Want Your Professional Chorus to Thrive? Be a Fiercely Introspective Leader

Spoiler Alert: If your only takeaway from this blog post is the title, you will have all you need to transform your organization radically and sustainably.

I get to spend all of my days speaking with leaders and members of arts organizations about their successes and struggles. As a result, I have seen an overwhelming pattern in small and midsize professional arts organizations that is plaguing the industry. I call that plague conventional success.

Let’s be real: who actually wants conventional success? All of the arts leaders I speak to want exponential success. They want success that builds upon itself, that fosters more reward than challenge, and grows into something greater than themselves. Yet they pursue conventional success because they believe it is a necessary precursor to the exponential. This simple misunderstanding is where a lot of time, energy, and money is wasted in our industry.

In partnership with Chorus America, Lisa Husseini of iCadenza is launching the Advanced Management Institute for leaders of professional choruses.

Here is an extremely common example of what chasing conventional success looks like, and why it keeps an organization stuck. Let’s say Choir A has a funding issue. A project-based professional choir going on their tenth year, they have been carrying a full season for years, yet every fundraising effort is still a grueling race to raise enough money to pay the artists for the next project. Forget about a staff, the founder is not even being compensated for their artistic contributions, let alone their enormous administrative efforts. They are clear on their problem, and they’ve titled it “needing more money.” So, Choir A ventures out to find a solution called “getting more money.” Luckily, there are about 50 solutions that fall into this category, and Choir A decides to pursue a few. They send out more donor mailings leading up to concerts, they create educational programming so that they are eligible for larger grants, and they program more large-scale, crowd-pleasing works to draw larger audiences and sell more tickets.

The result? They get more money! The issue? They now definitely need a full-time administrative position to sustain all of the programming and administrative work they’ve added—yet they still don’t have any money for the position, still aren’t paying the founder, and now don’t even have any bandwidth left to generate more money.

Sound familiar? Whether the issue is funding, board engagement, staff retention, artist satisfaction, or audience development, the industry is saturated with conventional solutions that solve the issue at hand yet keep professional arts organizations stuck in the struggle.

In other words, chasing conventional success as a means to exponential success is like peeling a whole sack of potatoes by hand in order to make an apple pie. You put in a lot of work, followed the directions to the letter, and have tangible results to show for it—but the whole time you were working with the wrong ingredient.

So what does the path to exponential success look like?

Choir B also has a funding issue. However, the leader of Choir B is mindful that how they show up for their organization is how the organization will show up in the community—and how Choir B shows up in the community will inform how the community shows up in return.

After taking measures to get an honest glimpse at their behavior patterns, the leader of Choir B realizes that their energy around fundraising blows extremely hot or cold depending on the time of year. In the months leading up to a performance, the fundraising, logistics, and marketing consume their whole world so that once a performance is over, they are burnt out and don’t want to think about these administrative tasks until absolutely necessary. Unsurprisingly, the funders are mimicking this exact pattern, and aren’t giving consistently.

So, the leader of Choir B crafts a plan based on what they want to see from their funders - steadiness and commitment. They make a commitment to spend 2 hours a week on donor development and marketing, even in the off months. After two months, they see a small uptick in donor interest. After six months, they see a few substantial donor leads. After a year, they have multiple new substantial donors, with many more on the horizon. Now, they have more bandwidth, and more money, to take on new challenges.

The paths to conventional success and exponential success both begin with a struggle and the quest for a solution. However, exponential success can only occur when a leader takes responsibility for their part in the struggle, and seeks to first shift their behavior before fixing anything externally.

If this seems simple, that’s because it is. However, that is exactly why most leaders dismiss it. How can something so simple produce great results? Additionally, cultivating this type of leadership, the type that begins with self-examination, can be humbling and frightening. It’s a road I’ve personally walked down, and it’s a road I walk down with my clients every day. While I can’t say it’s always sunshine and roses, I can say that every person I’ve walked down it with, including myself, will tell you it was undeniably worth the journey, and has paid off in spades.

This is why I’ve partnered with Chorus America to develop the Advanced Management Institute - a 4-month program that walks leaders of small and midsize professional arts organizations through the skills needed for exponential success by tackling your most pressing issue. The program starts in March of 2020 but enhanced support is available immediately for those who sign up in January and February. For more information, you can check it out here: lisahusseini.com/ami or email me directly at [email protected].

If you are the leader of a professional chorus and feel like you’re in a constant state of struggle, don’t be afraid to hit the pause button, slow down, and look honestly at how you’re showing up every day. Your exponentially successful future depends on it.

As CEO of iCadenza, Lisa Husseini helps performing and visual artists launch projects which transform their careers. She has presented at Chorus America Conferences and has held positions at the New England Conservatory, New World Symphony, and Seraphic Fire.