Scorched Earth Governance In 10 Easy Steps

Since Adaptistration’s inaugural post in 2003, the business has witnessed a number of destructive conflicts between stakeholders over which course of action the organization should engage to best navigate challenging environments. Consequently, it doesn’t take long to begin identifying patterns and although they are filled with the latest trendy bits of business idioms, the underlying patterns remain mostly unchanged. In a sense, it is the same old pig with a new shade of lipstick, all of which can be summed up in the following 10 steps…

  1. Identify a financial crisis (real or imagined).
  2. In secret, slap together a strategic plan riddled with subjective, imprecise, and selective data wrapped in ambiguous language.
  3. After eliminating any executive board members that don’t agree with the plan, hire a PR firm to stuff the data into a glossy report package with copious amounts of charts, graphs, and callouts.
  4. Launch a preemptive PR assault by securing local media support during clandestine meetings with editorial staff.
  5. Cease existing fundraising efforts and cancel all marketing and ticket sales activity for the following season.
  6. Release strategic plan in tandem with a deadline to cease operations if stakeholders fail to grant unconditional support.
  7. Resist all calls for institutional transparency and label any voices of opposition as being self-absorbed and unfaithful to the best interests of the organization (i.e. “unpatriotic”).
  8. Implement incremental concert cancellations regardless of current financial situation.
  9. Once all stakeholders have accepted terms dictated in the plan, enact retribution against individual board members, donors, or artists that spoke out against the plan.
  10. Resign and claim success as a leader with the conviction and fortitude to make the tough choices necessary to keep the lights on during the darkest hours.

scorched-earth1The most recent example of this is the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) which completed the final step last week with the announcement that executive director, Tony Beadle, is leaving the organization at the end of August, 2009. As is the case in Columbus, the truly sad part of this cycle is those responsible for initiating this sort of scorched earth policy always end up abdicating their responsibility to the organization shortly after expending significant amounts of time and energy dismantling it.

As a result, I hope this sardonic list can serve as a warning to executive board members and executive administrators. In short, if you’re sincerely considering a plan of action similar to the one above, then please do your organization – and the entire field – a favor and simply resign and offer what support you can from a non-governing role. Granted, this doesn’t actively solve any of the problems you perceive exist but the organization may fare better by allowing a new leadership team the opportunity to tackle the problem from a fresh perspective.

Case in point, would the situation in Columbus be different today if the board chair and executive director responsible for concocting and implementing their scorched earth policy simply resigned? Maybe yes, maybe no but it is likely that the organization wouldn’t have lost a passionate music director who was well liked by patrons and musicians alike. Instead, the organization is now without any figurehead to help rally support throughout the community and any incoming board and administrator leaders will have to conduct operations in the charred working environment of their predecessors. Meanwhile, the patrons and fellow remaining stakeholders are left to eke out a cultural existence in the same bleak environment.

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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