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New sheriff in town

0 Robert Levine

One of the scariest rituals of orchestra life is the arrival of a new Chief Executive Officer. A new Music Director can be very unsettling for the members of the orchesra, of course – it’s the Music Director who has the power of economic life and death over individual musicians, and obviously no other person has the same ability to make going to work either a joy or a chore for the orchestra.

But an orchestra can survive a bad Music Director; far too many have had to do so. And at least the members of the orchestra know something about what makes a good or bad Music Director, and can tell surprisingly quickly whether or not a given conductor might work well with the orchestra or not.

The CEO position is, in terms of institutional growth and even survival, far more important than the music directorship. Great CEOs can take mediocre institutions and transform them into powerhouses. Bad CEOs can take orchestras that are doing OK and turn them into smoking holes in a city’s cultural infrastructure. The decision who to hire for that position is a board’s single biggest chance to screw up big-time, with consequences that can be very hard to undo.

To add terror to uncertainty, hiring a good CEO appears to be very hard indeed. Most boards don’t understand the job nearly as well as they should; one of the major weakness of our industry as a whole. They thus have a predictably difficult time evaluating candidates. And it appears to be far easier to fake one’s way through a series of job interviews with search committees than it does to convince an orchestra of one’s ability to conduct.

An additional problem is that the CEO hiring process, unlike that for music directors, is very secretive. Any orchestra looking for a Music Director (and every orchestra should always be looking for its next one) is going to look at every guest conductor through that lens, whether or not they are a declared candidate. And no orchestra with any sense is going to hire a Music Director without seeing them conduct the orchestra first (Michael Gielen was hired as MD in Cincinnati without the orchestra ever have seen him, which ended up proving the point).

CEOs, by contrast, are hired through a very confidential and private process. Their ability to work with the staff and the board is not tested; it’s only inferred from the interview process and from their job history. Being a confidential process, it’s very hard for the members of the search committee to do their own checking on the candidates’ previous job performance.

This is not so different from hiring top positions in many other organizations, of course. That’s why orchestras hire search firms. A good search firm will not only have a deep understanding of the search and hiring process, but will be able to do some background checking on its own, as the ability to keep confidences is a search firm’s stock-in-trade.

I suspect there was considerable discussion within our committee about what attributes to look for in an ideal CEO (“suspect” because I wasn’t on it). My own view was that we should look for someone who had been a CEO in a smaller orchestra, rather than someone from outside the orchestra field or a second-in-command in a bigger orchestra. My rationale, when forced to come up with one, was that dealing with a board was a core skill that I didn’t want someone learning at our expense, and that figuring out the weird dynamics within orchestras around the Music Director position would take an outsider a good two years, which we clearly couldn’t afford.

The downside of hiring an experienced orchestra insider on whose desk the buck has stopped, though, is that anyone who’s gotten their hands dirty running an orchestra likely has some dirt stuck under their fingernails. And so it was with our incoming CEO, Maryellen Gleason, who had gotten her start in as an orchestra staffer when she was picked to run the Phoenix Symphony in 2002. (Oddly enough, she was hired to replace a former CEO of ours, Joan Squires, whose path in our business was heading in the other direction from Gleason’s.)

After her appointment, I got a few calls and emails from friends pointing out that her record in Phoenix was not unblemished by controversy. The search committee knew that, of course – the controversy in question was a case that was hard to ignore, combining as it did allegations of age discrimination with some really nasty accusations by the local office of the NLRB of unfair labor practices.

But, when a mess is made by both the Music Director and the CEO, it’s impossible from the outside to know who was really responsible for what part of the steaming pile. A CEO is hard-pressed to restrain a Music Director from doing making stupid personnel decisions, especially when (as appears to be the case in Phoenix) the Board is strongly behind the MD - even though preventing public messes is a basic job skill for orchestra CEOs, as is dealing with Music Directors intent on doing dumb things.

I’m surprising myself by how unworried I am about this bit of baggage, though. In part this is because our Music Director has shown himself very skilled at dealing with personnel issues without making messes. But mostly it’s because I believe that, without some faith that intelligent people can learn from their mistakes, very few experienced people would ever get hired for anything. I’d sure hate to be judged only on the solos I’ve screwed up and the entrances I’ve missed over the years.

Or perhaps it’s just that the last CEO I was involved in hiring was also a woman and also a violist. She went on to become the first (and second, and third) women to be hired to run a Big 10’ish orchestra. And she’s done just fine.

It’s a hard job in which to succeed. I’d rather have someone who has succeeded somewhere else first, even if that success has included the occasional very public fail, than someone whose record has never been blemished by the kind of scars that running an orchestra inevitably leave on a reputation.


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