#TBT When Good Managers Have Little Choice But To Do Bad Things

I’m traveling for work today so just a quick #TBT post by way of a terrific article from recently retired Baltimore Sun music critic, Tim Smith. He recently started a personal blog to use as an outlet for his ongoing music journalism habit (it should definitely be in your bookmark folder) and one of the early offerings is a piece titled Reflections on the crisis at the BSO.

The piece offers up a terrific examination of the slow burn labor dispute at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which Smith frames in a singularly unique context of someone who has been watching the institution longer than anyone in a similar position.

Two of my favorite paragraphs appear back to back (emphasis added):

When, several season ago, I heard rumblings about budget woes, I found some of the worrying numbers, but they were on out-of-date 990 forms (the forms all nonprofits have to file with the IRS and make available to anyone; there’s typically quite a delay before they turn up). Efforts to pry more up-to-the-minute figures from BSO executives — current and previous — invariably triggered the oldest dodge in the business: “The auditors are not finished yet.” That line never rang true when Trump used it, and never rings true when orchestras trot it out. They know early on how bad, or good, a budget is looking, well before an auditor jumps into the books. Coming clean right away strikes me as a much better policy.


That was followed by this gem:

But it’s not just management alone. When musicians have representation on the board, as in this case, they see the same negative signs when each financial report is made. They, too, have a responsibility to sound loud alarms, too — publicly, if need be, even if it means aggravating the board. (I’ve known musicians, here and elsewhere, who believe that managements maintain a secret set of books, covering up the real story. Forgeddaboutit. Secret collusions are hard enough for political campaigns to get away with; orchestra administrators aren’t likely to be any better at it.)

This is particularly fascinating because while the practice of maintaining two physically separate books has been out of practice since paper ledgers were replaced by accounting software, there’s a deeper issue under the conspiracy theory surface.

And that’s where we finally arrive at our #TBT stop: an article from 2011 that examines the unfortunate reality that even good executives tend to embrace accounting fabrications. The twist is it usually isn’t done as a negotiation tactic, rather, it’s a necessity evil to provide accounting confirmation of grant funded program expenditures.

If It Were Only That Easy

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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