Those Soft Landings Are A Sharp Double Edged Sword In Disguise

Joe Patti published a fascinating piece based on something from Vu Le about the notion of soft landings for executive leaders.

While I read Le’s post when it came, but I didn’t consider writing anything about it until seeing it through Patti’s lens.

In a nutshell, the “soft landing” concept here applies to the way conservatives (yes, in the political sense) approach caring for executive leaders.

Le provides a pretty succinct summary:

[Conservatives] understand that their most effective leaders are their greatest weapon, so they do everything they can to protect and invest in them and their ideas.

The progressive side, meanwhile, treats people like batteries. Batteries are only as valuable when they have any juice left to power machines. As soon as they are empty, they are worthless and you toss them and you get fresh batteries. People burn out, they leave and are sometimes never heard from again, and we are OK with it, because we just find new people/batteries to replace them with…As Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute said, “The right invests in people and ideas; the left invests in projects and programs.”

I don’t disagree with that premise.

At the same time, the conservative approach is very much a double edged sword in that providing for executive leaders goes a long way toward creating a negative internal culture where executives are taken care of, even if its at the expense of the institution and other stakeholders.

From a cost perspective, providing financial protections for one or a small group of executive leaders is cheap when compared to the long-tail labor costs of the entire organization.

When left unchecked, this produces a deleterious executive culture syndrome that rewards effort over achievement and encourages the development of stereotypical “company men.”

During each year’s Orchestra Compensation Reports, I reference this very issue in the Executive report introductions. Moreover, we see this syndrome manifest in a number of ways, many of which gravitate toward rewarding executives willing to implement measures that tend to trigger labor disputes.

All of this is to say that I do agree with the value of investing in people and ideas. In fact, it’s badly needed in our field, but as of now, it’s hyper focused at the smallest segment and could do so much more if applied evenly throughout each level of stakeholdership.

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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