The Dynamic Consequences Of Leadership Vacuum

It isn’t unusual for a music director search to last more than a year but eyebrows ascend when it takes that long to find a new CEO. No, there’s no double standard going on here and the reality is that it is much easier for a professional orchestra to appoint interim artistic leadership that can maintain or even improve an ensemble’s artistic standard (think Chicago and Haitink) as compared to installing interim executive leadership capable of the same feats for the administrative side of the coin. Recently, Peter Dobrin examined this very issue at his Arts Watch blog…

150x150-ITA-GUY-158In a post from 9/16/2009, Dobrin notes that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s CEO search has lasted a full year and from his perspective, the organization has not fared well. As a classical music critic and culture writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years, Dobin has a long history watching the Philadelphia Orchestra and that history has contributed to his identifying some of the dynamic consequences of a prolonged leadership vacuum inside an organization the size of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In particular, Dobin cites:

  • “You can’t run a music director search without a real professional who can speak the confusing code of conductors and agents.”
  • “You wouldn’t know how to deal with an attendance rate that’s dropped to 80 of capacity…”
  • You can’t adequately fill senior administrative vacancies until the chief executive is in place.

These are but a few of the tangible problems associated with the sort of executive malaise Dobrin points out but perhaps one of the most critical problems is board atrophy. In this context, board atrophy doesn’t mean the Philadelphia Orchestra board is slowly withering away. In fact, if they are meeting the basic requirements of good governance they are probably busier than normal picking up the slack resulting from the absence of a fully staffed and competent senior administrative team.

The sort of atrophy here is the when boards are left to their own devices to establish, chart, and scrutinize institutional goals in the vacuum of permanent executive and artistic leadership. Despite of the obvious inherent conflicts of interest involved with the degree of influence CEOs have over board development, the reality is that influence exists for a reason. A good CEO will inspire, motivate, and work alongside his/her board in order to make certain it meets the organization’s needs, accomplishes mission based goals, and provides the resources necessary for the institution to reach its true potential.

All of Dobrin’s observations are spot on but they are individual blocks in the building whereas the CEO’s board development role is the foundation. Even though an institution will noticeably suffer each time an individual block falls away, they can be replaced before too much institutional harm transpires. But when the foundation disintegrates beyond a point of no return, shoring up the institution without first tearing it down becomes an increasingly formidable task.

The bottom line is that each passing day places the Philadelphia Orchestra at greater risk. At the same time, rushing to fill the CEO vacancy with a less than capable executive to simply have someone in the position is a recklessness course of action. It might seem like a Catch-22 scenario but the reality is the organization simply needs to expand its search parameters. If nothing else, the economic downturn has demonstrates that conventional wisdom is just as much of an oxymoron as ever so if your current search parameters aren’t producing the results you want, change them. Step one is simple: start talking with sources outside the usual suspects. After all, what does the Philadelphia Orchestra have to lose?

Postscript: Take an extra moment to read Peter Dobrin’s article in the 9/20/2009 edition of the Inquirer where he expands on the above ideas by elaborating on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s budget condition.  Again, Peter mentions that the board has focused off of their efforts on courting a single CEO candidate. All in all, that’s an unusual strategy.

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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