Talent Development

Why Most Organizations Don’t Invest (Much) in It, and How the Investment Has Paid Off for California Symphony

In the 2013–14 Season, a Professional Development budget didn’t exist for the California Symphony. Since then, the California Symphony has increased its Professional Development budget to more than $1,000 per staff member, and grown total revenue by more than $400,000 during that same time period. Investing in staff leads to results.

Orchestras have THE BEST talent on stage. Our players have been to the best music schools, studied with the best teachers, and must bring their absolute best — nothing short of perfection, really — to ever hope to win an audition in this intensely competitive field. And then they must perform their best again and again if they hope to gain tenure.

And on the admin side, we often don’t measure up to that.

In honor of conference season approaching, which is an opportunity for talent development that frequently gets the short straw, this post explores reasons for why this disparate juxtaposition between the artists and administrative talent often exists (there are actually some very compelling reasons), and why and how the California Symphony has chosen to tackle this issue.

  1. No Money

This is definitely number one on the list and is probably the reason most often sited for not investing in talent development, and frequently a big reason for not attracting top admin talent to begin with. It’s true, we all have lean budgets — all of us — from the smallest mom-and-pop organizations to the biggest multi-million dollar institutions, and sadly, being lean and always trying to be leaner is among the most prolific traits of our industry. Money, or lack there of, is a symptom and not the problem though, and lack of money translates to lack of priority. So what is the priority, then? Well, the product on stage is the priority, which makes a lot of sense and is why this issue gets convoluted very quickly, and it brings the discussion to reason number two:

2. The Overhead Myth

The term “Overhead Myth” was coined by Dan Pallotta in a viral 2013 TED Talk and is the idea that nonprofits are wrongly rewarded for how little we spend instead of the impact we’re making. This myth was for a long time promulgated by nonprofit watchdogs like Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and others who evaluated charities on the sole metric of financial ratio (i.e. people expenses as a percentage of total expenses). For example, an organization with a budget of $1Million that spent $100,000 on staff would have a 10% overhead rate, and somewhere just above that percentage organizations would be docked — i.e. have a lower score from those watchdog groups — with not one ounce of attention given to if that organization was executing its mission, saving lives, serving more people, etc. So that’s a problem. The good news is that some of those groups have changed their rating system, including the two named above. The bad news is that this myth is still a widely held view among individual donors and particularly among foundations. To this day, every person reading this who writes grants will agree that foundations often ask questions about staff costs, and we have to tiptoe carefully around how we present our financials, or simply not include overhead costs in a project, which is a total joke because the project can’t get done without people to execute it in the first place. CalNonprofits has gone so far to say that low overhead hurts nonprofits, and they’re right. Why is it that the musician on stage gets to be categorized as an expense that matters and the person bringing those musicians to local schools to build a future audience for our art form has to be categorized as bad and wasteful? All of this is to say that this is a very real reason why our organizations don’t invest in talent or talent development.

3. Fear They’ll Leave

I have heard peers in this industry express this feeling: “I’ll spend the money, and then they’ll get poached by someone else.” Or, “We go through all that effort to train them, and then they’re qualified for a better job somewhere else.” Or, “…and then they’ll go get paid more somewhere else.” Opportunity for growth internally is not why people leave a job. That’s not a thing. No one has ever said, “My organization invested in me so much, I got fed up and went somewhere else.”

One study shows that the number one reason orchestra administrators change jobs is workplace (dis)satisfaction (source: Adaptistration). Harvard Business Review confirms this more broadly by stating that one of the top drivers for employee turnover is allowing workers to stagnate in their role. As managers, we have a real opportunity to keep our staff challenged, inspired, stimulated — and ultimately keep them as high and higher performers delivering more to our bottom line — when we invest in their professional development.

Hopefully the ‘why’ is becoming more obvious, and by drilling down deeper, the California Symphony has connected the reason to invest in talent development to its budget implications.

