" /> Leading During Uncertain Times: Words of Wisdom from ACSO's 2020 Award Winners

Leading During Uncertain Times: Words of Wisdom from ACSO's 2020 Award Winners

This past September, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO) announced the 2020 winners of the inaugural Executive Leadership Award, the inaugural Emerging Professional Award, the fourth Kris Sinclair Leadership Award, and the 24th Most Valuable Player (MVP) Volunteer Awards.

As a turbulent year comes to a close, and as we are still navigating the challenges brought on by a global pandemic and engaging in social and cultural changes to promote equity in our field, we asked our award winners to reflect on and answer the question: How do you lead during uncertain times?

Their answers highlight the importance of trust, humility, collaboration, listening, inclusion, and connection. These words of wisdom are a thoughtful way to close out 2020 and a dose of inspiration to begin 2021. Read on and enjoy!

Kris Sinclair Leadership Award Winner

Board of Directors & Staff Leadership, Auburn Symphony

Auburn Board President Stephanie Snyder holds the Kir Sinclair Leadership Award

Like nonprofits everywhere, the Auburn Symphony looks for opportunities that are responsive to and match our existing environment and capabilities. These pandemic times have severely impacted all of us and are filled with more uncertainties. That said, we are also operating differently these days as a result of lessons learned before all the craziness started. Here are some of the lessons we practice as we broadly embrace a new paradigm of leadership and responsiveness:

Telescoping - It’s not only useful but imperative for small budget organizations like ours to become very nimble at keeping an eye on both the details (micro level) and the “big picture” (macro level). The key is not being stuck focusing on one or the other, but moving back and forth quickly and adjusting priorities as needed. The lesson: It doesn’t have to be one person, just make sure all needed skills are represented and the executive leadership is on top of monitoring the movement.

Communications - It’s absolutely a mission-critical component of our organization’s transparency and trustworthiness to assure that lines of communication are open. We are constantly examining how to increase and improve communications: up, down, laterally, inside and outside of the organization. The lesson: Because we had started making sure everyone was “looped in” it was easier to add effective, efficient ways to more easily keep in touch once the pandemic hit and seriously affected our mobility and outreach.

Rebuilding - We had to get comfortable with the conclusion that when past practices were no longer serving us well, we had a responsibility to change, eliminate and rebuild. Going from maintenance mode (that may not be working well) to new territory can be terrifying, even when you know it’s necessary. The lesson: The positive energy generated when rebuilding on solid principles with dedicated leadership creates its own aura that is attractive to everyone—potential new Board candidates, staff, volunteers, supporters and funders. Done right, it pays dividends—four new board members have been added since COVID, and that they are hitting the ground running and adding effectively to our team from Day One.

Learning - Bringing new information onto the Board’s horizon, even if it might only seem tangentially related, gives us fresh perspectives and sometimes dynamic ideas we might not have considered. Every Board and staff member is encouraged to share. It’s impossible to know who will have an “ah ha” moment and latch onto something useful or maybe even grand when it’s then channeled through our focused, strategic business processes. Sounds like an elementary notion, but continually doing it and making the culture one where it is expected is harder than it seems. The lesson: Patience. Keep eyes and ears open. Inspire each other. Don’t stop.

You might notice we don’t say “remember the mission” and “bring in more money.” We are firm believers that if we stay mission-centric, following these lessons WILL help us figure how to bring in the money that will allow us to deliver. Along the way, we’ll achieve a level of stability and sustainability that serves us well in uncertain times and helps us thrive beyond them.

Executive Leadership Award Winner

Stephen Wilson, President & CEO, Fresno Philharmonic

 I think the key to leadership in uncertain times is honesty, with oneself, as well as with all stakeholders of the organization. Admitting what you know and don’t know about novel and challenging circumstances is crucial for retaining the trust and commitment of those whom we need to help us navigate these uncertain times. That includes a large dose of intellectual humility. As leaders we are often looked to by our board, staff and orchestra for answers. In times of high uncertainty, I think it’s much more important that we take the time to make sure we are asking the right questions.


Emerging Professional Award Winner

Tara Aesquivel, Executive Director, American Youth Symphony

I have found that leading in uncertain times requires trust. The unpredictable nature of events in 2020 has required an even higher level of trust among our board, Executive Director, Music Director, staff, musicians, vendors, and patrons. Earlier this year, circumstances were changing on a daily basis and I had to make decisions on the fly, whereas I may have run them through staff or board committees otherwise. In situations like this, I have to first trust myself and my intuition. I also have to trust that others will be understanding if I make a mistake and will help in good faith when needed. Likewise, I acknowledge that the events of 2020 are affecting everyone differently and I try to give others the benefit of the doubt. Transparency and clear communication have been especially critical in maintaining trust while working remotely and sharing programming virtually.

Jim Collins' advice to "get the right people on the bus" has never been more relevant. We have had to take some risks to be able to reimagine, transform, and adapt our programs to fit new circumstances: implementing new technologies, very ambitious timelines, uncertain return on investments, etc. But I'm only willing to take certain risks because I have complete faith and trust in my team. When my Music Director says, "I have a crazy idea..." my response is "Yes, and..." When a staff member says they can handle a project, I let them. In that sense, the leadership exhibited during uncertain times draws upon the trust established in the years leading up to the crisis and is a reflection, perhaps even a magnification, of that trust.

 Emerging Professional Award Winner

Connor Bogenreif, Manager of Operations & Education, Long Beach Symphony

Leading in uncertain times can seem like an insurmountable challenge, however, I believe that effective leadership, whether times are certain or uncertain, can look similarly if a leader takes a collaborative approach. Effective leadership, regardless of the situation, listens and observes before taking action, collaborates with others, communicates clearly, recognizes that good ideas can come from anywhere, takes responsibility for their own actions, learns from their mistakes, and lets compassion and morality guide their actions. Uncertain times may make it difficult to focus on these tenets of effective leadership, but with these at the core of decision making, there can be more certainty in finding a way forward.

Most Valuable Player (MVP) Volunteer AWARD Winner

Dr. Jay Fiene, Board of Directors, San Bernardino Symphony Orchestra

The only time we wouldn’t be leading in uncertain times is when we likely aren’t leading but remaining static – which according to the laws of the universe and especially entropy means we are actually declining. So, to me leading during uncertainty can mean we are implementing change, a new strategy, focusing on a new or enhanced goal, working with people we haven’t previously worked for or with…. Countless possibilities behind the uncertainty. For me the best things I can do is try to understand the problem, goal, focus as clearly as possible. Work to understand all the possibilities, ideals and consequences of actions or inactions. Once I have spent time independently I seek out as diverse and representative a group that will be involved in or impacted by the solution, goal accomplishment and hear their thoughts about what we should do, why, how and when. We must welcome questions, dissent and work to listen more than speak. I think the key is communication not only about what we know but about what we don’t, not only about when we got it right but, also admit when we got it wrong and work together on what we learned and how to not do it again. Patience, passion, persistence and partnerships to me are the tools.

Most Valuable Player (MVP) Volunteer AWARD Winner

Mary Ann Orr, Board of Directors and Symphony League Member, Santa Cruz Symphony

 During this uncertain and difficult time I have tried to accept the situation and set up ways to proceed with the belief that life will return to normal. I think that staying personally connected with our Symphony family is a great way to show leadership. Every day I call at least one Symphony patron and listen to their concerns. I like to encourage people to listen and participate to our virtual events and concerts. Also I have found that sending cards with a note of caring and missing someone is a great outreach. Anyway we can stay connected to our Symphony family is important and I encourage all Board members to do what they can to keep this connection. 

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