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Hiring outside the box

0 Robert Levine

The Atlanta Symphony board has decided to hire someone without all that old-fashioned orchestra management baggage:

The heavy odds were for an insider — a career symphonic administrator who’d already led one of the nation’s top orchestras and was looking for a lateral move.

Instead, the board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is naming Stanley E. Romanstein, 54, as its new president. For the past nine years he has been president and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul and has never led a performing arts organization. He starts with the ASO on May 3.

It might mark a radical shift in priorities for the 65-year-old orchestra. “There’s an awareness in the orchestral world that what’s needed are new ideas and new perspectives,” Romanstein told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during an interview Tuesday morning in the ASO offices. “The [orchestral] business has tended to replicate its mistakes. I don’t come with preconceived notions of the industry.”

Nor, apparently, any significant experience of why those “preconceived notions” are held by so many people within the industry. So where does this lack of preconceived notions take him?

“Our artistic mission is strong and secure as it is,” he said. “But even internally, the ASO doesn’t have a strong brand. The essence of fund-raising is connecting your values with the values of the community. We’re a nonprofit, but we have to think like a revenue-generating organization.”…

Obviously orchestras have to generate revenue. But this sounds to me like an inversion. For-profits make things to generate revenue (and ultimately profits). Non-profits generate revenue in order to fulfill their mission.

And what about the new hall? It sounds like it’s being put on the back burner:

The most glaring piece of unfinished business left by Vulgamore’s departure was a planned, state-of-the-art concert hall. Romanstein said: “It’s not an immediate priority. Can a hall increase our artistry and financial stability? That’s an old model of thinking.

“We need to first fill the seats we have. We need to say clearly and concisely to the community what our values are. We have a great orchestra; now we need to fill in the infrastructure.”

Halls aren’t the answer to every orchestras’ problems, and in fact have the potential to exacerbate a bad financial situation if done recklessly, or if the timing is bad. Certainly an orchestra needs to have its act together before embarking on any big project. But one of the major reasons to build a hall is to fill seats, and it often works (think of Dallas and Los Angeles, for example). Thinking that filling seats is a pre-condition for building a hall seems to miss the point.

Ben Johnson, chairman of the ASO board, said Romanstein was identified by Spencer Stuart, a national firm assisting with the search of Vulgamore’s replacement, and quickly gained the approval of the nine-member search committee.

“Our senior management staff is strong, and it gave us the freedom to look beyond the orchestra world,” Johnson said.

That sounds like code for “we can give this guy time to figure out our business because we have people in place who won’t let him screw it up before he figures it out.”

Replacing an executive director is probably the single biggest opportunity a board of directors has for screwing up. No single decision can more affect the health of the institution. But not only is hiring the right leadership hard in principle; the talent pool of potential CEOs with orchestral experience is very, very small.

There are probably somewhere between 1,000 and 2,500 full-time staff employed by orchestras in the US. Many of them are specialists; marketing or development or finance professionals, who are far more likely to move into similar positions in bigger orchestras than to move into bigger, and more generalist positions. The most likely source of candidates already in the field for CEO positions are people who already hold CEO positions or people acting as Number Twos. And there just aren’t very many of them.

So orchestras have to expand their pool of potential candidates by looking outside of the field. But the track record of extramural candidates catapulted into orchestra CEO jobs is not good. Probably the most successful in recent years was Randy Adams in St. Louis, but even that success was very mixed. More typical was the experience of Philadelphia when they hired Jim Undercoffler. A brilliant man, he came to Philly from having very effectively led the Eastman School of Music; about as good a background for running an orchestra (or at least being familiar with the core issues) as could be imagined. But obviously it wasn’t a successful match.

Most non-profits avoid looking outside of their fields for paid leadership. No doubt there are colleges and universities run by people who didn’t start their careers as academics. But I can’t think of one. Theaters are run by ex-directors people; museums are run by ex-curators. There’s a reason for this; it’s generally more effective to search out potential leaders who know the business than to hire people who have been effective leading other kinds of enterprises and teach them the weird byways of our business.

Orchestras are very, very strange institutions. I’ve long suspected that orchestras are the most internally complex institutions of their size in our society. The internal culture of orchestras is very strong, the constituencies are inherently at cross purposes on most day-to-day issues, and knowledgeable and effective governance is rare.

Atlanta has taken a gamble in hiring an outsider, although it may well have been a gamble they had to make. Let’s hope it works out for them

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