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Innovating Out of a Crisis feat. Professor Scott Sonenshein & John Mangum

Owl Have You Know

Season 4, Episode 16

Eager to learn how organizations can innovate their way out of a crisis? You may be surprised that the key to this comes from an arts organization.

Tune into a special live recording of our podcast, with John Mangum, the executive director/CEO of the Houston Symphony, and Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management – Organizational Behavior at Rice Business.

During the pandemic, the performing arts faced an especially grave challenge beyond the shared difficulties with other industries: an existential crisis over the relevance of arts in times of extreme hardship. Professor Scott Sonenshein, a New York Times bestselling author and expert on how employees can create organizational, social and personal change, led a multi-year study of two prominent orchestras (including the Houston Symphony), resulting in a surprising insight with far-reaching applications. Resourcefulness is not just helpful for surviving adversity. It’s a strategic framework that enables organizations to become better versions of themselves.

In this conversation, John and Scott reflect on how the Houston Symphony transformed their operations and performance delivery during the pandemic, and how business leaders facing disruptions can benefit from critical changes Scott’s research uncovered.

Following their conversation, musicians from the Houston Symphony perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat major, illustrating the Symphony's commitment to diversity and exploration in music.

MuChen Hsieh '17, violin
Amy Semes '19, violin
Wei Jiang, viola
Jeremy Kreutz '20, cello



Thank you to our guests, Scott and John, our host, Maya Pomroy '22, Vicky Dominguez, Alex Soares, and the musicians. Special thanks to Dean Peter Rodriguez for his introduction and the Shepherd Shool of Music for sharing their beautiful space for the recording event. 

Check out Scott's Rice Business Wisdom article to learn more about his research on conflict.

Subscribe to Owl Have You Know on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Episode Transcript

  • [00:00] Maya: Welcome to Owl Have You Know, a podcast from Rice Business. This episode is part of our Up Next series, where faculty, researchers, and alumni weigh in on the trends currently shaping the world of business. Make sure to listen to the full episode to hear an incredible performance from the Houston Symphony Quartet.

    [00:23] Peter: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us here in this lovely facility for a live broadcast of our award-winning, award-winning, yes, award-winning podcast, Owl Have You Know. There's no better name than Owl Have You Know. Thank you very much.

    This is a great opportunity for us. I'm especially excited for today because we get to share some of the ideas for some original research done at Rice Business to talk about a great story of resilience here in Houston and a great lesson that can be applied very broadly around lots of different types of organizations. And to help us do that, we have three fantastic guests today. We have John Mangum. So, John is at the back. You can make your way up here to the front.

    Very happy to have John, who's the executive director, yes, the CEO, and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair of the Houston Symphony. A wonderful warm round of applause for you, John. Thank you so much. Previously, he's held senior artistic planning roles at the San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. And he has stewarded the Houston Symphony through some really interesting, tough times.

    And he's the subject, and a great subject, of this research. So, welcome, John. Happy to have you here. We're also joined by Rice professor, Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of business, Scott Sonenshein. Scott's done everything special at Rice. He wrote a great book called Stretch, which you may remember. He had a great book called the Joy at Work with Marie Kondo. It launched not long after, four years ago on a day much like today.

    I called Scott, who was the very first professor to whom I had to give the message that, "Sorry. There's a COVID pandemic. You have to pivot your class from in person to not in person. And you're the perfect person to do that because all your research is about this topic." And Scott did a famously beautiful job of that.

    And of course, we have a great podcast host in Maya Pomroy, a journalist with great experience in front of the camera, behind the camera, everywhere, and most importantly, a Rice MBA. So, we're really delighted to have Maya here. Maya, thank you. And thanks to all of you. Thank you to Dean Matthew Loden and everyone here at the Shepherd School of Music for allowing us to use this lovely space. And now, on to the show. Take it away, Maya.

    [02:39] Maya: Thank you. Good evening, everyone. We are really thrilled and delighted to have you here this evening. My name is Maya Pomroy. And I will be your host. And as Dean Rodriguez said, this is a wonderful opportunity to really showcase an extraordinary event that happened right here in Houston. We are an award-winning podcast at Rice Business, something that we're very, very proud of, yes, Owl Have You Know.

