How To Become a Managing Director
Steve Collins is the Executive Director, or Managing Director, of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Of his work, he says, “Maybe one of the most challenging and also exciting and interesting things is you’re responsible for a large variety of areas, for the daily operations of the organization, the strategic planning and implementation of those plans. On a typical day, you’re touching on many areas; you have things like general team management (meaning the different departments) and keeping on top of industry knowledge and trends and how that might apply to your organization. There are also also lots of productions and events and I’m in close contact with them to make sure things are being carried out. We have boards and committee work; there are Executive, Finance, Development, Marketing, Education and Community Engagement, Human Resources, Investment, Audit and two special committees: one for our Capital Campaign and our 75th Anniversary (which is the 2018-2019 season). All those committees touch on all the different departments of the orchestra.
There are always things like financial review, budget analysis, and fundraising. There’s meeting and talking with donors directly to preach the ‘symphony gospel.’ There’s the overall strategic direction of the orchestra and making sure we’re staying true to the strategic operatives and events. In terms of a typical day the only thing that’s really typical is most days are involved with working in several different areas but occasionally you spend one day focusing on one thing, whether it’s finance and budgeting or artistic direction.”
Executive Directors often work with the symphony’s Business Manager, Personnel Director, Director of Educational Activities, Subscriptions and Ticket Service Director, Director of Development, Director of Public Relations, Orchestra Manager, Conductor, and of course the musicians themselves.
Most Managing Directors began their careers as musicians before finding work in the various departments necessary to run an orchestra. Collins tells us about his path: “I grew up being a musician, playing piano and percussion. I played piano as a kid, but percussion has been my focus my whole adult life. I went to school at The Hartt School of Music to study percussion and be a performer. I graduated with a Performance degree. If you told me when I was a junior or senior at Hartt that someday I’d manage orchestras, I’d tell you that you were a little crazy! That career path was not on my mind. I thought I was going to be a performer. I spent ten years performing and teaching all over the place, privately, institutionally, performing orchestrally, playing in musical theatre, touring with Broadway shows in Europe, playing jazz and rock, making a go of it as a performer/Teacher.
Meanwhile, I developed a real curiously and desire to learn more about what made performing arts organizations work, beyond putting on a bunch of concerts and people buying tickets. Obviously, there was more going on than that. I became involved with producing Education and Community Engagement programming for a bunch of orchestras, more or less on a freelance basis. Then I started running an Education department which translated into a series of jobs with more responsibilities. This landed me in a job as the Executive Director of a smaller regional orchestra with a budget of less than one million dollars. From there I moved on to the position I’m in now with the Hartford Symphony. I still perform with other orchestras in the state and do musical theatre work. I haven’t taught in a number of years but I’m still performing. I have a really strong belief that if you want to manage a performing arts organization you have to have some experience in making the art, whether it’s performing in the orchestra or being a painter doing set design. The more you do the better. You have to have that basic experience.
There was also a parallel track that developed in the early part of my career where I was working and getting experience in commercial construction project management. It may seem to be unrelated, but it’s really not. I learned a lot about project management and how to put together a project or campaign and how to communicate, how to establish goals and a vision, then about building consensus behind those visions. The jargon and details are different from one industry to the next, but it’s about finding ways to gain experience in leadership positions, no matter how small the project may be.”
He adds, “There are many different ways to go about it and they are equally valid. A different track is to spend time in a greater number of assignments in larger organizations. For example, I’ve never worked with a really large city orchestra like Boston, New York, Chicago or LA: that’s something you could say is missing from my experience. So a different way to go about it would be through gaining experience in some of the larger organizations in the industry, which I’m sure would bring a different perspective.”
Education & Training
Becoming an orchestra’s Executive Director has more to do with work experience than a certain academic background, but degrees in Arts Administration or Performance can help. Collins, who has a Performance degree himself, says, “I think there are a lot of opportunities for students that weren’t so common all that long ago, meaning that a lot of university and even conservatory programs offer Music Management or Performing Arts Management tracks. We mentioned internships earlier and I think that can be important. It’s also important to start getting involved with performing arts organizations while you’re still in school to understand how they work and which opportunities might be most appealing to you. It can be important to gain experience, whether it’s through work, volunteering or in your studies — with fields somewhat related, but sort of outside the actual performing arts industries. I think it’s important to understand how corporate America, the great companies work. One of the pieces of advice I’d offer is don’t feel limited by what you perceive as your preferred performing arts activity or organization. Check it all out.”
