Making Music with Drucker

As rockers, rappers, and country crooners scoop up their Grammy Awards this weekend, you can be certain that they'll thank all kinds of people for helping to make them stars: producers, agents, the fans and, of course, many a mom.

But there's one Grammy winner of years past that feels it owes a debt to a very different sort of influence: management guru Peter Drucker.

Pasadena (Calif.)-based Southwest Chamber Music has long drawn on Drucker's insights to help it manage the enterprise effectively, as well as to tailor its musical selections. By constantly questioning which programs and strategies have become obsolete, Southwest offers some valuable lessons that can help any organization—no matter what kind of business it's in—hit the right notes. "Reading Drucker became this incredible light bulb for me," says Jan Karlin, the executive director of Southwest, which snared Grammys in 2003 and 2004 for the first two volumes of the Complete Chamber Music of Carlos Chavez.

Verdi Influenced Drucker

That an outfit such as Southwest would have a strong affinity for Drucker's work is not surprising, really. Drucker, who saw "management as a liberal art," peppered his books and articles with references to music. "The key to greatness" in any organization, Drucker wrote in a 2002 essay for Harvard Business Review, "is to look for people's potential and spend time developing it.…To build a world-class orchestra requires rehearsing the same passage in the symphony again and again until the first clarinet plays it the way the conductor hears it. This principle is also what makes a research director in an industry lab successful."

Notably, Drucker counted Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th-century Italian composer, as having a tremendous impact on him. In the late 1920s, Drucker lived in Hamburg, where he worked as a trainee at a cotton export firm. Every week, he'd escape the drudgery of his job by going to the opera, and it was there that he heard Verdi's Falstaff. "I was totally overwhelmed by it," Drucker recalled.

But what impressed him most was when he later discovered that Verdi's masterpiece—"with its gaiety, its zest for life, and its incredible vitality," as Drucker put it—had been written by a man of 80. "All my life as a musician," Verdi declared, "I have striven for perfection. It has always eluded me. I surely had an obligation to make one more try." Drucker said that these words from Verdi became his "lodestar," helping inspire him to write into his nineties.

Defining a New Mission

For Southwest, Drucker's teachings form a basis to examine all kinds of things, including the most fundamental aspects of the organization. Karlin, for instance, says that her grounding in Drucker made it clear that after Southwest had won its Grammys, it needed a new mission statement. The old one—"to energize and renew the standard chamber music repertory by integrating the best of contemporary world and early music in programs and concerts"—had largely been fulfilled.

"We started thinking, what are we going to do next?" says Karlin, displaying an entrepreneurial orientation that demands certain initiatives be abandoned to make way for the future. Southwest's new mission: "to provide the Southern California and international music communities with concert, recording, and educational programming that reflects the vast diversity of art music from around the world."

This fresh approach has led Southwest to focus on the rich cultural diversity in its own backyard—particularly in the Latin and Asian communities—and has opened the door to new adventures abroad.

Asking the Right Questions

Next year, Southwest will take part in a State Dept.-sponsored cultural exchange with Vietnam that will involve both musical performances and workshops on arts management featuring Drucker's principles.

Today, amid a difficult financial environment, Karlin and her husband, Southwest artistic director Jeff von der Schmidt, are asking a Drucker-like question that is meant to help them spot further opportunities, even with all the challenges: "If we were to begin Southwest now, what would it look like?"

"Peter would have encouraged us to rethink the organization—and that's what we're doing," says Karlin, who has produced a balanced budget for each of the 22 years Southwest has existed.

No One is Immune

For his part, von der Schmidt says Drucker's writings have given him a way to consider the tough artistic choices he must make between embracing new music and sticking with classical compositions. "There really does have to be a balance of continuity and change," says von der Schmidt, pointing to one of Drucker's central themes.

In 2007, Southwest hired Michael Millar, who received his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, where he studied both musical performance and arts administration. For the latter, his professors included none other than Peter Drucker.

Karlin and von der Schmidt were already familiar with Drucker when Millar arrived, but he has ensured that Drucker's emphasis on mission, customer, results, and plan has been embedded deeper throughout the organization. No one is immune. "It's about making everybody—even the musicians—more effective in what they do," says Millar, Southwest's development director and bass trombone player.

Connecting with Strengths

Millar invokes Drucker, as well, when he shows young people how to play. The typical way to teach an instrument, he says, is for the instructor to listen and then say, "Here's what you did wrong." Millar flips it around, asking, "Now tell me what you did—and start with what you did right."

"Students are able to connect with their strengths and make their weaknesses irrelevant," he explains. "Everybody needs to understand what they do well."

For Southwest itself, that's been turning Drucker into beautiful music.

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