    So, I think that most of us remember, in the spring of 2020, and all of us would probably like to forget, how the world just stopped. Everything paused. Business stopped. Education stopped. Traffic stopped, which was good and bad. And the music stopped, but just for a little while, just for a little while at the Houston Symphony. So, if you're interested and curious about how to innovate during a time of crisis, you've come to the right place.

    And thank you so much for coming. During the pandemic, the performing arts industry really went through a lot of issues and was grappling with not only an economic downturn, but also an existential question of the role that the performing arts plays in society during a time of crisis.

    And at that time, Professor Sonenshein had taken on doing this amazing, groundbreaking, multi-year study on of the Houston Symphony about its innovation, about its resilience, how not only it survived, but also how it thrived. And what he found was really fascinating. Resourcefulness isn't just, isn't just something that you use to survive.

    It's actually a strategic framework that can be applied across the board, across all industries, which is really fascinating and breathtaking. So, that is what we're going to discuss this evening. We're going to dig into Scott's research. We're going to talk about all of the incredible things you did as a leader at the Houston Symphony. And we are also, at the end, we have quite a treat.

    We've got members of the Houston Symphony that are going to be performing for us. So, without further ado, I would love to jump in. And I'm going to take a seat over here. And I'd love to start with you, Scott. So, what made you interested and curious and passionate about studying organizational change? And also, what led you to really do this study about the Houston Symphony?

    [05:33] Scott: Well, thank you. And thank you for having me on the podcast. Organizational change is something that I've been studying my entire professional career. And it really started out before I was an academic. I worked at a, at a time, a high-flying startup organization in Silicon Valley. And I got out there right during the peak of the dot-com boom. And what I saw was, you know, it's, kind of, like, pandemonium of, you know, all of the excess out there.

    And, you know, being a young 20-something-year-old at the time, it was, kind of, exciting to be out there at that time. But what I quickly realized is that this was not a sustainable way of doing things. And as, kind of, the free flow of cash stopped coming in from venture capitalists, we were basically exposed for what we were, which was basically a business without a purpose. And I saw a lot of...

    [06:17] Maya: We don't know any of those.

    [06:18] Scott: Yeah. Well, certainly not from our students. And I saw, I saw a lot of terrible mistakes in terms of how change was being implemented, practices that were really making a very difficult situation far worse. And so, that inspired me to get my PhD and really understand resourcefulness, which is essentially, you know, how do we use the resources that we have in more effective ways versus just squandering what we have?

    Because my company I was at squandered a lot. And I've spent my career trying to study organizations, like what the Houston Symphony did, that have found ways, remarkable ways, I would add, of taking what they have and making the most of it.

    [07:10] Maya: Is that business still in... I'm just kidding. I'm not going to put you on the spot [crosstalk 00:07:16].

    [07:15] Scott: No, we were, we were definitely out of business. I remember the day bringing my certificate of shares that, at the time, were worth probably millions into my class and saying this is worth zero right now. That's why you should take this class seriously.

    [07:32] Maya: Well, overvalued. A bit of an overvaluation. So, tell me about the Houston Symphony. What drew you to that? How did you meet?

    [07:41] Scott: Yeah. So, this is, kind of, a story that almost takes us full circle to resourcefulness. So, it's during the pandemic, and it's the beginning of the pandemic, and most of my research is ethnographic and in the field, which means I spend my time embedded in organizations, trying to understand how they work. And that was hard to do during the pandemic. And I was, kind of, struggling to find, you know, a place to study.

    Well, as Peter mentioned in the introduction, I was still teaching at the time. And all of our teaching was done online. And I had this exercise I was doing. It's called the Reciprocity Ring, which is a way of just, kind of, showing how the world is smaller than we might imagine it would be, and that people who, when we ask for favors from someone, chances are these could be granted even if they're pretty extreme. And so, I'm teaching a class.

    And I have, I think, a student happened to be out sick that day probably because of COVID. So, I asked my faculty assistant to, kind of, play this game because I needed a certain number of students for this exercise to work. And it turned out that she was the one that granted my favor.

    My question was, you know, I'm looking for a field site, preferably in the performing arts space, where they're, you know, able to, you know, kind of, still keep playing, do something pretty remarkable. Do you know anyone? And do you have any connections? And that got me to someone in PR at the Houston Symphony. And that, kind of, launched this whole thing.

