This year, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra marked its 10th year in the black. In my 25-year career, I have either started orchestras in new markets or turned around financially troubled orchestras. What I've learned through that experience is that there are key moves you must make and priorities you must have in order to create successful organizations that serve your community today and tomorrow.
1. Focus on Service
Your mission must serve the community. You cannot exist just for the employees. What are you providing that people today and tomorrow need that no one else can provide? When you are choosing how to invest money, look first to what will make a difference years from now.
2. Tend to Your Team
Build your team quickly; turning around or starting a company takes more than you. Your team doesn't have to be paid employees, it can include volunteer board members who share the vision, employees, friends, vendors or other networks.
When I worked in New Orleans, a wonderful Brazilian volunteer came to the office and was happy to do data entry to learn the English language. When I worked in Miami, vendors introduced me to key contacts and helped make sure all our concerts sold out our first year in existence in Miami. In Little Rock, volunteer board leaders made the turnaround happen.
When hiring people, I look for a mix of people with lots of experience and people who are smart and want to learn. My background is strong in marketing and development, so I tend to hire smart, curious, positive and young hard-workers in those areas and more experienced finance and operations directors.
Another option is hiring a very experienced outside consultant to help train the less experienced full-time employees. As the organization gets older, you will be thankful the younger employees now have years of experience so you can expand the service to the community.
There are a number of ways to build your team. Build it quickly.
3. Decide What is Essential
What is essential and what is nice? Separate the wheat from the chaff with your time and your money. When you start or turn around a company, you have to start with what is essential to reach your North Star. Separate what must you have and do, and what would be nice if you had more time and money. Getting overwhelmed is easy. Step back. Stop. Look at your North Star. Stick to what will have the greatest impact.
4. Know Your Why
In my case, I strive to create a professional orchestra that serves its community every day, now and when I am no longer here. I work to hear the parent, the student, the adult tell me how the symphony has transformed her life.
"My son pitched a fit every day about going to school. Every morning was a struggle for my wife, other children and me," a father once told me when I worked in Mobile, Alabama. "Then,you offered a violin class and now he can’t wait to go to school. Thank you for helping our family."
Arkansas Symphony broadcast a concert live one time at MacArthur Park. A mother wrote us that her daughter loves music, but because she has special needs, she can’t go to the Robinson Center to hear the orchestra.
"Because ASO broadcast at a park, my daughter could laugh and enjoy herself the entire concert," she said. "Thank you for bringing this to our life."
That's my why. That's my North Star.
At the end of the day, starting a company takes energy and so does sustaining it and helping it grow. Having a team and a North Star will keep you focused on your service to the community.
Christina Littlejohn has been the CEO of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra since June 2009. During that time, the orchestra has grown its budget by 25% and greatly expanded its education programming. Over her 25-year career, Littlejohn was CEO of the Pensacola Symphony, started the Mobile Symphony and launched the Cleveland Orchestra's Miami Residency.