Broadway musicals and the lessons of succession planning

Recently, the producers of Dear Evan Hansen announced that its Tony Award-winning lead, a ridiculously talented Ben Platt, would be vacating the role on November 19. Platt originated the role through read-throughs, workshops, previews, and finally, a year on Broadway.

The show is a runaway hit, pulling in $1.5M a week and already providing its investors with a complete return on their investment (in a very short period of time for a small theatre on Broadway). While the show seems like it will be fine with a new lead, its continued success is uncertain and there has been no announcement of who will be taking over the lead.

For another show on Broadway, the continued success is known – it will not have any. Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 (heretofore known as The Great Comet because that name is just WAY too long) was nominated for 12 Tony Awards (3 more than the big winner Dear Evan Hansen). It starred Josh Groban, he of velvety-voice-with-little-inflection-but-everyone-loves-him fame. It was a rousing good time. It got a huge boost from the Tonys performance.

And then Josh Groban left the show.

Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowa (who originated Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in Hamilton) took over the role. People loved him, he had a wonderful debut. And about 3 weeks into his run, rumors started flying that Mandy Patinkin (Broadway royalty/Inigo Montoya) would take over the role. It was officially announced. And the backlash was loud and accusatory because Oak is black, Mandy is white, and the callousness of the move was jarring. Turns out, Mandy was horrified at what happened, and refused to take the role because of what happened to Oak – Mandy had been told Oak was cool with it…and Oak did not appear to be cool with it. Mandy’s out. Oak refuses to go back.

And now the show is closing less than a year after it opened because they have no “name” lead and advance sales plummeted.

So why would I spend nearly 400 words on the drama of a Broadway show’s missteps?

Because that could be your organization.

If you have talented, charismatic, AMAZING leaders in your organization and you haven’t planned for what happens when they leave, you could be The Great Comet.

Don’t be The Great Comet.

Because I’m an unabashed theatre nerd and have decided to run this metaphor into the ground, here are some lessons about succession planning you can learn from Broadway:

  • It’s not the actor, it’s the show:  If you rely on one person’s performance for your company’s success, you will fail. Make sure the team’s/unit’s/company’s work and systems are strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of who is in charge. You want that leader to enhance, not overtake, the work that is already being done. Hamilton, the cultural juggernaut that will probably play forever and ever, is able to survive cast changes all the time – because the book, music and staging is just SO DAMN GOOD. New cast members join in service to the show, and while you see their spin in the performance, it’s not about them. It’s about the outcome of the show.
  • Acknowledge that the original star can never REALLY be replaced and adapt: Having seen Ben Platt perform live, I am fairly confident that NO ONE will ever play that role to that level ever again. It is astounding. That doesn’t mean the next person will not be good. It just means they won’t be Ben. If they’re smart, they’ll try to find someone who can create the role in their own image, and adapt the show to that person’s strengths. Your company should do the same thing. If the last leader was well loved and well liked, acknowledge that. Then give them the opportunity to build and move on in their own image without changing the script.
  • Consider staggering your exits: If you know you have a cohort of leaders who might be leaving around the same time – whether it’s retirement or a spin-off or something else – you might negotiate with them to stagger their leaving (assuming you like their style). This will allow you to have stability throughout the transition, helping onboard the new leaders while providing consistency for the organization. Hamilton used this approach. Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) announced he was leaving. Then Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr) left (apparently to do Nationwide commercials). Then others in the lead roles left. But never all at once. It helped preserve the spirit of the show and passed on the cast’s culture to the next actors to join. That could work for you.
  • Have a long-term plan: Everyone leaves a company – whether they quit, get fired, or die. It’s the role of a leader to prep his/her replacement and plan that exit from the day they join. Lin Manuel Miranda has a group of trusted performers that he knows he can turn to take over roles. Javier Munoz was Lin’s understudy and replacement for In the Heights, and the same thing happened in Hamilton. Smooth transition. Who is YOUR Javier Munoz?
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: One of the biggest myths in succession planning is that you pick ONE person to be your replacement and you’re done. This is known as “pre-selection” and will bite you in the ass. You want to be sure that person can actually do the job, so you want to make sure you’re developing them. But even more pressing is the fact that someone who is high-potential enough to be identified as your successor may not want to wait in your shadow until you leave – they could jump to another opportunity. On Broadway, many understudies are working on originating one role while backing up another (like with Dear Evan Hansen’s Colton Ryan). There is no guarantee they’ll be around to take over full time. Or life gets in the way – Javier Munoz has had two health issues (thankfully, he’s okay). The point is, identify a potential pool of successors and develop their skills. It gives the company more options at the time of transition.
  • Communicate appropriately: That whole Mandy/Oak thing? Totally could have been avoided if all the right players met at one point to talk long-term goals, communication strategy, and impact to Oak. People get nervous when their boss changes. Having a good communication plan can help alleviate that. Additionally, if you DO have multiple people who could potentially take the job, think about how you let those who did NOT get the position know. What feedback can you give? What career options can you share? And…are you prepared for the reality that they may leave because of it? Whatever the case might be, the last thing you want to do is have a communication issue that results in NO ONE taking the role.