    [08:56] Maya: So, it was really serendipitous, your meeting.

    [08:59] Scott: Well, it was serendipitous in the sense that the Houston Symphony was not on my radar, but it wasn't serendipitous because the purpose of the exercise is to exactly show that, that what seems like serendipitous encounters and, kind of, you know, questions that you would never think you can get fulfilled actually, in your network, actually can fulfill those. And so, it was serendipitous in that sense, but predictable in another sense.

    [09:29] Maya: And so, and so, good answer. So, in terms of the performing arts, what was it about the performing arts that you really wanted to dig in and study?

    [09:40] Scott: Well, the performing arts was an industry that had, I think, about 65% unemployment at the inception of the pandemic. This is an industry that, you know, you couldn't congregate, so you couldn't practice. You couldn't have people in your performance spaces. And a lot of their employees are highly skilled, but with very specific skills that are non-transferable to other industries.

    And so, I was looking for strong adversity where an industry was facing even more than the typically extreme adversity that other companies or other industries were facing. And so, I started with Broadway professionals. And I started interviewing them. And I thought that was really exciting because I like Broadway, but they were all closed.

    And they were doing nothing, nothing interesting. And that was, kind of, the struggle. It's like, you know, who is there really left to study? And in fact, most performing arts organizations, including most symphonies, weren't doing anything. So, it happened to be, there's, I guess, one form of serendipity that the one of the few organizations that was still playing happened to be in my hometown in Houston.

    [10:44] Maya: So, John, now, we're going to move on to you.

    [10:48] John: Okay.

    [10:49] Maya: So, it's the spring of 2020. Tell me what you thought right when... because I think all of us, we were like, "This is going to be over soon." I mean, you know, I have a friend who's an epidemiologist. And I was like, "May, right? We're going to be done by May." We weren't done by May, right? So, when all of this started to happen, and things started to shut down, what did you do?

    [11:14] John: So, we initially also shut down. And I remember we were rehearsing a big piece with the chorus and the orchestra, six vocal soloists, and we started to see a lot of attrition from the chorus because you might remember some of the early news stories that were coming out about the pandemic were coming from... I remember specifically there was a chorus in Washington where there was a news story about how a bunch of the members of the chorus-

    [11:41] Maya: Got sick?

    [11:41] John: ... had caught COVID. And so, we started to see this attrition. It felt like several orchestras, almost on the same day, in the middle of March of 2020, decided to shut down that week's rehearsals and performances and send everybody home. And so, that's what we did. And I would say that, at first, like you said, we were planning on, oh, okay, we're going to have a big reopening, welcome everybody back in May or June, this, sort of, thing.

    We thought it would be much more transitory than it was. And it became apparent fairly quickly with the advice coming from the CDC and also Houston Methodist Hospitals, our healthcare partner, and we have a lot of access to doctors there, and they were also giving us advice, and finally, the City of Houston Health Department, that this was going to be something that would extend much longer than just a couple of months.

    [12:34] Maya: So, what did you tell your musicians?

    [12:38] John: Well, the first thing we did was, I remember, we sent everybody home, and then we realized that we weren't going to have ticket revenue coming into the organization. And that's about a third of our revenue.

    [12:49] Maya: That's a problem.

    [12:49] John: And, you know, about two-thirds of our costs are actually staff and musician salaries. So, we started talking with our musicians about taking a temporary wage cut. And that was something also that was going on nationally. So, we weren't alone in having that conversation. And that broader context made it, I think, an easier conversation to have.

    And we also started talking about, not immediately, kind of, once we'd gotten through the initial, sort of, couple weeks of just realizing that we weren't going to be back at the end of May, we started talking about what we could do, what we could do. Just what can we do? Because we're not sure we can get together.

    We're not sure we can, we can do things business as usual. And I think we rallied around a couple of clear, sort of, I don't know, points that allowed us to organize our thinking. One was that really, you know, like you said, non-transferable skills. I like that. You know, this is a group of incredibly skilled, incredibly gifted musicians. And so...

    [13:51] Maya: That thrive on performing.

