Staying in tune Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

People are going to find out what they want to know.

That’s something Simon Crookall has known for a while now. Whether you tell them or not, the president and CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra says that the people in your organization will find some channel through which they can get information. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Businesses and other large organizations have long placed a high emphasis on strictly controlling the flow of information though intricate systems of checks and balances. And while some information does need to be carefully disseminated, Crookall says every communication does not need to come directly from your mouth or your computer. If you’re micro-managing the communication process, you are likely robbing yourself of time to accomplish other things.

Smart Business spoke with Crookall about how he stays connected to his 150 employees at the Indianapolis Symphony — which posted 2007 revenue of $26 million — and connected to the community, without getting tied down by too much communication.

Know when to say when. You can get hung up a lot on the whole communication thing. Of course, it’s essential. It’s very important that everybody hears what they need to hear. But you can be preoccupied by that and set up all kinds of repetitive channels for communicating things, and then people stop listening. We had a meeting of the board where some members said that they would actually prefer to not receive e-mails anymore. It shocked me completely because it’s the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of getting information out, but people eventually stop reading because they’re getting so much of it. We’re all bombarded with information these days.

Communication is one of those things that everybody thinks they’re always not getting enough of. It’s something you have to be aware of but not too preoccupied by it. It’s amazing how people can find out what they want to know.

In any organization I’ve worked in, news travels incredibly quickly around the building. Communication happens on an informal as well as a formal level, but people will always think they’re not being communicated with enough. You just have to keep sending out the messages, keep physically and verbally, written and by any other form you can, informing people about what is happening.

Certainly, our weekly e-mail newsletter has been really good for us. It becomes a huge task to write that every week because I write every word myself. It gives me an opportunity to not only inform people who might be slightly less connected to the organization, like the board members, about what we are doing performancewise and also internally any issues I want to raise, any policy decisions we’ve made, any decisions coming up in the future we want people to be aware of.

It’s a very useful vehicle for all of that. I get tremendous feedback on that, especially from members of the board, who aren’t here all the time.

Get others involved in communication. You need engaged leadership at every level. One person can’t do that.

It’s important that everybody at every level, in whatever area they are, have access to others at their own and higher levels.

I have a wonderful group of department heads who work very closely with their staff.

I think it’s important that people feel that the people they’re dealing with aren’t just a name and a title but a face and a pair of ears, someone they feel familiar dealing with. It’s impossible for one person to do that in an organization.

Whenever we discuss anything, my direct reports relay that firsthand through the organization. I have some direct means of communication, too. We have a monthly meeting of all staff, and we have fairly regular meetings with the musicians, as well. Because the musicians work as a unit, there are opportunities to talk to them before rehearsals, when they are assembled for that.

When I first arrived here, the board’s charge to me was to be out in the community about 60 to 70 percent of my time. You then discover, of course, that you need to also be in the organization at least 60 to 70 percent of the time, and the two tend to add up to slightly more than 100 percent.

I spend a lot of time out in the community going to all our concerts and other people’s events, making myself available to the public. That is a very important part of the job for me. You try and develop relationships with everybody on the staff so they feel they can approach you whenever they need to.

Build consensus whenever possible. The leadership of an orchestra’s musicians is by the conductor. The conductor is pretty much a dictator in a lot of senses because everyone has to do the same thing at the same time.

But a really good conductor is one who will involve the musicians in their own artistic expression and enable them to contribute to the creation of the musical performance in a way that they feel they’re contributing something additional to just following the baton. I would love to think I’ve learned lessons from that, thinking that leadership has to afford everybody the opportunity to make their own music, so to speak.

HOW TO REACH: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, (317) 262-1100 or www.indianapolissymphony.org