Experience & Skills
Anyone aspiring to someday become an orchestra’s Executive Director must have a considerable amount of experience in the non-profit arts world. Collins suggests, “Aside from the obvious thing which is to go out and get experience in all different areas of orchestra management, marketing, finance, event production, I think the less obvious thing that can be really important is to gain experience in actually playing in orchestras if you haven’t already. It doesn’t have to be at the highest level with a major orchestra. If you play an orchestral instrument, get involved in performing with a college or community orchestra. It’s important to understand how the business works from the musicians’ point of view. That can be valuable in informing how you approach strategic planning, build strong organizations and communicate with all the different constituencies in a community orchestra.”
Through this experience, he says, it’s important “to develop your ability to communicate, understand and forge relationships with a wide variety of people. You’re working with the staff, volunteers, musicians, board of directors, and donors, some of whom can be at the highest level of corporate involvement in our community. You have to be able to relate one-on-one and have strong communication skills to be able to negotiate, foster compromise and build consent behind a common vision. It’s one thing to say it, of course — it’s harder to find the right experience to build those skills. So don’t limit yourself to the area you think you’re most interested in. Don’t say, ‘Marketing is what I’m most interested in; I will look only at marketing internships.’ Get into contact with many different types of people so you have experience on stage, in community centers, and in the boardroom so you’re ready when the time comes to assume a management position.”
It takes a certain kind of person successfully manage an orchestra. Collins says, “I think you have to be a relentless optimist, but also a realistic optimist. It’s not a matter of seeing the glass half full or empty, but in seeing it as it is and looking to maximize the half-full attitude. This work can be fraught with disappointment and unpredictability. You’re selling tickets to concerts and events; that doesn’t always go how you imagine it.
You’re trying to raise money from individuals and companies. The economy fluctuates, there are political influences, the weather is bad: it doesn’t always go how you want it to go. It’s essential to be someone who can face challenges continually, one after another, keeping an eye out for what’s important in the long run. [Be] an optimist, a consistent hard worker. It’s not about going in fits and starts. You have to be consistent every day of every month. You’re in here working your butt off and seeing what you need to do to stay true to the organization and its priorities.”
The work lifestyle of an orchestra’s Managing Director can vary, but it’s usually quite busy. Collins explains, “You have office work but there are also a lot of concerts and special events, typically on evenings or weekends. In terms of a daily schedule, I can tell you what I do; it might be different than what other people do.
I have a very short twenty-minute commute to work so I come in early to beat the morning rush hour, so I’m usually in the office by 7:30 at the latest. I try to get out of here by 5:00, 5:30. I have a young family — a wife and two kids — so I try to leave and get home to either have dinner with the family and help with homework or be at their music/sports things. The kids are in bed by 8:00, 8:30, so if need be I’ll work more at home from say 8:30 – 11:00, 12:00 at night. That gets changed if there’s an evening event; I’ll go home, then back to the theatre for the event, or just stay at the theatre. On the weekend, there are a lot of concerts and activities but no one goes to everything. It depends on the size of the organization but we do about sixty concerts a year and a hundred education events, so you have to pace yourself and pick priorities as they present themselves.”
For young people hoping to someday land a position as an orchestra’s Executive Director, Collins suggests “internships can be a really great opportunity. The good news for college students today is that there are lots of options to get experience that weren’t so common even twenty years ago. There are organizations like the League of American Orchestras that provide training and fellowship opportunities. There’s a whole Orchestra Management training program that’s very selective and elite but is an option to pursue. I think, immediately after college young people need to be really flexible in how they gain experience in the field. There are the formal training opportunities but there are other ground level opportunities with orchestras or other performing arts ensembles and it helps to be willing to travel. It depends on where you live; if you live in the greater New York metro area, that’s one thing, but if you live somewhere in a more isolated community you have to be willing to travel to get the work you want. Be willing to accept relatively short-term assignments that last maybe one or two seasons.