    [13:53] John: Exactly, and on performing for an audience, on performing with other musicians. So, you know, how does that function as an organizing principle? And also, that what we do has value.

    You may remember, and even now, you still see, kind of, a hangover, but in the early days of the pandemic, the internet was flooded with musicians recording themselves on their iPhone and people editing it together where you'd have 40 musicians playing a little snippet of Beethoven and in their Zoom windows edited together. And all this was, kind of, being dumped on the internet. And it was free, but we really wanted what we did to have, to have some value assigned to it. So, a way to generate a little bit of revenue, right?

    [14:55] Maya: Right.

    [14:55] John: So, those were the two principles around which we, kind of, organized our thinking.

    [15:00] Maya: And so, you were studying this while they were doing this?

    [15:02] John: Right.

    [15:03] Maya: Okay. So, tell me about that. So, because it is, it's a, it's a very personal and intimate experience to go to the symphony, to go to the ballet, to go, you know, to the opera. So, what were you thinking while they were trying to pivot and transition?

    [15:20] Scott: Yeah. So, one of the great things about doing real-time research is you have no idea what the ending is going to be like. And, you know, on the side, I was, I was rooting for you, but, you know, I didn't know. I mean, it was, it was, kind of, hard to know how this was going to turn out. And in the study, of course, there's a second symphony organization that we were looking at, that was very much on the, on the verge of going under at the time.

    And as we're, kind of, comparing the two organizations, that's when the contrast really started to shine. When you got to see an organization that was relentless in determining to keep playing and keep the music going no matter what form that looked like. You saw a lot of innovation and creativity in finding ways not to just put online what they were doing before, but to really reinvent what they were doing so it would be suitable for the format that they can play in.

    And that's why, you know, you saw a lot of the Zoom symphonies and the little boxes, but what the Houston Symphony did was really bring musicians into the homes of their audience. And that created a lot of new experiences for their audience. It also grew their audience, of course, because they were one of the few, if not the only, organization that was thinking this way.

    And so, for me, and someone who spent their career studying resourceful behaviors, I started getting extremely excited because I'm like, "This is, this is an exemplar of what I've been studying for so long under such difficult circumstances." And it was really remarkable just to, kind of, have a, have a backseat and watch this thing unfold.

    [16:55] Maya: So, what gave you that idea?

    [16:58] John: So, really, you know, going back to those two organizing principles that I described, we started to formulate an idea of inviting our audience into the living rooms of our musicians. And we specifically targeted musicians who we knew lived with other musicians because, again, it's about making music together. And, you know, many of our...

    [17:27] Maya: And this [crosstalk 00:17:27].

    [17:27] John: Exactly. And, you know, this idea of the bubble. We all remember the bubble-

    [17:34] Maya: Yes.

    [17:34] John: ... and admitting people into your bubble, and this, sort of, thing. So, sending a camera and a microphone out to the homes of musicians, and every Friday night, having them prepare. They had carte blanche. They could play whatever they want. They could talk about it.

    And the very first one was beautifully done. It was our principal keyboardist, Scott Holshouser, who has been with the orchestra for many years. And his wife sang in our chorus. And his son was a Broadway theater performance singing at HSPVA. And so, you had this wonderful-

    [18:06] Maya: Group of theater.

    [18:07] John: ... group of, exactly, musical theater. You had this wonderful group of three musicians living together. And they told stories. And they sang German art songs. And, you know, Scott's wife would read the text in English. And his son would sing the art song. And Scott talked about how his piano, which we were seeing on the screen, had traveled around the country with him.

    And he'd bought it, you know, 40 years before. And so, we were getting these wonderful stories. And it was a completely different experience than you get coming to Jones Hall to hear the symphony, but it was people making music together and us charging the audience a small, you know, fee to get to experience that specific, that specific performance.

    [18:43] Maya: Did you have wait lists?

    [18:45] John: No, because it was online. As many people-

    [18:47] Maya: Okay.

    [18:47] John: ... as wanted could come. And so, we had, you know, we had a really good size audience. And that transitioned into us, you know, starting to live stream performances. So, the city let us get back in our hall for the Fourth of July weekend. And over the course of the summer, we could get the orchestra together in small groups sitting apart.

