Nudging Yourself Back On The Right Path

On 3/12/09, conductor Ron Spigelman posted an article at his blog, Sticks and Drones, that examines some recent decisions at the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra reported in an article from the 3/9/09 edition of the Grand Rapids Press. Whether he intended to or not, Spigelman raised exactly the right set of questions at exactly the right moment in time to avert a potentially damaging course of action…

The press might be a good information tool, but it's not a good communication tool
"The press might be a good information tool, but it's not a good communication tool."

The Grand Rapids Press article, written by Jeff Kaczmarczyk, reports on a recent decision by the Grand Rapids Symphony to implement a round of pay cuts for executives and staffers along with music director David Lockington and associate conductor John Varineau that would remain in effect through the end of their current fiscal year. What it interesting here is when Kaczmarczyk attempts to report on the state of the organization’s finances, the orchestra’s president and CEO, Peter Kjome, decided to play cagey.

Grand Rapids Symphony president and CEO Peter Kjome would not disclose how much money these steps will save the organization… “I regard this as an initial step,” Kjome said. “It’s clear that along with these initial steps to reduce costs, additional actions — related to both revenue increase and cost decrease — will be required to achieve a balanced budget this season.”

Kaczmarczyk continues the article by pointing out that the orchestra expects to enter into contract negotiations soon and when asked about whether or not Kajome plans to approach the musicians to reopen the contract he would not comment. In Spigelman ‘s blog post, he speculates that Kajome’s decision to offer no comment could be interpreted as an attempt to influence negotiations before they officially begin.

The evidence here is fairly strong:

  1. The orchestra implemented mandatory pay cuts for administrative staff and voluntary pay cuts for its primary conductors. The impact of these cuts on the organization’s finances are unknown as the president and CEO declined to provide the information.
  2. The actual financial state of the organization wasn’t reported and attempts by the local newspaper to acquire the information were deflected by the orchestra’s president and CEO.
  3. Questions regarding intentions to reopen the master agreement were similarly deflected with the exception of the comment ” But it may be mutually beneficial to modify [the master agreement].”

Spigelman’s assessment and subsequent response is so singularly concise and accurate, it could serve as a centerpiece for one of the League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Leadership Academy Seminars.

“It seems that he (CEO Peter Kjome) does want the musicians to re-consider their agreement, but to announce it through the press before talking to the musicians in private is probably not the best strategy to start a good faith negotiation. It puts a lot of pressure on the musicians to respond publicly, and it’s my hope that they don’t, even though it seems they’ve been called out. The press might be a good information tool, but it’s not a good communication tool!”

Interestingly enough, Spigelman’s blog post elicited a comment from an individual identifying himself/herself as chibi and indicated he did not know about Kajome. Chibi went on to chronicle that before Kajome became the orchestra’s president and CEO, he served as principal oboe.

This is especially intriguing as chibi’s comment demonstrates that in much the same way effort and achievement are not mutually exclusive, honorable intentions do not replace a thoughtful process. Although I responded to chibi’s comment and Spigelman’s post at length here, the final two paragraphs summarize why it is good for all of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra’s stakeholders to consider these issues at this point in time.

“Personally, I feel bad for staff members since the article makes it clear that the organization’s financial situation is known but Kjome decided to keep that information confidential. It certainly isn’t fair to those individuals to have a pay cut forced upon them without verification that to do otherwise would put the organization in great financial jeopardy and if the organization is in a place to maintain positive cash flow without implementing those cuts then why not wait until collective bargaining negotiations commence and this process can be addressed equally. Using staffers as a sort of metaphorical financial human shield only sows seeds of an “us-against-them” attitude and institutional bitterness.

Ultimately, and as Ron pointed out, setting the tone for negotiations by playing coy in the press – regardless of intentions – as opposed to availing an established and contractually defined internal communication process places unnecessary pressure on the elected musician representatives and spokesperson(s). Worst of all, it diminishes opportunities to rally stakeholders together to weather economic strife. Perhaps the Grand Rapids Press did misinterpret Kjome’s remarks. If so, I feel confident that he’ll issue a press release detailing those misinterpretations after meeting with the player’s committee and getting back on the path of good governance.”

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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