Essential Skills of an Orchestra Executive Director

Last week I wrote to encourage young people with an interest in music, and with a reasonable business head, toward a career in orchestra administration. As a follow-up to that, I write today about the skill-set that is required for success in that profession. This is a question I am often asked, either by search committees seeking an executive director or by young people pursuing a career in orchestra administration. Here are qualities that I believe are essential to success in orchestra management. I hope this will serve those who might be interested in such a career, as well as those search committees who are looking for an executive director.
Empathy. Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy, but it is not that at all. It is the quality of being able to understand why other people are thinking in a certain way, particularly when it is different from the way you are thinking. If you lack this skill, you will find yourself arguing senselessly for a specific position, without ever getting to the underlying issue that might be separating your position from someone else's. If you are, in fact, empathetic, you can understand what underlies someone's position on any given issue, and you might find a common ground that allows you to solve the issue. This goes for musicians, music directors, board members, donors, other staff members--for everyone. Being able to truly understand why people are thinking in a certain way is essential to building consensus, which is what managers of all nonprofits have to do. Jim Collins, the brilliant writer on management and business success, notes that the principal difference between the for-profit corporate CEO and the nonprofit CEO is as follows: the for-profit CEO's job is largely executive, the not-for-profit CEO's job is largely legislative. You do not go into your office, put your fist on the desk, and say "this is the way we're all going to do it, because I said so." Migod, does it not work that way. Our job as leaders of not-for-profit organizations is, in fact, to build consensus from our huge range of stakeholder--much bigger and more diverse than that of any corporation. We have donors, deeply involved board members, volunteer organizations, staff, musicians, audience, critics, and, oh yes, the music director. Rarely do all pull in the same direction, and our job is not unlike herding sheep. We have to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Musical knowledge, and the ability to balance it with fiscal judgment. I believe that at least a reasonably complete knowledge of music, and of the orchestral repertoire, is important as a quality of someone who would lead the management of an orchestra. But equally crucial is the ability to balance that with fiscal sense. There is no such thing as a purely artistic decision, and no such thing as a purely fiscal decision that won't affect the artistic. The executive director's job is to balance those. Or, as my mentor Nick Webster once said, the job of managing orchestras is the job of "losing money wisely."

Strength of character to stand up to strong personalities when you have to. I have seen many otherwise talented, gifted orchestra executives fail because they were intimidated either by the music director, the chair of the board, or musicians. Self-confidence is a crucial characteristic in orchestra management. Telling the conductor that you simply cannot afford to take Strauss's Alpine Symphony on a three-week tour because salary, per diem, travel, and hotel equals about $175,000 for the eighteen extra players takes some strength of character when the conductor really wants to do that piece. But it is the executive director's job to determine whether that is a wise investment of organizational resources, a decision that depends, at least to some degree, on the financial climate of the year in which the tour is happening. If it doesn't make sense, your job is to make it not happen. Negotiating with an orchestra committee, or telling a board chair why he is wrong about an important issue (and doing it in the appropriate manner and place) all take strength of character and self-confidence.

A thick skin. Between musicians, board members, volunteers, donors, and the music director (not to mention the local critic), executive directors must be strong enough to withstand criticism, whether delivered constructively or not. One's inner confidence must not be shaken by emotionally delivered brickbats.

Sense of humor. Orchestra management should come with a warning label: Do not enter this profession without a sense of humor.

July 24, 2009 10:21 AM | | Comments (2)



But in this day and age, orchestras and critics have been known to call great pieces commercial and not artistic, and lesser pieces artistic and not commercial. The problem is, the public knows better.

In re: musical knowledge & fiscal judgement.

On the occasion of his 10th anniversary as Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony (May 1988), there was a big article in the program books about Peter Pastreich. A quote from him on this topic I liked so much I had it made into a poster and framed, and it's hung over my desk like a credo for 20 years:

"the orchestra manager functions at the edge between commerce and art, but his loyalty must be to art."

What a wonderful quote. Not surprising, since it is from one of the giants of orchestra management.


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