    And that was another thing that Rice was instrumental in doing. We worked with the engineering school on an aerosolization study. And they actually used high-speed photography to capture images of our musicians while they were playing so you could see where the aerosols were coming out of their mouths and out of their instruments so that we could configure them safely on stage in a way where they wouldn't be getting each other's mist. Amazing.

    [19:42] Maya: Do they still think about that today when...

    [19:44] John: So, I don't know. Whenever somebody coughs or sneezes, everyone, kind of... I think that's just the way life is now. But, you know, getting the orchestra back on stage, live streaming those performances. And we still have about 1,000 households watching our live streams every weekend. So, we developed this new stream of Revenue, new business line, that came out of the pandemic and has stuck with us as a wonderful audience development tool.

    [20:04] Maya: Now, were there other symphonies or other organizations that wanted to do that as well?

    [20:08] Scott: I mean, there were a handful of other organizations that were doing this, but none really, I think, to the extent that the Houston Symphony was. For the first year of the pandemic, many other orchestras were completely closed. I mean, they were not performing in person. They were not having paid live streaming.

    And so, what you saw, really what the Houston Symphony was doing, was creating, essentially, new products. And you think about how rich those products are that John just described. Those are products that you presumably could have created before the pandemic, but it was only because of the constraints and how those limitations forced you to think differently.

    And that's really the power of resourcefulness, and why it becomes a strategic asset, not just a defensive strategy because it gives us permission to do things unconventionally. And with those unconventional thoughts, we have the opportunity to go beyond, you know, regular performance and reach exceptional performance.

    [21:06] Maya: And you had said that they were different kinds of pieces that the musicians were playing. So, can you elaborate a bit more about what those were? And because, you know, you're given a bit more agency to choose because, you know, you have an opportunity to go outside of the box.

    [21:35] John: Absolutely. And there was a confluence of factors that led to that outcome. The first was that, even when we had our largest possible audience during that pandemic season, it was only about 400 or 450 people in Jones Hall, which, at the time, sat 2,900. So, and that was because households had to sit together and then be a certain distance from anyone who wasn't in their household, back to this bubble idea.

    So, we weren't under pressure to sell tickets. And so, that gave us the ability to program whatever we wanted. You know, you didn't have to do a certain number of Beethoven symphonies, and you didn't have to do Star Wars in concert, and the, kind of, things that sell tickets. So, we could really explore all kinds of repertoire.

    The second factor was the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 really made us aware as an organization that, historically, we had not been representing Hispanic, Black, women on our stage with our programming. We'd been sticking with a lot of the, kind of, White European male canon. And I have to give credit to our director of artistic programming, Rebecca Zabinski.

    She really took on learning about this repertoire and making sure that we programmed it in a really robust way. And that's something that's actually continued on in our programming since then. And then the third piece was we were limited in the number of musicians we could put on stage.

    You know, typically, we have 90, 100, 105 musicians on stage for Houston Symphony Concert. Our, kind of, maximum configuration because of the distancing was about 35 on that stage that normally seats 100-plus. And so, that also meant exploring chamber music repertoire.

    And we, kind of, opened it up to musicians to suggest some things. And it really, it really developed all of these, sort of, skill sets about collaboration and exploration that, again, absent the pandemic and absent the George Floyd conversation, we probably would never have really found out about ourselves.

    [23:48] Scott: Yeah. And I mean that story about moving to more diverse repertoire is pretty significant, especially you think about being in a city like Houston that is so diverse and thinking about what, kind of, the standard symphony fair is. You know, it is, it is very non-diverse.

    And to think that it was the constraints of the pandemic, and then using those constraints as a way of making a very important change that better reflects the community shows, you know, not just about surviving the pandemic, but more positively transforming because of it.

    [24:28] Maya: And thriving. And really, they're blessings in disguise, I think, is what we can, we can label them. I know it's a little tight, but a blessing in disguise because had that not happened, you would never have embarked on something so creative and innovative, and really made the Houston Symphony stronger because of it. And so, my other question is, you know, how did your musicians respond to this, sort of, change, you know?

    [25:01] John: Well, so, we were very...

    [25:05] Maya: Some of them are here. I guess they could probably answer.

    [25:06] John: And they'll be performing for us later, actually, a piece by Fanny Mendelssohn-

    [25:09] Maya: Yes.

