How can leaders inspire agility during a crisis? Learn three critical leadership strategies that helped two prominent symphonies transform during the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

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).

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.