  • Forget the cost of training — think of the cost of hiring. People always say it’s expensive to train someone new, but think of the costs you incur before you even get to that point: One job posting on LinkedIn is $500; that pays for the conference fee had that person stayed at your organization. Add in the costs to post that position to a few other job sites, and you’ve also broken even on the cost for conference transportation and lodging for that person.
  • Acknowledge not everyone in the whole org can go to a zillion (or even two) conferences a year. But there are other ways to foster a talent development environment. About a million webinars are available, and for many of them, if people would stop “multi-tasking” while watching and actually focus on the content presented, there is a wealth of good training being presented in this free or low cost format. We have tried to create a culture at the California Symphony that allows time for this so the multi-tasking isn’t a temptation and the time carved out is a priority. Besides conferences and webinars, there are also continuing education classes, daylong workshops and seminars, and industry boot camps. There are a lot of opportunities of varying time and monetary commitments we can foster.
  • Take advantage of discounts. Many professional development opportunities offer first timer rates and scholarships (last year we paid almost $0 for three staff members to go to a conference they wanted to attend because of funding for new attendees and emerging leaders). And since you’re only a first-timer once, make sure to go for the early bird rates in successive years. This seems like a no-brainer, but so often our orgs are structured such that sometimes people don’t know if they’ll be able to attend the conference/workshop/seminar until closer to the actual date, and the organization misses out on savings as a result. Plus, hotels and flights are cheaper in advance, too, so when you are budgeting and planning for this expense on a proper timeline, those costs are made as low as possible.
  • Staff have some skin in the game. The deal we make at the California Symphony is that if you want to attend a conference, you need to become an individual member of that service organization; for most of us that’s ACSO (Association of California Symphony Orchestras), for some it’s the League of American Orchestras, and for others, it’s something else. For example, our Music Librarian recently applied (and was accepted!) to become a member of MOLA (Major Orchestras’ Librarian Association), and she just went to their conference (with all the first timer discounts and scholarships she could rack up, of course), and came back a fireball of energy and ideas of how to make her work better and serve the organization in new and innovative ways. (Side note: I had no idea the librarians’ conference resulted in this kind of enthusiasm and idea generation…those folks are on to something). It was worth every penny (of which there really weren’t that many pennies spent compared to how much more awesome Marcella will be at her job now), and each staff member who invests a little themself tends to maximize the opportunity.
  • Report back after conference. What’s not acceptable at the California Symphony is to attend a conference/seminar/workshop and feel inspired and warm and fuzzy for about a week. I want action from the investment, so employees are required to report back at a future staff meeting what they learned, their key takeaways, and what they plan to implement in their work here based on all that. This internal show-and-tell is practiced all the way up to the Executive Director. We do this for a few reasons:
  1. This holds everyone accountable, so their performance can be evaluated against the goals and ideas they set for themselves.

2. They’ve just passed on the inspiration, ideas, and takeaways from conference in a personal way to the rest of the staff. #win

Over the last four years, the California Symphony has gone from not even having a professional development line in the budget to investing more and more in talent and their development. And the growth in revenue we’ve seen far outpaces the expense. In other words, it’s an investment that’s paying off.

The California Symphony has increased its Professional Development budget to more than $1,000 per staff member per year, and grown total revenue by more than $400,000 during that same time period. Investing in staff leads to results.

Stealing a few more cues from Silicon Valley and the greater business community, here are some other ideas we are looking to implement:

New hire boot camp. Some firms practice a multi-day or even multi-week orientation curriculum that covers all facets of company culture, cross-departmental and large-scale initiatives throughout the company, and a marketing/brand overview. We do a mini version of this at the California Symphony: every new employee, regardless of department, seniority, or job function is presented our audience development plan (more on that here and here, and you can view the actual plan here) in addition to our SMaC plan (here). We’d like to expand this to include a basic marketing/messaging overview (i.e. brand personality, how we talk about ourselves, key words or messages to use in our public communications…because every single role is public-facing to some degree, not just the marketing personnel).

Professional development stipend. Now that we’ve grown our talent development budget, we’re exploring the idea of including it in our benefits package (e.g. every employee has up to $X to spend on their own growth each year). Then, there’s not a pool of money to which people have to request access, but rather, an assumption that you as an employee are worth the investment — an equal investment to others — and you have the freedom and autonomy to determine how to use that investment to best benefit you. And, for those employees that want to invest in a bigger way, such as a continuing education class or attending many conferences, or traveling to one big, far away conference, they can make that decision and supplement as needed (see “skin in the game” comments above).

Mentorship. Structured mentoring is something our industry needs. Not the wimpy kind of mentoring where someone eager asks in a Dr. Seussian way, “Will you be my mentor?” and the person on the receiving end feels awkward and directionless from the way the too-open-ended-and-goalless question was asked; that doesn’t serve either party well. We need a systematic approach to coaching and development of others: mentorships that have a defined beginning and end, and goal(s) for the mentee, so that the period of mentoring has a clear direction for both parties. Plus, the mentorship needs to be mostly driven by the mentee, which can only happen with some basic training/orientation/expectation setting…again, some structure. While this type of project might seemingly lend itself to a big organization with a large staff, we are in the early stages of developing a plan working across organizations with which we’re connected. More to come on this in a future post. In the meantime, at minimum, finding ways to give direct feedback to your employees is critical in moving your staff and organization forward, and is often overlooked as a non-essential at nonprofits of all sizes. There’s too much at stake to not give straight and actionable feedback to your team.

Compared to other industries that have cultures of professional development, mentorship, accountability, and clearly defined growth tracks, we are behind. Being in service to the art means being in service to the people that produce the art (raise money for the art, market the art, educate others about the art, etc.), and there are a lot of people who never play an instrument on stage who help produce the art.

At the end of the day, people execute the mission — on stage and off — so we need to work on getting, keeping, and growing the best people. Conference season, here we go.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticketing, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-averse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry. aubreybergauer.com

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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