Steve Kean has made his first moves as the new president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo courtesy of the GHP

The Greater Houston Partnership announced organizational changes under the tenure of its new president and CEO, Steve Kean.

Kean officially took on his new role earlier this month, after being named the next CEO this summer. The GHP's former president and CEO, Bob Harvey, announced his retirement in January.

In his first acts as CEO, Kean reshuffled his executive suite with a series of promotions.

Katie Pryor has been promoted to executive vice president and COO where she will lead the partnership’s development and revenue activities like long-term fundraising efforts, engagement opportunities, annual membership campaigns, special events and programs, and long-term fundraising efforts, oversee people and culture, finance and accounting, and information systems departments.

Taylor Landin was also promoted, as he was named executive vice president and chief policy officer, where he will continue to lead the team of public policy and advocacy professionals in policy priorities at the federal, state and local levels.

Kean also created the Office of the CEO, which will be composed of both Pryor and Landin, and the organization’s senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer, Clint Pasche.

“I believe this shared leadership model will produce better outcomes on the strategies, opportunities, and issues we’ll address at the partnership,” Kean says in a news release.

GHP is Houston’s “leading business organization,” which has championed growth across a 12-county region by uniting business and civic leaders dedicated to Houston’s long-term success.

“I have always known Houston to be a region focused on creating opportunity, and as I’ve visited with many across our community over the last few months since my appointment, I have seen this opportunity-creation mindset in our region’s corporations and startups, political leadership, educational institutions, economic development partners and so many other organizations,” Kean, who once was the CEO of Kinder Morgan, adds in a news release. “There is strength in the unity of spirit we have here in Houston; and our ability to collaborate and work together is what sets us apart from other cities around the country.”

It's a homecoming for this Texas unicorn. Photo via cart.com

Houston-founded unicorn logistics company returns HQ to the Bayou City

coming home

While originally founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com has called Austin home for the past two years. Now, the scaling software company is coming home.

Cart.com, a tech company providing commerce and logistical solutions for businesses, announced today that its corporate headquarters has returned to Houston amid its rapid growth.

“I couldn’t be happier to bring Cart.com back home to Houston as we continue to revolutionize how merchants sell and fulfill products to meet customers anywhere they are,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “The idea for Cart.com was born in Houston and we’ve always maintained a strong local presence with the majority of our executive team and board based here. As our customer mix increasingly moves upmarket and our own needs evolve, I’m confident Houston has what we need as we look towards the next stage of Cart.com’s growth story.”

The company has raised over $400 million in venture funding over the past three years, and has grown a customer base of 6,000 users, supporting over $8 billion in gross merchandise value, according to Cart.com. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

Cart.com's most recent raise, a $60 million series C round this summer, was announced to support an international expansion. Last year, the company secured $240 million in equity and debt funding.

According to the release, the relocation comes at a time of "unprecedented growth" for the business, which calls out Houston's central location, transportation infrastructure, and dynamic business community.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Cart.com home and proud to have one of the country’s fastest-growing unicorns back in Houston,” Bob Harvey, president and CEO of Greater Houston Partnership, in the release. “Cart.com’s homecoming is a testament to why companies repeatedly choose Houston to scale their business with its diverse and dynamic economy along with its unparalleled talent pool that cuts across technology, professional services and global trade. We’re excited to support Cart.com’s continued growth and look forward to the company’s contribution to Houston’s growing tech community.”

Earlier this month, Tariq was named a regional winner in the Entrepreneur Of The Year program, run by professional services firm EY. He was one of 11 Houston-based executives named in the Gulf South region and now will move on to national Entrepreneur Of The Year program.

Steve Kean will transition from leading Kinder Morgan to assuming the role of president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership later this year. Photo courtesy of the GHP

GHP names energy exec as new president and CEO

taking the lead

A longtime energy executive has been named the next president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. He'll take on the new role this fall.

The GHP named Steve Kean, who currently serves as the CEO of Kinder Morgan Inc., to the position. He's expected to transition from CEO to board of directors member at Kinder Morgan on August 1. Kean will then assume his new position at GHP no later than Dec. 1.

Dr. Marc L. Boom, GHP board chair and president and CEO of Houston Methodist, made the announcement at a press conference June 21.

“Steve brings incredible business acumen and leadership skills to the organization," Boom says in a statement. "Coupled with an extraordinary passion for Houston, he will build on the Partnership’s momentum to continue to advance greater Houston as a region of extraordinary growth and opportunity.”