    [25:09] John: ... one of these composers that we, kind of, uncovered through that work. And they were very collaborative, incredibly collaborative, also our board and all the resources in the community. I mean, I don't think we would have been able to do this anywhere but Houston because we had... you know, I talked about the Rice Study, I mentioned Methodist, Houston Health Department.

    Our board of directors had a lot of different, kind of, access and helped us navigate some things. But the musicians were wonderful partners, and continue to be, but they really were open to having a conversation with us about, you know, what we could do, what safety measures would be in place, and also doing it in a way that brought people along. So, while, initially, for that July 4th concert, not everybody was-

    [25:56] Maya: Willing?

    [25:56] John: ... feeling like it was a great idea to come in and gather with a bunch of people and play music, we created a, sort of, a, sort of, scenario where people could participate on their own timeline. And I think that helped.

    You know, by the end of the pandemic, I think we only had one... not the end, but by the, by the time the, sort of, restrictions and safety things had been lifted, I think we only had one musician sitting out. And it was for a very particular and completely understandable, you know, circumstance that was specific to them.

    [26:36] Maya: Well, and that says a whole lot about the kind of leader that you are, is to allow people, you know, to do what they are comfortable in doing, you know, and to meet them where they are because different people, even today, feel very differently and have different circumstances and, you know, things there were people with pre-existing conditions and everything else.

    And, you know, that kind of leadership is really what I think stands out. In comparison, and I'm not sure how much you can share about the other symphony that you, that you study, but is that one of the key components is the type of leadership that they have?

    [27:10] Scott: Yeah, no, leadership played a big role here. So, the other symphony that we studied is we matched them on just about every other criteria except the fact that they were not playing. So, they were similar size and revenues, similar political environment, similar COVID restrictions. So, we tried to normalize everything except what they were actually doing.

    And one of the remarkable things about leadership that we discovered in this study is just comparing the data that came in from employees, staff, and musicians, between the two symphonies was just night and day in terms of what they were saying about leaders, the type of trust that was developed in the Houston Symphony, versus at the, at the other symphony, there was a complete lack of, lack of trust.

    There was no communication between the musicians and the management team. The management team seemed to be completely clueless to the, to the pain and suffering of the musicians. I mean, John had talked about, you know, how these people just have this innate desire to want to perform and want to congregate with people. And there was a lot of, kind of, sadness in this other symphony that could not deliver that experience for their staff. And then, of course, there was also the economic hardship. And they were...

    [28:27] Maya: And trauma, on top of trauma, on top of trauma.

    [28:30] Scott: Yeah. Also, you know, furloughed the staff. I mean, there was someone in our sample who had sold their instrument, which, I mean, if you think about, you know-

    [28:44] Maya: That's [crosstalk 00:28:44].

    [28:44] Scott: ... how...

    [28:45] John: Cutting off your arm.

    [28:46] Scott: Yeah. I mean, and it's reflective, I think, of just the lack of faith that this other symphony members had of their management team and their leadership compared to Houston, you know, all of the comments where, you know, "We have a great leader who, you know, understands the perspective that we're coming from and is going to find a way to, you know, have us open and have us play no matter what." And that's exactly what they did.

    [29:15] Maya: So, in your study, you talk about it being more of like an improvisational jazz band, right? So, can you, can you talk a bit about that? I don't know if you have all had an opportunity to read the study. If you haven't, it's phenomenal. It was published in the MIT Sloan School. And I'm sure that we can get you a PDF if you'd like. But go on and tell me about that, sort of, analogy.

    [29:39] Scott: Well, this, kind of, became an organizing metaphor for the, for the findings. If you think about a symphony, not only are, you know, they playing orchestral music, but in many respects, they're organized like a symphony in terms of its management structure, which is how most businesses are organized, too. It's very hierarchical. This is an organization that, I'd say, is used to planning in years.

    So, you know, very long-term planning, clear role differentiation in terms of responsibilities, lots of scripts. So, you have your sheet music, your routines, and your practices. And what was so remarkable about this experience is not only is this an organization used to making this music and used to being structured like this.

