Mark Hanson, the CEO of the Houston Symphony, has made a name for himself over the years as a capable leader. He has overseen the selection of a new conductor and brought the Houston Symphony out of the dark times of the recession and now shepherds it prosperously through its centennial celebration. I sat with him recently to gain his perspective on leadership.
Mr. Hanson grew up in Boston, home to the Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory. As a child he was surrounded by music and when he turned four, he began playing the cello. "...my mother decided that she wanted me to play the cello and I was given an eighth size cello. I was told that I was given a cello because my sister already played violin, my mother was an amateur pianist, and she wanted to have her very own piano trio and, um, that requires a cello. So, I was next in line..." As he grew and developed as a musician, he joined youth symphonies until he was old enough to join the orchestra in middle school. Unfortunately for his classmates, his skills were far greater than theirs. This left him unchallenged so he continued performing outside of school with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony in middle school, then the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at New England Conservatory in high school. His parents felt that his continued participation in public school music was important, so they had him remain in those programs until he graduated high school. In the later end of his high school career, he realized that music was the field of study he wanted to pursue and with the assistance of his teacher, Steve Donae, he prepared himself to audition for several conservatories and liberal arts colleges. Like many musicians, he was left with a classic dilemma, "do I want to specialize now, right out of high school and pursue this dream of being a cellist, or should I remain sort of a generalist and go to a normal college and keep up my cello studies but not specialize that quickly?" He decided to commit fully to his studies and began his studies at the Eastman School of Music. Like many musicians, he began practicing more. Eight and nine hour practice days took their toll on him when he began to develop issues in his hand caused by bad technique that was not corrected in high school.
It was around this time that he decided that he should take a look into his other academic interests and transferred to the University of Rochester, then later to Harvard. After repeating his sophomore year at Harvard, he moved away from playing the cello and into the glee club and focusing on his studies. He assured me that even though he no longer played cello, glee club and other activities made up for it, even citing the privilege of getting to work with so many musicians on a daily basis. As Mr. Hanson pursued his degree in social studies, he happened across a nonprofit organization that served as a student-run emergency shelters, based at Harvard, for the homeless. He spent close to three years in service to the organization, first as a volunteer, then assistant manager, finally becoming co-manager. Mr. Hanson believes this experience was the opportunity that gave him the knowledge, skills, and direction that set him upon the path he is on today. "We felt like, hopefully, we were having a positive impact on the lives of these thirty or so homeless residents who had to apply to get into the program and had to show willingness to work with us to help them create resumes and work on their presentation and interview skills and actively seek out employment." It was this experience that garnered his interest in orchestra management.
During his senior year, Mr. Hanson happened to come across a brochure for the League of American Orchestra's fellowship/internship program. When he found this program, it that the moment he realized he could combine two things he enjoyed: classical music and nonprofit management. From here, he began his fellowship. He traveled across the country working for the Syracuse Symphony, the Houston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic. Nearly living out of his car, he took with him only what he could fit in his car. As he participated in a variety of organizations and positions, he discovered his passions and came to the conclusion that he didn't want work his way up the ladder, but wanted to be a CEO as soon as he could. That opportunity came quickly and he was offered the position as the CEO of the Rockford Symphony.
During his time with the Rockford Symphony, he was always directly involved in operations. With a budget of five-hundred thousand dollars per year, he could only hire a few staff members so he did a great deal of the work himself. In his time there, he was part of the orchestra's transition into a new facility, allowing the organization to expand. When he left three years later, the budget hand nearly doubled to one million dollars along with being sustainable and more impactful in the community. With this success in hand, he knew he had found his calling.
He next worked for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, a larger organization with a three million five-hundred thousand dollar budget and fifteen staff members. Mr. Hanson was able to further develop his managerial skills as he learned to deal with the musician's union and lead a music director search process. This allowed the Knoxville Symphony to change its direction and continue to grow. Lucas Richmond was selected to take the reins and the orchestra grew. Mr. Richmond commanded tremendous respect, but there was a somewhat muted relationship between him and the orchestra. Mr. Hanson maintains that of the candidates, Mr. Richmond was by far the best candidate and that there was no failure on the part of any party involved in the process (the performers, the director, or the committee).