The GHP's outgoing president and CEO, Bob Harvey, announced his retirement earlier this year, and will remain in his position until Kean is onboarded. Kean was selected via a search committee established by 2022 board chair, Thad Hill. The committee was chaired by Marc Watts and included Boom, Thad Hill, Paul Hobby, Gina Luna, Eric Mullins, Armando Perez, and Ruth Simmons. The process, which looked at over 70 highly-qualified Houston leaders, also included the services of Spencer Stuart to manage the search.

“This last decade has been a dynamic time for Houston and the Partnership," Harvey says in a statement. "As a life-long Houstonian, it has been an honor to focus my efforts on supporting Houston’s continued growth and working with the business community to create opportunities for all Houstonians. This is an exciting time for Houston. I am very pleased that Steve is enthusiastic about leading the Partnership, and I look forward to the organization’s continued success under his leadership.”

With decades in the energy industry, Kean joined Kinder Morgan in 2002 and has served as COO, president of Natural Gas Pipelines, and president of Kinder Morgan Inc. before rising to CEO. He received a bachelor's degree from Iowa State University and his law degree from the University of Iowa.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve our region in this role," he says. "I look forward to building on what Bob, the Board, members, and staff of the Partnership have accomplished. I know first-hand the opportunities that a vibrant business sector can create for people and communities. I look forward to expanding those opportunities further.”

Bob Harvey has announced his retirement plans. Photo courtesy of GHP

Greater Houston Partnership leader to retire, executive search committee forms to find new CEO

transition plans

Bob Harvey, who has been at the helm as the Greater Houston Partnership for over a decade has announced his retirement plans.

In an announcement today, the GHP revealed that Harvey, the president and CEO of the organization since 2012, plans to retire at the end of the year.

“This last decade has been a dynamic time for Houston and the Partnership. As a life-long Houstonian, it is a true honor to wake up each day focused on supporting Houston’s growth and working with the business community to create opportunities for all Houstonians,” says Harvey in a news release. “The commitment of business leaders to the success of this region is inspiring, and I look forward to continuing to lead the Partnership over the next year as we move Houston forward.”

Thad Hill, the current board chair of GHP and president and CEO of Calpine Corporation, has created an executive search committee made up of Partnership board members and chaired by Marc Watts, the 2018 Partnership board chair and president of The Friedkin Group. According to the release, the search will be national but the new CEO will be expected to "have some working familiarity with Houston and its business community." Current staff members will also be considered.

“I want to thank Bob for his tremendous leadership over the last decade as we’ve made great strides as an organization and as a region,” Hill says in the release. “I am grateful that Bob will continue to advance the organization over the coming months as we begin the process to find his successor. Under Bob’s leadership, the Partnership plays an essential role in the inclusive growth and prosperity of our great community, and I am confident his successor will expand on that legacy.”

The GHP is an economic development organization that serves the 12-county region encompassing Houston. It also acts as the business community’s advocate within policy across the local, state, and federal levels.

Under Harvey, the GHP has rolled out several initiatives, including workforce development program UpSkill Houston, the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, and diversity, equity, and inclusion program One Houston Together.

“The Partnership is an outstanding organization with strong board and staff leadership, impeccable financials, and a mission-oriented bias for action to make Houston a better place to live, work and build a business,” Hill says in the release. “The next leader of the Partnership is set-up to succeed, and I look forward to the process to identifying this person who will continue the organization’s momentum forward.”

Houston saw the biggest year-over-year jump in tech job postings among the top 25 U.S. cities for tech job growth, according to this report. Photo via Getty Images

Houston ranks as the top market for tech job growth

By the numbers

Houston is experiencing a boom in tech employment.

A recent report from Dice, a job platform for the tech industry, says Houston saw the biggest year-over-year jump in tech job postings among the top 25 U.S. cities for those postings.

From January through October this year, the number of tech job postings in Houston soared 45.6 percent versus the same period a year earlier. That compares with a 22.8 percent statewide increase during the same time span.

“Although sometimes overshadowed by the cachet of Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, Houston is absolutely a tech hub in its own right, attracting a mix of major tech companies and VC-backed startups to join its already established base of aerospace, defense, and energy companies,” Dice says.