    They went completely jazz, not in their music, but in terms of how they organized. And to get into that mindset of being able to improvise, to go from an organization used to planning a season a couple of years in advance, to not knowing what they're going to play six weeks, you know-

    [30:37] Maya: Six days.

    [30:37] Scott: ... down the, down the future, you know, having, you know, guest artists not being able to travel and make it at the last minute, and figuring out how the show is going to continue was really inspiring to sit back and watch.

    So, for me, I think thinking about the jazz metaphor exemplifies everything great that the Houston Symphony did from how they interacted and communicated, how they did little experiments to try things, how they embraced uncertainty, didn't, kind of, run away from uncertainty, because the match sample in the study, a lot of the early data was basically saying there's so much uncertainty. This is unprecedented. We're going to wait it out.

    And that's the panic. That's the threat rigidity that you often see leaders make in crises. You know, we're just going to close up and constrict resources at a time when you need your creativity. And at Houston, what John and his employees did was, essentially, we're just going to, we're just going to find a way. We're going to try things. And if they don't work, we're going to try something else.

    [31:36] Maya: I think that's called a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. That's something that I definitely learned at Rice Business. Plug for Rice Business. So, in terms of, you know, quite a few lessons learned, you know, if you were to, you know, talk to some another organizational leader, both of you, this is a question for both of you, and they're in this situation, clearly not a crisis like the pandemic, but going through an organizational shift or, you know, things aren't working quite right, what advice would you give that leader in order to not only survive, but to thrive like you did?

    [32:26] John: Well, I mean, I think I would say that you have to have the right people. And, you know, we had, and continue to have, a great staff, incredible musicians, great board. And each of those people is a resource. Like, talk to them, get their take on things. They have ideas you may not have even thought of. And that was really what we did for really the first month of the pandemic.

    I feel like we were on Zoom with the orchestra every day, and talking to them, and talking to the staff, and talking to board members. I feel like we also had an executive committee board meeting every day as well. We spent a lot of time just talking through things and, you know, having the right people and trusting them, using them as a resource. That would be, that would be the key thing I took away from it.

    [33:23] Maya: Scott.

    [33:25] Scott: I think it started with recognizing the urgency of the situation. And again, we contrast what Houston did with the Parrot sample is they recognized that for them to remain a viable organization, they needed to play. That's what their purpose was. That's what their mission was. It wasn't an acceptable solution to say, "Let's, kind of, wait out the adversity."

    So, I think the first thing is to be courageous and not be afraid to take risks and try things even if they haven't been tried before. On top of that, I'd reiterate the importance of trust among the management team and across the management team and employees. If you want to mobilize and help an organization adapt to something as substantial as a pandemic or whatever adversity might come in the future, you need to activate all of your staff, all of your employees.

    And that starts by having them trust you and recognize that, you know, you've got their interest in mind, and you've got a vision in terms of being able to weather the storm, but you might not have all the answers, and to be transparent with what you know and what you can do with what you don't know.

    [34:22] Maya: Trust and transparency. So crucial, so crucial in order to really survive and to be a leader is somebody wants to follow, you know. So, this was a fascinating study. And I'm curious as to what you want to study next.

    [34:38] Scott: Well, I'm, still not done with the symphony as John knows.

    [34:45] Maya: Oh, I'm sorry.

    [34:45] Scott: But...

    [34:45] Maya: I didn't mean to...

    [34:48] John: Yeah, I think we have, we have a meeting tomorrow-

    [34:49] Scott: Yeah.

    [34:49] John: ... morning.

    [34:50] Scott: I'll see you first thing in the morning. All right.

    [34:54] Maya: Well, after that?

    [34:55] Scott: But I am in the field right now. I'm studying another really inspiring story of resourcefulness. This is with formerly incarcerated felons, who have found employment in high-status, high-paying software engineer jobs in well-established tech companies.

    So, this is a population that has essentially gone from not having enough bus money when they leave prison, to making a lot of money in high-status jobs. And I'm trying to understand the psychological transformation that happens as they undergo this change, as well as the organizational implications of having this population at work.

    [35:43] Maya: Wow. When is that coming out?

    [35:48] Scott: As John knows, these studies are definitely measured in years. I wish I could find a way of being more resourceful with my research and crank these out in three months, but I have not reached that pinnacle of my career yet.