There you have it – lessons from Broadway on how you might approach succession planning within your organization.

See? The arts DO apply to the “real world.” (Support the arts!!!)

Survivor: Meetings Edition

If you clicked on this link because you thought it would be a thoughtful look at how to structure a meeting to ensure success, then you have come to the wrong place.

I am at the point where I no longer think it can be done on a consistent basis. Yes, you will have the occasional meeting where decisions are ACTUALLY made and people leave feeling like they accomplished something. But let’s be honest…those are few and far between. And do we REALLY think one more article reminding everyone to have an agenda and desired outcomes is going to make a difference?survivor

I didn’t think so.

And so, for your edification and general sanity, I present the following tips for surviving meetings:

  • Bring your smartphone: Seems pretty basic, right? But how else are you going to stay occupied during the update you’ve heard in 4 other meetings? And besides, if someone calls you out, you can say you were just pulling up the email with the attachment the person was talking about. (Hint: have that pre-loaded. Just in case.)
  • Bring a notebook: This is essential. It’s low tech. It doesn’t rely on good signal. And no one can accuse you of not paying attention because it looks like you’re taking notes…even if you’re just doodling, jotting down a grocery list, or finally writing that novel you’ve always known you had inside you.
  • Choose your seat carefully: It’s good to sit next to someone you like so you can exchange meaningful glances when something goofy is said. If that’s not possible, then sit across from that person so you can silently laugh when appropriate. There’s always an opportunity to text that person from afar as needed. (See “bring your smartphone.”)
  • Pretend the person who drones on and on is monologuing: This is straight from The Incredibles. At some point, the villain ALWAYS monologues. This is your chance to dream up your amazing escape! I’m sure lasers will be involved somehow. There should be lasers. But not capes. For obvious reasons.
  • Play Devil’s Advocate: This one is more about amusement than survival, but whatever. Some people believe the Outlook meeting is the required time to hold the meeting, so they’re not going to end early if they can help it. Why not spice up the festivities with a little, “Just playing devil’s advocate?” For example, the group is talking about ways to increase customer service. You can pipe in with a, “Just playing devil’s advocate here, but is the customer REALLY always right? I’d hate for us to go down a certain path on a false premise.”
  • Fake a sneezing fit: Coughing works, too. Anything that requires you to inarticulately point at your face and make a beeline for the door.

If you find yourself relying on one or more of these on a regular basis, your company has a problem with meetings. Now you have a choice – either perpetuate the issue or take a stand and stop going unless you know why the meeting is taking place. It only takes one strong voice to question the recurring meeting, and it only takes one smart question to find out why 10 people are sitting in a room.

Or you can fake sneeze. Because that makes you look like an adult.