For the one-year period covered by the Dice report, San Antonio witnessed a 17.3 percent rise in tech job postings, with Austin at 9.6 percent and Dallas at 7.7 percent.

In citing Houston’s astronomic showing, Dice notes that the region benefits from the presence of tech employers like Asurion, AWS, Fiserv, Dell, IBM, and Siemens, along with a number of venture-backed startups.

Top tech occupations in the Houston area include software developer/engineer, business analyst, .NET developer, data analyst/engineer/scientist, DevOps engineer, network engineer, and full stack engineer, according to Dice. The region’s average tech salary is $100,341.

More broadly, the Greater Houston Partnership forecasts healthy job growth in 2023 while noting that a recession could temper the growth.

A “short and shallow” recession in the first half of 2023 would mean a net gain of 60,800 jobs next year, the partnership says. If no recession hits Houston, that number could climb as high as 79,200 jobs. However, a prolonged recession would limit job growth to about 30,400 jobs.

The partnership predicts 2023 job growth will be strongest in the region’s construction, energy, government, health care, professional services, and restaurant sectors. Within the professional category, which includes tech services, the partnership anticipates the addition of anywhere from 2,000 to 7,900 new jobs next year.

Through the first 10 months of this year, the Houston area added 144,000 new jobs, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission. In November, the region’s unemployment rate stood at 4 percent, down from 5.1 percent a year earlier.

“As we look ahead to 2023 and what the future has in store, I’m incredibly optimistic about Houston’s prospects, despite a possible recession,” Bob Harvey, president of the partnership, says in a news release. “We have our challenges — from ensuring we lead on the energy transition to effectively competing for top talent — but each time Houston has been underestimated, we’ve come out on top. I believe that will be the case once again.”

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted a panel of Houston tech experts for the second annual State of Technology event. GHP/Twitter

Houston experts talk tech and the city's future as an innovation hub

Eavesdropping in Houston

What's the future of technology in the Bayou City? Several experts sat down to discuss at a recent luncheon.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its second annual State of Technology event — the first to be hosted in person — this week, and panelists joined the stage to discuss ESG, venture capital, and what's next for Houston's growing tech scene. Missed the conversation? Here are several key moments from the event.

"We've got to keep our foot on the gas in Houston."

— Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP, says at the start of the panel. "We were hardly in the game at all five years ago. We are clearly in the game today — we're being noticed," he continues. "But just being in the game is not what we aspire to. We aspire to be a leader and a major player, so we still have a lot of work to do."

"We have seen an incredible shift across all industries and sectors focused on the business impact of ESG. And Houston is in such an incredible place for that."

— Trinity Lloyd, sustainability and energy transition lead at Google Cloud. "Like technology, energy is at the core of every industry and sector," she shares. "We're seeing a ton of innovation around energy transition and climate tech."

"Venture capitalists are seeking the best ideas. Traditionally, VC has been about who you know, but that's changed drastically."

— Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We're not all the way there yet, but most venture capitalists we're working with are very focused on making sure they get the best ideas in the most democratic way," Guitar says of inclusion in VCs. "You really have to understand difference to solve important problems."

"Early stage venture is at its prime right now. ... It also happens to be the kind of environment that Houston has really been known for."

— Guitar says of the landscape of Houston's startup ecosystem. "We have great early stage venture capital opportunities," she says. "People are looking to get invested in earlier and earlier."

"Premium is now knowing where your products came from." 

— Ann Lai, vice president and general manager of displays solutions business group at HP Inc. "The progeny of your device or services is extremely important to the average user."

"While we seek to solve our own corporate social responsibility and innovate within our organizations to have better and more accurate reporting, we have this opportunity to create new markets."

— Lloyd says. "We're starting to see industry lines blurring," she continues. "In 10 years, the way we all do business is going to be different."

"How do we use all of us as grassroots ambassadors to talk about Houston as a strong place for technology?"

— Lai says on getting the word out about Houston's tech scene. "We also need to find ways to track talent earlier in the pipeline."

"It's about the venture capital community at large efficiently finding the fastest growing deals, and corporations having a risk tolerance to lean into that."

— Guitar says about what needs to happen in Houston. "It's about getting that match making right," "That can change the trajectory of Houston."

"Doing good in the world is critical to attracting talent."

— Lloyd says on the future of the workforce. "Houston has an infrastructure of intellectual capital unlike any other city in the world that is really critical across ESG and the climate spectrum."

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Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).