I Bet My Great Is Better Than Your Great

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article on 6/17/2012 by Zachary Lewis that dives head first into one of the most subjective, and uncomfortable, topics for many contemporary big budget orchestras: what makes an orchestra “great,” or “world class” if you prefer PR friendly verbiage. Either way, it comes down to identifying, defining, and (the tricky part), agreeing on the myriad of benchmarks used to gauge metrics.

Adaptistration People 105Lewis’ article does an excellent job of taking what is a very sticky conversation and making sense of it (especially given the relatively short amount of whitespace).

Now, set aside for a moment the subjective and somewhat circular arguments of one person’s definition of artistic greatness over another and you’ll have an easier time working through all of this. Granted, those discussions are ultimately inextricable from the larger topic but they can be set aside when focusing on the related items.

And within that focus, Lewis’ article covered several critical concrete benchmarks such as the ability to attract and retain talent.

But one area not included in the article that plays a key role in retention, as well as helping an organization produce events that are greater than the sum of their parts, is workplace satisfaction.

I’m very happy to see Lewis’ article serving as a springboard for this discussion and I am equally grateful that I could contribute to the piece by offering some useful perspective. But if we really want to kick start things to a point where it can produce some tangible good, it would be fascinating to bring together stakeholders from a cross section of orchestras along with experts in corporate culture and productivity and have a frank discussion about workplace satisfaction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sort of conversation would be best served outside the auspices of the usual service organization and foundation suspects. Nonetheless, it would hold substantial promise for moving the entire field in a positive direction.

What did you think of Lewis’ article and/or the topic in general? Is “greatness” something that can be defined; if so, how?

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 “I Bet My Great Is Better Than Your Great”

  1. No doubt that a happy orchestra plays better than one entrenched in bad relationships between the musicians (and themselves) and the management.

    I can’t recall any specifics but I am sure that there are studies out there that support the idea that sad employees are less productive. And taking that a step further, a sad orchestra is most likely not going to be as cohesive as an ensemble as one that is relatively happy.

    An article I like to re-visit now and then is this one:

    While it talks about art and design, I think there is a lot of crossover on the topic of what makes a great music ensemble.

  2. Yes, the Cleveland Orchestra is special. But…

    It is disingenuous for Mr. Lewis to write that budget size doesn’t effect quality if he is going to use Cleveland as the only example, even if he’s quoting “experts.” Because the CO has the same advantages as the largest budget elite orchestras. Cleveland’s pay is competitive, they have a great hall, engage the best conductors and soloists, they have a top conservatory in their backyard, travel the globe, make recordings, etc.

    Also it reads as a little self-conscious for a resident of a shrinking Midwest city to proclaim that population size isn’t a factor while singling out a growing but vulnerable Western city as proof. Especially since Albuquerque is in a county ranked 470 in per-capita income and in a state at the very bottom. Also it ignores historical population trends: in 1950 (4 years into Szell’s tenure) Cleveland had a population of 914,808 and ABQ’s was 96,000.

    Also, the Albuquerque Philharmonic is a civic orchestra. Perhaps the Mr. Lewis meant the New Mexico Philharmonic?

    The rest of the article seemed reasonable. I’d love for you to continue with the workplace satisfaction angle. As a former member of a Western orchestra, the current narrowly defined parameters of philanthropy, artistic leadership qualities, excellence/greatness, budget size and population rub me the wrong way. Honestly, I believe the 1% orchestras have less and less to teach the rest of the business. The land rush on the traditional metrics of greatness is settled and that territory already has its homesteads.

    Full time employment, stability and workplace satisfaction are not a zero sum game. They aren’t charity bestowed on a few but symptoms of a healthy organization and I believe they can be found without playing by rules that currently only favor “great” institutions.

    Rob Simonds

    • I think your final paragraph really sums it up Rob, which is one reason why I am still puzzled by how much resistance there is throughout the field, from all stakeholder groups, against even the notion of exploring these ideas. One might think that any orchestra facing a permanent budget reduction would be anxious to investigate new methods for measuring greatness (however it is defined) but the idea has yet to take hold.

      There was nothing on this topic at the latest League convention and I will be legitimately surprised if either the ICSOM or ROPA conferences this August schedule sessions around workplace satisfaction either.

  3. I joined The Phoenix Symphony in one of its many times of transition. The new board chair took over during relative economic health and spoke of a bold new 5 Year Plan. He said with a smirk something like: “We have a 5 year plan but all 5 year plans must be reworked each year.” His delivery has stuck with me for years because it seemed to imply either that musicians had never heard of a business plan or that we couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that even the best plans need constant attention.

    But in tough times a buzz word is “sustainability.” It intimates some perfect equation where expenses are so low and concerts so few that we reach an equilibrium where the institution will run itself with little maintenance. This is simultaneously backwards and understandable. People are tired but now these institutions need people with fire. But we have too little expertise in reserve because we pay too little attention to the health of the many at the expense of the few. When budgets are against the wall, musicians and staff get angry and board members get confused and fed up and we all lack the know how to recover.

    Perhaps because of our performance based work, musicians are reluctant to propose and commit to half-formed plans because they sound merely half-baked. We’re accustomed the security of knowing our schedule a year in advance and having a CBA speak to the whole workplace. Also we’re acutely aware of the repercussions of being unprepared. But with more cuts than gains maybe we should demand that workplace satisfaction be a primary issue. And recognize that this territory is uncharted and even the best work will be feel incomplete when compared to a carefully considered CBA or concert for that matter.

    Maybe orchestra musicians facing reductions (I am reticent to use your word “permanent”) should view these tough times as our own version of “not letting a good crisis go to waste.” Traditionally our battles are economic and relatively easy to understand. But the losses may be too great to simply walk away only less bloody.

    By making painful cuts we earn the right to see the organization get stronger and not just smaller. Our CBAs are a symbol of the institution’s contract with its city. A butchered payroll is neither better for the city or good governance. If financial obligations can’t be met, a greater investment in all stakeholders might be made better insure more that people stay engaged in the mission for reasons other than bare necessity.

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