What have YOU done to liven up your awful meetings? I want to hear from you!

Questions about your culture? Check your travel policy

Okay, it doesn’t necessarily need to be your travel policy, but I think it’s particularly useful for this exercise.

Allow me to explain.

Culture has lots of different definitions. Feel free to Google them if you’re a completist. For me, I look at culture as how work gets done in an organization. That encompasses a lot of stuff, and many tend to think solely of the people component – attitudes, values, behaviors, etc. Those are all part of it, so I’m glad people consider it!  Some also think about culture in terms of reward and recognition, employee perks, stuff like that. Also part of it, so keep that on the list!

The piece that is often missed, though, is process and policy. You know, the nuts and bolts of how you enable (or disable) work to be done within your organization. We forget this part of our culture because it’s in the background. Shit gets done regardless, and we fail to think about the mechanisms that we put in place unless legislation forces us to take a look at it. But it’s having one hell of an impact on your corporate culture whether you realize it or not.

In the FABULOUS book Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnus Nutter, WitchCrowley (“An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”) ruminates on some of his greatest accomplishments of demony on Earth. He’s frustrated by the old school demons who think one soul at a time. Crowley puts in place entire systems that ratchet up stress just enough for a person to take it out on another person who would then take it out on another…well, you get the idea. Traffic jams from a poorly designed highway is one example. The resulting negative psychic energy from poorly designed systems poisons the world and primes it for the appearance of the AntiChrist.

Which brings us to the travel policy.paperstack-292x300

If you could design the optimal travel policy, what would it look like? Let’s assume that you have to cap spending and all that fun stuff. Good chance that you might say, “Okay, you can get a flight that works for you and your family – as long as it’s not unnecessarily pricey (e.g., first class all the time). And go ahead and book it on the airline’s web site and use your corporate card so it’s not too complicated. Pick a hotel that comfortable, safe, and near the facility where your visiting. You know, don’t stay at the Ritz, but you don’t need to hit the Motel 6. Oh, and for your food and transportation? Here’s a per diem. You spend that as you see fit.” Doesn’t that sound lovely?

I sort of doubt you’d create one with overly complicated rules about which flights you can book, or require you to use a centralized travel site that doesn’t work 40% of the time, or make arbitrary cutoff points about how long a flight has to be in order to pay for early seating or business class. You wouldn’t set a spend limit on each meal ($10 breakfast, $10 lunch, $20 dinner), or require use of public transportation. You certainly wouldn’t limit the amount of tip someone was allowed to leave for a waitress. And surely you wouldn’t then force your employees to spend hours entering receipts into an overly complicated and antiquated computer system.

Now, if reading the previous paragraph made your blood boil or scoff in disbelief, imagine working under that sort of policy. Because that is a real thing. This policy exists in the world today. (I won’t say where. BUT YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.)

No matter how much you talk about the value of people, or how much you want your culture to be one of trust, or how much you want to be an employer of choice, a policy like the one above undermines all of it. It tells your employees that saving a little money is WAY more important than your employees’ time. Or that you don’t trust them to spend money like it’s their own.

It’s hurting your culture because sometimes, employees want to spend $25 at breakfast and then eat a protein bar for lunch. Or sometimes, they just want to take the 2 hour earlier flight to see their kid after a long trip. Or they want to stay an extra night in the hotel because they want to be able to visit their internal customers without feeling like they have to sneak in a key meeting. They don’t want to feel like their work is overly burdensome.

Before you get all, “But, Mary…” on me, yes, I know you need to have some controls in place – not just to ensure good spending practices, but for risk management compliance. I’m not saying you get rid of everything. Just get rid of the stuff you don’t need. (And you don’t need a lot of it.)

So if you’ve got “culture” in any form on you list of organizational initiatives this year, don’t forget to look at your travel policy. In fact, look at all your policies. And your systems. And your workflows.

You may be surprised at how much impact you can have on that always elusive “culture improvement.”