Mr. Hanson spent the next six years as the CEO of the Milwaukie Symphony, managing a staff of 40 and a fifteen million dollar budget. He found himself in a financially underperforming organization, knew he couldn't maintain the status quo so he tested a strategy he developed and tested in Knoxville. He began heavily investing in developing fundraising staff, and brought the Milwaukie Symphony out of its precarious state and allowed it to grow financially. He quickly put together a campaign to cover the operating deficit to buy time for the staff to bring in the new donors.
Never imagining he would have the opportunity to return, when he was offered the position of CEO of the Houston Symphony he was delighted to take it. It was an opportunity to delve deep into the workings of the organization and determine why the organization as a whole was not as sustainable as other major symphonies. When asked about the recent economic downturn and its effects on the symphony Mr. Hanson noted that it happened during a recovery phase. In 2003 the Houston Symphony was brought to a standstill because of a musician strike. After resolving that issue by addressing musician pay and how the organization operated as a whole, the Houston Symphony began recovering. There were investments made into new artistic initiatives, such as The Planets: An HD Odyssey and a return to touring across the country and around the world. However, from 2007 to 2009, the recession took its toll on the symphony. The Houston Symphony Endowment shrank from seventy million to fifty million, patrons were no longer able to afford to attend concerts, and donors could no longer afford to contribute. The symphony was forced to ask the staff and performers to take a pay cut in the form of furlough weeks. Some positions were left unfilled, others were completely cut. When Mr. Hanson began his tenure with the Houston Symphony in, he saw an opportunity. "When I arrived in 2010 we had a decision to make as an institution. Were we going to continue contracting as an organization and hope for better times. Or, were we going to recommit to trying to grow our donor base, trying to grow our audience base, trying to grow our investment in the orchestra and performances?" He firmly believed that it was time to double down and aggressively reinvest the monies into positive changes that would re-energize the donors, the community, and the organization. He was determined to end the "death spiral". With a 5 year growth plan, the Houston Symphony went from operating at over three million dollars over-budget to balanced budgets three years in a row, followed by a growing budget. Mr. Hanson believes ""Investing in a responsible fashion, in new programs, in staff that is needed to grow contributed revenue, that is needed to grow an audience base, that is needed to support new concert and education programs" will bring a positive change. Indeed, “We’re creating an environment that more donors, more funders want to support and the money is making itself available." One such project is a customized donor system. The Houston Symphony looks for donors with specific interests and matches the person with a program that fulfills those interests. Mr. Hanson has noted a great success in developing donor support and increased support. As he began working in Houston, Mr. Hanson quickly developed a relationship with the Houston Endowment for the Arts. He talked to them and asked their advice in the creation of the five year growth plan. Combining that advice with input from the board and donors they created the plan. As his efforts began to yield positive results, he began to convert the skeptics and gain their support. With that change in perspective, the donors stopped saying why do they keep asking me for money and began to jump in to invest more money. Mr. Hanson has brought a huge turnaround to the organization and has brought a positive attitude back to the Houston Symphony.
Throughout his career he has worn many hats and transitioned from being a hands-on manager in Rockford to hiring specialists to work for the Houston Symphony. He felt that as his skills developed and he grew as a manager, he understood his limitations and chose to delegate tasks to those best suited for the job. However, he still has it in him to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty with the rest of the staff when he needs to. In the past Mr. Hanson would from time to time join the phone banks and assist in ticket sales and calls so he could have a more direct involvement in meeting the average concertgoer. The secondary benefit of this activity is that it also allows him to see how the front line of the organization is performing. This devotion to bringing the best possible ideas and service to the Houston Symphony has garnered the trust of the board which is part of how he is able to generate support for new programs and services. His tenure has brought about several new programs, including the Sugar Land Concert Series, all in an effort to increase the reach of the Houston Symphony to the outlying areas of the greater Houston area.
Mr. Hanson represents a unique combination of skills, knowledge, experience, and temperament. A youth filled with performing excellent music, a college education filled with service, and a career of nonprofit management guide his decisions and beliefs. He understands that there are multiple layers of purpose and understanding to all actions he takes and does his best to demonstrate how these actions are truly for the better. He judiciously applies his abilities to any organization he takes part of and sees failures as learning opportunities. As he continues his tenure, Mr. Hanson hopes to oversee the Houston Symphony becoming a widely accepted world recognized performance organization and looks forward to continuing his service.