You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit!

The 10/25/2007 edition of featured an article by FORTUNE senior writer, Anne Fisher, which examined eight ways to tell if your job is in jeopardy. Although the article is obviously directed to the for profit workplace, it is fascinating to see where the suggestions overlap with an orchestra workplace and where they go astray…

stop itIn her article, Anne Fisher offers the following advice in conjunction with points from Richard Bayer, Ph.D., chief operating officer of The Five O’Clock Club, a national career-counseling network based in New York City with regard to knowing when your job is in jeopardy:

1) You don’t fit in. Your values don’t match the company’s. If your colleagues are “dishonest and focused on getting ahead regardless of legal or moral barriers,” Bayer says, it’s time to quit before an Enron-style scandal sinks the ship.

The more rigid career ladders take shape in this business, the more this point becomes applicable. Although it isn’t accurate to describe the current orchestra executive career ladder as merely building greedy executives bent on sucking resources out of an organization for their personal advantage, this point has more impact with regard to getting stuck in a “sinking ship” that has struck an iceberg of non-invested executive leadership. As such, if your executive leaders don’t have a vested interest in the institution beyond their own personal goals, why should you?

2) Your boss doesn’t like you and you don’t like him or her. If your boss never asks your opinion, and never wants to chat or have lunch with you, and if you disagree with her agenda and dislike her style, your days are numbered. Adds Bayer: “If you’ve ever done something that undermined your boss, you might as well get out now.”

This is relevant to the orchestra business across the board, more so if you have the negative type of ladder climbing boss described above in point #1. Those types of executives will be more willing to jettison anyone that threatens their climb to the next rung.

3) Your peers don’t like you. Feeling isolated, gossiped about, and excluded from the inner workings of the organization is a very bad sign, as is feeling that you’re not part of the team and wouldn’t socialize with your colleagues even if they asked you.

This point is especially applicable with regard to orchestral organizations that have recently experienced a very contentious work stoppage. The “us against them” mentality between musicians and managers exists to some degree in every orchestra but it can become particular virulent when factions form during period of contentious collective bargaining sessions. This topic is explored in greater detailed in an article from 8/27/2007 entitled “I Worry About The Staffers”.

4) You don’t get assignments that demonstrate the full range of your abilities. “Watching all the good assignments go to others, while you’re given the ones that play to your weaknesses or are beneath your professional level, should tell you something,” says Bayer. Likewise, if it seems the boss doesn’t trust your judgment, you’re in trouble.

Nothing to add here. Everything applies to orchestral organizations as much as any for profit business.

5) You always get called upon to do the “grunt work.” Everybody has to take on a dull or routine task now and then, but if you are constantly being singled out to do the work no one else wants, alarm bells should ring.

This point is probably the least applicable to the orchestra business. In fact, any good office should require just about everyone to do a wide variety of “grunt work” tasks regardless of their job description.

6) You are excluded from meetings your peers are invited to. Sound familiar? If it’s painfully clear that your ideas aren’t valued, why stick around?

This point can go either way depending entirely on the sort of executives who populate upper management. Ideally, good executives will regularly keep their eyes and ears open to all communication in their department and solicit input from everyone. Conversely, some executives are simply quiet and disengaged from their staff. That doesn’t mean it has anything to do with you, it is simply who they are and how they operate. As such, know the type of boss you have and be aware of whether or not you are the exception to the rule in interdepartmental communication.

7) Everyone on your level has an office. You have a cubicle in the hallway. Bayer notes that, whatever your title, your digs can speak volumes about your real status in the organization. If your peers have offices with windows and you’re asked to move into a broom closet – no matter what the official explanation – start cleaning out your desk.

Seeing that too many orchestra offices are located in dingy outdated office buildings this point may not readily apply to the bulk of the orchestra business. At the same time, there is a noticeable group of new and recently refurbished orchestral offices that are benchmarks for how professional offices should be designed (for profit and nonprofit alike). In particular, the administrative offices for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Nashville Symphony are good examples. In those cases, and others with comfortable working environments, this point might be more applicable.

8) You dread going to work and feel like you’re developing an ulcer. Ah, here’s yet another of your symptoms, and a particularly nasty one at that.

This point can also go either way. The basic nature of nonprofit management lends itself to some degree of distress and crisis management as par for the course. As such, I wouldn’t advise anyone to jump ship over a few sleepless nights (or even weeks). Instead, if you find yourself spending an entire fiscal quarter eating away at your stomach lining, then it’s likely time to move on.

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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3 thoughts on “You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit!”

  1. One of the problems with the orchestra business, and with the classical music business more generally, is that the industry is so small that finding another acceptable position can be difficult. Most cities only have one orchestra with a large professional staff, so if you’re tied to that city for some reason (a spouse with a job he or she doesn’t want to leave, for instance) you might not have other options in your area of expertise. And orchestra management jobs are specialized enough that there aren’t necessarily even very many positions that you’re both qualified for and interested in open nationwide at a given time. I suspect that these forces make it even more tempting to rationalize sticking it out in a bad job or at a bad organization.

    Not to say that other fields don’t have the same problem–I’m sure many of them do. And I don’t have a solution to the problem.

    Obviously one of the things that happens is that you see lateral movement through analogous sectors of different industries — people who think of themselves, for instance, as a fundraiser who happens to work for an orchestra but whose previous job was at a college or a hospital or a museum (and who might well take a non-orchestra job when they move on again), rather than an orchestra professional with a specialization in fundraising. The advantage to this model is that you end up with a robust Development industry with lots of experts, but the downside can potentially be a lack of deep specialized knowledge of how orchestra fundraising differs from, say, hospital fundraising.

    All good points Galen and I think you give readers a reason to pause and consider the value in performing their own due diligence before accepting a position so they don’t find themselves in one of the Catch-22 scenarios you described. If anything I would emphasize that this process is more important for managers and staffers who have very specialized positions. ~ Drew McManus

  2. This is such a valid point you make. I hope you include it in your lectures you give to conservatory students and young managers. Not only are the points related to the business side of the art, but they are also a guideline for solving problems before they happen.

    The commenter above mentioned good unions, that is fine, but if you don’t have to rely on them to have a smooth operating machine of a group, then even better.

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