Traits of Successful Orchestra Managers

I am often asked what I believe are the most important traits or qualities for a successful orchestra executive director. Sometimes I'm asked that question by board members who are conducting a search for one, sometimes by young administrators hoping for a successful career, and sometimes by interesting outsiders.  In the 45 years that I have been involved with symphony orchestras, I have certainly seen many administrators come and go, some successful, some not so much.  Here are some of the qualities that I believe are essential ingredients in the successful executive director.
Empathy: This to me is the most important one. An orchestra manager deals with a huge range of stakeholders and constituencies--far more than the corporate CEO. (That has been confirmed to me by major corporate CEOs who served as board members or chairs at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Empathy means that you really hear and understand other people, even those with whom you disagree. You understand why they disagree--and that understanding of the reasons behind someone's position can help lead you to a solution that may meet their needs even if it isn't the solution they proposed. When board members of the Chicago Symphony were resisting the major renovation that I knew Orchestra Hall needed, I didn't just try to persuade them by repeating myself louder.  I asked myself why they didn't understand the need--and I realized that they truly didn't realize how much music had changed since the hall was built. When I switched from saying "but you know, this hall was built in 1904 and has been basically unchanged since," to "you know, this hall was opened seven years after the death of Brahms," jaws dropped. It changed their entire perspective on the need. And the thought came from my realization of just what perspective they were or were not bringing to the issue.

Passion for music and those who make it: You don't need to be a musicologist; you don't even need to have a deep musical knowledge, as long as you possess the next trait (see below). But you must believe in the power of our music to transform those who experience it, and you must believe in the importance of music in our communities' lives. Managing an orchestra is hard, and without that belief you are more likely to veer from the mission. It is easy to get caught up in your day-to-day budget or operational or fund-raising issues. But you must remember what the budget, the fund raising, or the operation supports--the music. When I do seminars for young managers, I usually begin by reminding them of this one central fact of the career they have chosen: No one will ever buy a ticket to see you manage. Dealing with orchestra committees and unions can be frustrating, as can dealing with some conductors or soloists or composers. (And I suspect they would all say the same thing about managers.)  But you must remember that it is about them, not about you. Never get like the classic librarian who would much prefer that no one ever took out the books because it wears out the pages!

Knowing what you don't know:  This to me is one of the most important characteristics in any profession or endeavor. No one knows everything about everything (even if we've all met people who seem to think they do). Know what it is that you don't know, and find expertise around you--whether among your staff, your board, your community, your volunteers, or your musicians.

A thick skin: Working in an art form with emotional artists, and working with such a huge range of stakeholders, it is inevitable that at times you are going to be criticized, in less than flattering terms, and perhaps even unfairly. In fact, that is quite likely. Or perhaps other people will take credit for something that you actually did. None of it matters. You keep your eye on the ball--that is, on the mission and vision of the organization--and you don't let yourself get shaken by the criticism. This does not mean that you don't respond to the criticism. Depending on the circumstances, you can respond, and even directly. I once stopped a New York Philharmonic musician in his tracks as he was screaming at me--I had, indeed, made a mistake in judgment--by shouting his name at him when he took a breath, and then by calmly asking him if in all his years at the Philharmonic he had even once played a wrong note. He admitted that he certainly had. I asked him if he would appreciate my yelling at him the same way the next time he played a wrong note. "That's a really good line, Henry," he said. The battle was over. And that leads to the next trait.

A sense of humor: I happen to think that you need one to successfully navigate life, not just orchestra management.

A business head--but not too much: I am always amused by board members who say that they're looking for an executive director from the corporate world because they need to bring a better business sense to the orchestra (although few businessmen should be particularly proud of the business and corporate world these days). Of course we need a certain amount of business sense in our orchestra administrators. But orchestras are not businesses, any more than banks are orchestras. (I'll bet that no banker would think I could come in from my background and run a bank.) In his tract From Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins is very clear about the differences between the corporate world and ours, and about the need to have orchestra administrations headed by people who understand the difference.

The ability to think quickly and to multi-task: Sometimes in our world of performances, things happen quickly and need a quick, intelligent response. And often you find yourself dealing with many things at once. You need the ability to see ahead, to see the impact of a decision, and sometimes you don't have a lot of time to make that decision.

I wouldn't claim that this is a complete list. But I will claim that an administrator who possesses these qualities will be very likely to succeed.
December 5, 2008 12:57 PM | | Comments (5)



Fantastic blog, Henry.

What is facing the modern orchestra manager is the way people in the community get their music and what they are listening to. iPods, popular music trends and what they expose their children's ears to all go into the mix. I always believed that working with the schools is an integral part of fostering the present but assuring the future, since the young listeners are listening in a different way from our times and our parents' time. Do you believe that the way programs are structured, and how repertoire is offered may alter slightly in time? I don't mean 'dumbing down', but changing the order and structure in a way, of the orchestra program? Might there also become interactive school programs? Can students in public or charter schools work with composers-in-residence at the orchestras to create new short works for the orchestra to perform? How can we involve the children so they may feel part of the creative process, and also then appreciate the works of composers past and present?

Thank you for the comments. I have come to believe that orchestras must hire on their staffs some young people who truly understand the internet in ways that us old fogeys don't (or at least I don't), in order to properly take advantage of the various possibilities for promotion. I'm beginning to think that this should be a sub-division of all marketing departments.

Why would someone want to manage an orchestra unless they had the
passion for music and those who make it?

We have a tendency today, esp. in America, to hire bean-counter types, people with "quantified" experience, eg, a master's degree in a technical field, feeling we can measure their effectiveness in the job. Someone who just "loves music" or has been involved in the arts all their life has credentials that are too nebulous for a society obsessed with measurable qualifications. (Not to beat a dead horse, but again, see Anthony Kronman's excellent book on how and why this has come to pass.) Thus we get people running movie studios who have MBAs from ivy league schools and successfully ran bottling distribution enterprises or aircraft part manufacturers but know nothing about a movie and privately think Citizen Kane and Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia are "dull." But they increased sales at their last job by 30%, so there's no doubt they can go from bottle distribution to picking the movies you'll most want to see next year.

So Henry, Where is that BOOK you were going to write? A simple compilation will do!

Henry, this is a great post. Love the "wrong note" story. Also agree so much about what you say regarding having a "business head." Plus, we're seeing now that "business head" isn't working so well even for the business sector, as I'd always suspected. (See a very good book on this subject, "Education's End," by Anthony Kronman. If you haven't read it you should.) Also, you've no doubt heard the famous story about the businessman who gave tickets he had for Schubert's Unfinished Symphony to his efficient expert, and the report he got back the next morning that completely missed the point. A classic so many managers should take to heart.

Love the blog. Keep it going!

Since I'm actively looking for a job these days, I've been reading many job announcements. I am amazed at how many say "Knowledge of classical music would be helpful" or "Knowledge of music is preferred."

Why would someone want to manage an orchestra unless they had the passion for music and those who make it?

I love Henry's comment "A business head but not too much!"


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