The Orchestra’s New Music Director Knows a Thing or Two About Business

Yannick Nezet-Seguin understands that sometimes a manager just has to sit around.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin has something very much in common with my friend “Andy” from Bristol. Nezet-Seguin is the new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which, despite its recent financial troubles, is very much a world-renowned institution. Nezet-Seguin is certainly no slouch. He began to study piano at age five and decided he wanted to become an orchestra conductor at age 10. He became the musical director of the Choeur polyphonique de Montréal in 1994 and obtained the same post at Choeur de Laval in 1995. That same year he also founded his own professional orchestra. Besides his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he is currently the conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and has conducted performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Royal Opera House in London.

Not to be outdone, my friend Andy went to Catholic school in Bucks County and dropped out of Penn State after two years. He sold packaging supplies for his dad and eventually took the business over around the same time as Nezet-Seguin was … um … starting his own orchestra. OK, so Andy’s not a globetrotting classical superstar. He’s never been to Montreal, Rotterdam or London. But he once went to New York to deliver a big order when his truck driver called in sick, and he’s taken his kids to Disney a couple of times. Andy listens to Neil Young.

So what do these guys have in common? More than you think. They both manage by sitting around.

On Monday, Nezet-Seguin put down his baton and sat around the ticket office at the Kimmel Center. He talked with the employees. He bantered with a few customers. He sold a few tickets. It was all part of the Orchestra’s outreach to its season ticket holders and a “gathering of the loyal—about 120 members of the board and staff, musicians and philanthropists.” Of course it was a public relations stunt. And a feel-good exercise. It was an opportunity to raise a few more bucks from prospective donors.

Just by coincidence, Andy recently did something similar. He talked with employees. He bantered with a few customers. He sold a few skids of packaging materials. And, like Nezet-Seguin, he did this from his company’s front office.

Nezet-Seguin was forced out from behind the conductor’s podium because (I’m sure) Orchestra management told him to make nice with the important people. I doubt he put up much of a fight. In fact, he might have been all for the idea and enjoyed the opportunity to chit chat with the fans. But you and I both know that he’s probably much happier absorbed in his music than selling seats to the next show. Andy is the same way. Over the years he’s gotten comfortable sitting in his office near the back of the factory. He’s on the phone constantly, talking to customers, doing deals, buying product. Unfortunately, he’s forced to emerge from his cocoon and deal with the employees. He has to talk to the operations manager about a difficult order, or make an effort to ask an accounting staffer about her upcoming wedding. It’s not easy for him. He’s always preferred to stay tucked away in his office.

Until one of his customer service reps left on maternity leave, and Andy had a crazy impulse. He decided to manage by sitting around. One morning, without warning, he gathered up the stuff from his cocoon and moved himself to her desk. Right smack in the middle of the office. He’s been sitting there for going on two weeks now. “And boy have things changed,” he told me.

For starters, everyone sees him there—which means there’s a total change in attitude. Employees are at their desks by 8:30 a.m. There’s no messing around. (Well, maybe a little but this is usually caused by Andy; bosses get bored too, you know.) People are putting on their best faces. They’re not complaining. They’re smiling more. They don’t want to look bad in front of the boss. Andy, for the most part, hums to himself and keeps working away at his desk. But he’s watching. And they know he’s watching. So they’re trying that much harder. It’s human nature, isn’t it?

Questions are getting answered, and much faster than before. That’s because Andy’s right there to answer them. People feel less inhibited about asking him questions when he’s sitting among them, as opposed to having to get up and knock timidly on his office door. There’s no bureaucracy. The boss is the boss. The buck stops there. Things started to get done faster. People were more productive. Andy could tell that orders, issues and projects were moving along at a better pace. All because he was just sitting there.

Most importantly, problems are being solved better—problems that Andy would’ve never known about if he weren’t just sitting around in the front office. He noticed that his receptionist often forwarded calls to the wrong person. He saw that completed shipping docs were piled in a bin and then entered into the billing system at the end of the day instead of in the morning, effectively pushing back his cash collections a full day. He noticed that two people were discussing a pricing discrepancy on a very small order when their time would’ve been better spent better quoting out a potential larger deal. He realized that his accounting manager was in the habit of going to the bank and post office every day when a less-skilled employee could have been doing that task. On a few occasions he helped answer the phones and, by asking a few questions of a caller, discovered a potential opportunity that would not have been uncovered by his less experienced staff. Andy would never have noticed these things if he had not emerged from his office and sat around with his people.

Nezet-Seguin didn’t spend that much time sitting around the ticket office on Monday. But I bet that the time he did spend was valuable. He got to meet his fans face to face. He gave his job a more human aspect. He heard the concerns of his customers, donors and patrons. And I bet he added some insight for the people he spoke with and those few seconds of connecting probably brought them closer to the Orchestra. Andy accomplished even more. Both men for a time were exercising an excellent management task. They both managed by sitting around. And their organizations are a little better off because of it.