It takes time to build experience and contacts. I’ve seen a lot of people getting their early years in the industry through more creative, entrepreneurial ways instead of waiting till there’s an opportunity with an orchestra that fits your prescribed expectations or in a field you want to specialize in. Go out and try to create something. If you want to work in Education and Community Engagement (it might not work so well with Finance, for example), maybe there are some local performing arts organizations that don’t have a lot of activity in that area and you could bring that to them rather than wait to be recruited to an open position. I think you can definitely get creative, even with Fundraising. Volunteer at your local performing arts organization’s fundraising events or galas and get to know the people, show initiative and bring some new ideas to the table. That’s how jobs are born. It can be really important and rewarding to be creative and entrepreneurial.”
An orchestra’s Executive Director usually receives a high salary, commensurate with the amount of work they do to manage the multiple departments of the orchestra. In recent years this figure has varied with the Executive Director of the LA Philharmonic’s $1,586,820 yearly salary at the top of the spectrum. The majority of management officials earn around $200,000 to $400,000 yearly.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“For orchestra management, the League of American Orchestras offers a job board, online training, a lot of different opportunities. I’d start with the League and look into opportunities with organizations in your area, volunteer positions, internships — whatever it takes to get to know the people doing the work you want to do,” Collins says.
- “Diversify your college training. Do whatever you need to do to get performing arts management training, but also be a good student and do English, Psychology, Visual Arts, or Creative Writing.
- Volunteer or intern with organizations to get experience and meet people.
- Look for formal training opportunities after school, whether it’s a fellowship or online training.
- Be willing to travel for a job to gain experiences.
- Gain experience outside the field. Diversify so you’re gaining different perspectives on different work styles and different ways organizations can be managed.
- Be an entrepreneur. If you’re not finding the opportunities you’re looking for, create them —easier said than done, but try.
- Look for the fun. I tell people who work for me here, ‘Look, we spend a ridiculous number of hours every week working. For many people, you spend more time at work with your coworkers than your family and friends and my philosophy is there should be an element of fun to your work. You should be doing fun things and working with people who have a shared definition of what is fun. There’s got to be laugher and celebrations in the office and the odd ‘Let’s take the next couple hours off and play whiffle ball in the park.’ Look for people who have fun in their work and be a part of that. I think it’s healthy.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
Be a realistic optimist. Make the most of the opportunities you find and encourage the same attitude in others. There’s only one way things get better and that’s to have the right attitude.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Too narrowly defining their path. It’s back to getting experience in being a leader in other fields and other areas. You’re always learning something different by being in a different kind of situation. Another mistake is to de-emphasize the importance of good communication skills and helping people find compromise, whether that’s getting training in negotiation skills or conflict resolution skills. I think there’s a lack of awareness that you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people on the same page, so it’s important to build those skills.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Maybe something along the lines of how to handle disappointment. How do you deal with things when they aren’t going as you envisioned — you’re not getting the earned revenue, you’re not making it work financially, or you’re not reaching the right audience? When things aren’t going well, what do you do?
It’s kind of hard to answer that question. It depends on what your situation is, but it’s important to have a process in mind and be prepared when things go askew. The first thing I like to do is check my underlying assumptions, (the designs you make are based on assumptions), try to understand what might have gone wrong, then reassess the implementation you engineered and what specifically worked or didn’t to understand the problem better. Then adjust the movement better. When you don’t know what to do, when in doubt, perform controlled experiments.
You can’t be complacent. If you have a leadership position in an arts organization, there will be times when things are not going as expected.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“It’s important for people to understand how their work and private life will balance and be realistic about what their expectations and goals are because of what I said before — it’s not exactly a standard nine-to-five job and that might create problems for some people, depending on how they were raised or what their expectations are. It’s definitely not for everyone, so be aware of that and think that through.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Steve Collins is the Executive Director of the Hartford Symphony in Connecticut.