Culture Eats Strategy (and new models) For Lunch

There’s a terrific article at making the rounds written by Shawn Parr about the overall value of a healthy company culture. It’s not written from the perspective of arts organizations but that doesn’t have any adverse impact on its overall value. Parr takes the time to examine why internal company culture is important but he clarifies some common misperceptions between culture and brand.

Culture Eats Strategy (and new models) For LunchWe’ve been tackling this issue and how it applies to the orchestra field through a series of articles over the years (If You’re Happy And You Know It, Does Anyone Care?, The Best Orchestras To Work For, Poll: Workplace Satisfaction, Workplace Satisfaction Poll Results, and Bitch, Bitch, Bitch…) and Parr’s article goes a long way toward validating why orchestras need to begin paying closer attention to this cornerstone of institutional health.

Here’s an excerpt from the article that does a good job at setting the stage (emphasis added):

[Culture is] not intangible or fluffy, it’s not a vibe or the office décor. It’s one of the most important drivers that has to be set or adjusted to push long-term, sustainable success. It’s not good enough just to have an amazing product and a healthy bank balance. Long-term success is dependent on a culture that is nurtured and alive. Culture is the environment in which your strategy and your brand thrives or dies a slow death.

Think about it like a nurturing habitat for success. Culture cannot be manufactured. It has to be genuinely nurtured by everyone from the CEO down. Ignoring the health of your culture is like letting aquarium water get dirty.

All of this should be particularly apt for orchestras finding themselves at a crossroad where strategic decisions pit culture against fiscal responsibility in some sort of self imposed zero-sum equation; in particular, the dynamic impact of debt management and its profound impact on labor relations. And one of the best ways in this business to die a slow death at the hand of unhealthy culture is through hyper-antagonistic labor relationships.

Unfortunately, there’s no handy metric available to quantify value resulting from a healthy internal culture fueled in large part by a respectful and productive stakeholder relationship. And that’s too bad since the growing number of economic studies pointing to doom and gloom being used by some orchestras as a compass for managing debt fail to incorporate the impact of internal culture on long term fiscal and strategic stability.

The real concern here is too many groups in this field will wander down a primrose path fully believing that immediate stakeholder tension is only an insignificant waypoint on the road to long term stability when, in fact, they are laying the groundwork for an internal culture so unhealthy that it will take far more effort to undo the damage than what it took to put it in place.

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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0 thoughts on “Culture Eats Strategy (and new models) For Lunch”

  1. Came across this interview in the Denver Business Journal with the new CEO of the Colorado Symphony:

    While it’s too soon to tell if long-term sustainability can be achieved (financially, as well as the internal culture), the article demonstrates how much more efficiently an organization can function when all stakeholders work together under an umbrella of trust.

    Also, considering that it took being on the verge of bankrupcy and a mass exodus of the board to enable the changes made at the CSO, I wonder if it’s possible, and what it would take, for the stakeholders in orchestras like Louisville (and now Richmond) to repair the damage done and begin building trust?

  2. When my day-work transitioned from music to the non-profit, academic world, it was a HUGE education.

    At the college where I work now, Culture is a clearly-defined part of the work environment. This experience has been eye-opening, one that contrasts greatly with what I was accustomed to in the orchestral field.

    At least twice a year, we (the entire work force) attend workshops on a variety of culture-related topics. Anonymous surveys on work satisfaction also come up several times a year. These surveys in turn then prompt new workshops and strategies for further improving our work environment.

    Yes, there are some eye-rolling, touchy-feely moments, but overall it is something that I look forward to.

    Some of the odd behaviors I have witnessed in the arts world would rarely, if not ever, happen in my current workplace. This would be the result of any number of reasons, but the foundation of this gestalt is the dedicated commitment to the cultivation of a positive work environment.

    I would strongly argue against the notion that focusing on culture takes away from an institution’s abilities to operate on a day-to-day basis. If anything, our organizational culture is the foundation for not only how we interact with one another, but also how we do business in general.

    The culture is what drives our engine. This is the horse that pulls the cart.

    The result? A successful organization that many hold as a fine example for how to do business in the academic world.

    I think that Drew makes a strong argument, and in these current discussions about “new fiscal models” and such, I would opine that the field would do much better to focus on the truer, heart-of-the-matter issues of morale, trust and general attitude.

  3. Many thanks for the first hand observations Bruce, I hope folks them as useful as I do. I’d also agree that for most professional orchestra musicians, they never receive any formal education on how to behave in the workplace in order to foster a healthy workplace culture. Just about everyone I know (musicians and manager alike) have more than a few stories about odd workplace habits/behaviors.

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