Labor Unrest Continues To Impact Retention

There’s a fascinating article in the 1/22/2015 edition of by Mark Gresham featuring an interview with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) new Principal Bassoon, Keith Buncke. Prior to winning the CSO audition, Buncke served in the same position with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and when asked about that organization’s recent lockout and history of labor unrest as reason for seeking work elsewhere, Buncke had some intriguing replies.

Buncke handled the question with a great deal of poise while simultaneously remaining candid.

I think the ASO’s instability is a factor when looking at similarly ranked orchestras such as Dallas and Houston. Of course, the instability is always a factor. One would always prefer to be a part of a thriving orchestra, but it seems people are more likely to leave the ASO for other historically similar orchestras than say, 10 years ago.

Adaptistration People 023That last sentence should catch your attention.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an opening like CSO principal bassoon is going to be a strong gravitational force but when living wage orchestras begin shedding members to peer ensembles, it should be a red flag to the organization’s leadership.

To that end, one of the ongoing missed opportunities in the field is leveraging workplace satisfaction as a tool for attracting talent away from peer orchestras where musicians and managers would otherwise not traditionally consider.

Anecdotally speaking, musicians and managers are slowly beginning to place increased value on overall workplace satisfaction as opposed to measuring self-worth and happiness based on good old benchmarks of budget size, base pay, and benefits. A position that pays ten percent less but has a substantially higher level of overall job satisfaction and a healthy work environment is more valuable than ever.

Yet, the field has a particular reticence to any efforts that quantifiably measure workplace satisfaction; it’s a topic we’ve covered at great length over the years but there hasn’t been a spec of measureable progress on it throughout the field.

Having said that, the potential is still a wide open frontier and orchestras with enough vision to leverage it as a tool to begin recruiting and retaining talent that would otherwise be unavailable will be far, far ahead of the curve at the end of the next decade.

So who wants to be first?

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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4 thoughts on “Labor Unrest Continues To Impact Retention”

  1. Excellent commentary, Drew. Joseph Campbell says something like “follow your bliss. the money will come”. Of course, your bliss includes a safe, psychologically healthy work environment. For many of the 1%, bliss features acquisitiveness ….but as Silas Marner “discovered” in the 1860s, it’s really about love, joy and family — however one defines that latter term.

  2. You assume orchestras care about retention. Not seeing much evidence of that, staff or musicians. Retention and quality are mutually enhancing, but if quality isn’t a priority and getting young, easy-to-push-around people is, well…

    • Some certainly do; on the most general level, they are similar to any other enterprise in that those factors are influenced by individuals but one key element you’ll find in groups that routinely maximize growth and endure downturns is a retention process driven by an eye toward longevity and stability.

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