Tough Choices Ahead for New Jersey

In the wake of the Richard Dare resignation incident examined in yesterday’s article, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) finds itself in an unenviable position of damage control. The most pressing issues are related to what appears to be a breakdown in due diligence during the executive search process.

Look Below The Surface

decisionsPerhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of initial focus will be on the NJSO search committee’s actual due diligence but that’s only the tip of a much larger, potentially more perilous, governance iceberg.

By all public accounts, it seems clear that Dare’s indiscretions and police record were known to at least some of the search committee members and those members clearly decided they did not rise to the level of disqualification.

But it is the following stage in the search process that rightfully deserves the most attention as it distinguishes what transpired on the search committee level from the subsequent approval of the executive candidate by the full NJSO board.

If the NJSO governance process unfolded in the same manner most nonprofit orchestra boards follow, the search committee would bring their recommendation to the full board for final approval. Typically, board members who did not serve on the search committee are free to ask pointed questions about the final candidate but on the whole, the procedure is perfunctory in that most board members trust their colleagues’ judgment and subsequent recommendations and vote to approve.

Similarly, they trust that all of the proper due diligence has occurred and any concerns arising during those stages were adequately addressed.

In the NJSO’s case, it should not be a surprise to anyone if there are board members who currently feel that their trust was, at best, misplaced or, at worst, betrayed. Either extreme holds the potential for a very unpleasant confrontation among board members and if a majority feel that the search committee was negligent in due diligence and/or judgment, then the NJSO faces the very real potential for a board split. In this scenario, one or more factions of the board typically resign en masse, not unlike recent events at the Colorado Symphony (details).

The best way to avoid such a damaging occurrence is if the full NJSO board can identify a way to save face. The most practical scenario here would be limiting resignations to a few key board members who served on the search committee and having them express regret over the way the due diligence was handled.

Looking Ahead

Despite the best laid plans for damage control, the NJSO’s most immediate concern isn’t external, it’s internal. If any ill will exists (or develops) among board members, the byproduct could have long term damaging effects.

Although the option exists for having the entire board shoulder equal fault for obvious due diligence shortcomings, the NJSO’s previous lapse in this arena following the Golden Age Instrument flop is fresh enough to critically erode donor confidence. Simply put, there are only so many times you can visit the mea culpa approach before supporters and patrons lose faith.

Ultimately, this issue certainly isn’t the only iceberg in the waters ahead for the NJSO, but it is one of the most hazardous.

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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