    [36:01] Maya: Okay. Well, no pressure. And John, just before we conclude, because we were running low on time, unfortunately, I'd love to talk to you for forever, so what's next for the symphony? What have you learned that you are taking forward for years to come at the Houston Symphony?

    [36:21] John: Well, I think, you know, one of the things that we really learned, and we knew this, I mean, it was in there, but the pandemic really drove home was the importance of music, not only we've talked about our performers and our staff and keeping everybody going, but for our audience. And that was something that, you know, the idea that people would go without for what ended up being more than a year just was unfathomable.

    And I think, you know, we have really taken that on board and are being very mindful of making sure that everything we do is intentional and connects with the audience and offers them something, brings people together, you know. It's, kind of, the one space, one of the few spaces, where you can go and really unplug and just be, you know, alone with the music.

    And that is rare these days. And I think that the symphony is going to continue to scale great artistic heights and commission new works and support young composers and reflect the diversity and energy of our community, Greater Houston, with everything that we do. So, that's really what we're focused on.

    [37:18] Maya: That's a lot.

    [37:18] John: Yeah.

    [37:20] Maya: But it's good, it's good to have really big goals. You got to think big, think big. So, I would like for you to tell us a little bit about the piece that we are about to hear because, like you had mentioned, this is a composer that not many people knew, that you have chosen for the musicians of the symphony to perform this evening for us. So, can you tell me about Fanny Mendelssohn and how you found her?

    [37:42] John: So, like I said, one of the big discoveries of the pandemic was all this wonderful music that had really been outside of the repertoire of symphony orchestras. And Fanny Mendelssohn is the sister of a very well-known composer who's played often by symphonies, Felix Mendelssohn. And they grew up together in Berlin.

    And they were from a very wealthy banking family, and so wealthy that they could hire an orchestra to play private concerts in their home. And the children would write music for the orchestra as teenagers. And so, Fanny and Felix would do this, but when Fanny, kind of, came of age and was married, she was told that it was not suitable for a woman to pursue composing music.

    And so, she did continue to compose. She wrote piano pieces, chamber pieces, art songs, but she didn't have access to the orchestra. So, she didn't write big orchestral pieces like her brother went on to do. And what we'll hear now is a string quartet of hers.

    And it's an absolute masterpiece, shows that had she been accessing orchestra and writing for orchestra, we'd be playing her music just as much as we play her brother's. And we have a wonderful group of musicians from the symphony to perform our principal second violin, MuChen Hsieh, another one of the members of the second violins, Amy Semes, who I believe is a Rice grad. Maybe they're all Rice grads.

    [39:21] Maya: Well, there's three out of four-

    [39:22] John: Three.

    [39:22] Maya: ... Rice grads.

    [39:22] John: Okay. So, MuChen is one, Amy is one, our violist, Wei Jiang, and then Jeremy Kreutz is on cello, so I'm guessing he's the third Rice grad.

    [39:30] Maya: He's the third one.

    [39:31] John: Yeah.

    [39:31] Maya: Yes, that's correct.

    [39:32] John: And just a wonderful group playing a wonderful piece by a wonderful composer who, you know, we don't hear as often as we should.

    [39:38] Maya: Well, I think we're ready. So, if you could just give us a few moments to set up the wonderful musicians from the Houston Symphony, we can enjoy and delight in that. And I do want to thank you so much for this really phenomenal conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and we did.

    [39:53] John: Yes. Thank you very much-

    [39:55] Scott: Thank you.

    [39:55] John: ... Maya.

    [39:55] Scott: Yeah.

    [39:56] Maya: Thank you. And so, if we could just hang tight for just a few moments, we will get the musicians set up. And they will take it away.

    [40:18] MUSIC: (music).

    [62:25] Maya:Thanks for listening! This has been Owl Have You Know, a production of Rice Business. You can find more information about our guests, hosts, and announcements on our website, 

    A special thank you to Professor Scott Sonenshein, John Mangum, the Houston Symphony and our performers, MuChen Hsieh, Amy Semes, Wei Jiang and Jeremy Kreutz.

    Please subscribe and leave a rating wherever you find your favorite podcasts. We’d love to hear what you think. The hosts of Owl Have You Know are myself, Maya Pomroy, and Scott Gale.

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