The Best Orchestras To Work For

I’d like to tell you which orchestras are the best groups for managers and musicians to work for. I’d like to tell you all about benchmarks for orchestral employee satisfaction. I’d like to tell you which orchestras experience the highest levels of employee loyalty and commitment. I’d like to tell you which orchestras have the highest levels of management-musician trust. Unfortunately, none of that is possible and we can’t expect anything different unless some substantial changes come about…

Adaptistration People 039The annual “Best Places To Work” report from Great Places To Work Institute, Inc. (GPTW®) has always been fascinating. If you take the time to review their methodology and mission, it doesn’t take long to see how they’ve successfully developed a program that links workplace satisfaction to financial results. At the core of their program is a fundamental belief that success comes from trust-based relationships. In fact, businesses interested in being reviewed must begin with GPTW’s Trust Index© employee survey.

The current Detroit Symphony Orchestra labor dispute is a superb example for how this business could learn a lot from the GPTW® mindset. With all the discussion about how orchestras need to become more involved with their communities (A.KA. “relevance”) it is important to realize that even the very best of ideas supported by the very best of intentions are all for naught without first addressing issues related to developing a quantifiably satisfying work environment.

But here’s the catch, in order to design and implement a meaningful “Best Places To Work” style report for the orchestra field, we’re going to have to get over the following hurdles:

  1. Universally agree on qualitative and quantitative data needed to understand and define the orchestra workplace environment along with measuring achievement. We’ll need one each for managers, boards, and musicians as well as one examining how those stakeholders interact.
  2. Achieve buy-in from each major stakeholder group: boards, management, player associations, and musicians’ unions (failing to secure the latter is one key reason why similar efforts in the past have failed).
  3. Move beyond aversions to ranking systems.

Granted, that’s a tall order but when compared next to the mountain of hurt some organizations are facing when crafting massive strategic changes without first building necessary institutional trust, they suddenly seem less daunting.

A quick review of GPTW® trust dimensions demonstrates that these components can be adapted to fit within the orchestral workplace environment as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. That’s a real plus worth considering because on the positive side, benefits related to an orchestra focused GPTW® program are enormous:

  1. The field will finally have a universally accepted system of benchmarks to measure value that include – but are not limited to – compensation and benefits.
  2. Increased trust will help facilitate many of the workplace changes being considered throughout the field in the most conducive environment possible.
  3. Decreased employee turnover and increased institutional performance.
  4. Substantive administrative and artistic executive review.
  5. (Borrowing from GPTW® here) Better workplaces that lead to better communities through better art.
  6. Marginalize the impact of the Money Drug syndrome.
  7. An increase in the quality of candidates applying for openings in the office and orchestra.

So What Are We Waiting For?

The first step in putting together a program like this is commitment and funding. On the commitment end of things, we would require at least five orchestras from each budget group and buy in from the stakeholder groups mentioned above. Funding could be provided by philanthropic underwriting, participant fees, or a combination of both.

The next requirement is time; specifically, time to implement the initial evaluations, which would likely require no less than a full season. The final requirement is institutional transparency because it’s impossible to get an accurate measurement without access to verifiable data.

So tune out about all of the chatter cropping up related to what the field needs to change and survive. Waxing poetic about how organizations need to fit into the community and jargon-laden finger pointing won’t do any good until orchestral organizations focus on putting their own houses in order.

As a field, we’ve been ignoring this issue for far too long or worse, co-opting the idea for the advancement of ideological agendas.

So think of this as an open call-to-arms. We’ve examined employee satisfaction before but this goes far beyond those discussions and I’d love nothing more than to hear from board members, managers, musician representatives, union leaders, and philanthropic foundation officers about their ideas and willingness to set this in motion.

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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