrigued by a couple of Andrew’s observations…

In particular, the first of Andrew’s two concluding points reads as follows:

But I came away from the exercise struck by two things:

1. That collective bargaining within professional orchestras is among the most depressing and structurally fraught processes of any cultural endeavor. And that those orchestras that manage it successfully (and there certainly are many) do so despite the structure rather than because of it.

I entirely agree with Andrew’s assessment from the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in. At the same time, I don’t think a contentious negotiation environment is always a universal evil in and of itself. In some cases, I think it serves as the catalyst for positive change by unifying and motivating stakeholders to take an active interest in setting the strategic direction of the institution.

Another point in Andrew’s post that struck me was his final paragraph:

“I know that all of this is easy for me to say. I’m not a professional orchestral musician, nor am I an orchestra administrator. Fair enough. But if the simulation experienced by my students was even marginally close to reality (and I’m assured by several that it’s not unusual), very few of these passionate, creative, and insightful students will decide that it’s worth the grief.”

I had a couple of thoughts about this observation. On one hand, Andrew’s perspective is a bit discouraging from the standpoint that being exposed to the difficult operating environment experienced by some orchestras might scare away potential managers. On the other hand, I remember the focused percentage of students from the class who came away from the experience with the understanding that although there may be grief involved in turning around a dysfunctional organization the rewards, both personal and professional, are equally great.

I’ve always maintained that in order to be a benefit to the orchestra business, arts administration programs need to include increasingly specialized components to their curricula that prepare future managers for the specific realities of orchestral management (or their arts group of choice). As such, my time with the wonderful students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration serves to reinforce that perspective.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Professor Speaks”

  1. Thanks Drew,

    Although I wasn’t suggesting that contention or conflict in the process was a problem. That’s to be expected in any negotiation. I was sharing the perspective that the structure and the rules of the process for resolving those conflicts was strangely flawed.

    In essence, the Collective Bargaining Agreement process supports and encourages tactical conversations, when the true problems in many of these orchestras are structural and strategic.

    I know that the CBA is not intended as a strategic planning process, and yet it seems the only place where such conversations take place.

    It would be interesting to learn from organizations exploring some alternative to the gamesmanship fostered by this particular way of doing things.

  2. Hi Andrew, I think you have some very valid points and please accept my apologies if I made it seem as though you though conflict or contention was problematic, that certainly wasn’t my intention.

    I am interested in hearing more about your point regarding strategic/structural/tactical conversations. I’ve always seen those conversations as one in the same with each component being addressed differently based on the unique set of historical and current circumstances for each ensemble.

    Negotiations which are dominated by what I think you’re defining as tactical maneuvers (meaning those being devoid of earnest strategic and structural conversation) tend be happen in organizations where individual philosophy and past relationships are the overriding principles which guide one or both sides in the process.

    In the end, I think it is helpful for most stakeholders to better understand not what the other side in a negotiation thinks so much as why they think that way and the process they used to define their perspective.

    I do think there is value in following your suggestion of “exploring some alternative to the gamesmanship fostered by this particular way of doing things.” At the same time, I think it would be just as interesting to explore organizations which are currently quite successful but seem to use traditional bargaining styles.

    I suspect that the results would have quite a bit to do with the individual parties involved and less with the tools they select to bargain.

    So when are we submitting some grant proposals?

  3. Taylor’s comment that it was a depressing process is accurate.

    I have managed arts groups for almost 40 years. I spent 20 years as a member of a performing arts union,
    albeit for most of that time I was precluded from active participation as I was working both sides of the aisle.

    I have negotiated union contracts with every performing arts and arts trade union there is including some that are one-shop unions. I’ve done it in New York, Cleveland and California.

    I can state without any fear of rational contradiction that AFM/management contracts and therefore the negotiations that produce them are the most backward thinking of any of the applicable unions. It is not that I have had bad sessions or that we have not achieved success in our negotiations. It is that the point of view that the AFM uses to start talking stems from a labor management sensibiility that stems from the 1930’s with very limited progress.

    People sitting accress the table from one another can be very civil and make progress, but the framework is contentious. The expectations are not interest-based. I read another blog recently where leading AFM negotiators asserted that interest-based bargaining was effectively a ruse to kill off the union.

    I find all those assertions ridiculous. Look at the other major industries that were active in the 30’s, those industries have had to evolve and their unions have evolved with them.

    Our industry is well served by collective bargaining. I am very pro-union and have voluntarily recognized unions in serveral circumstances where I was not obiged to. I just wish the AFM style emerged from the 1930’s. It is a disservice to their membership far greater than the abuses management is so often accused of imposing on the membership.

  4. For Mr. Bales (pardon the formality, it’s simply to avoid confusion between the two Andrew’s who have posted comments here): which leading AFM negotiators are you referring to and which blog post? I would like to see this post for myself as the only two full-time orchestra negotiators employed by the AFM I am aware of are Nathan Kahn and Chris Durham. I have never heard either of them state that IBB is a “ruse to kill of the union”. At the same time, I’m unaware of any manager or board member accusing traditional bargaining as a ploy to restrict their ability to govern or squeeze more money out of the organization.

    In fact, I think universal accusations condemning or complimenting any tool for bargaining is simply short-sighted at best and actually stifles healthy bargaining at worst. In the end, bargaining techniques are merely tools – nothing more and nothing less. Like all tools, some are better suited for specific tasks than others and knowing which one to use at the right time and in the right place is the sign of wise negotiator.

    Regardless, the mock negotiation session conducted with the UM-Madison students wasn’t about discussing one bargaining technique over another and based on their demonstrated knowledge, it seems that they are doing a fine job refining some of those tools in their chest. I simply hope they were able to use the learning session to begin thinking about how to take those tools to shape “less than ideal” material into something wonderful by becoming expert craftsmen and craftswomen.

    Tom Reel, a musician in the Virginia Symphony, posted an excellent comment to Andrew’s original post which addresses these issues in a healthy way, I would encourage Mr. Bales and everyone to stop by and give it a read.

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