When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) played its first notes, Grover Cleveland was president of the United States. The year was 1887, and the streets that would hold automobiles in the Motor City still had plenty of horses. Since then, the DSO has endured global wars, economic depressions, recessions, two influenza pandemics, multiple venue changes, labor strife — and last year, the untimely passing of Anne Parsons, its beloved president and CEO.
How does one of the nation’s oldest orchestras maintain its international standing while at the same time evolve to stay relevant with younger, changing audiences? As part of The Vella Group’s series on board leadership, we recently spoke with Mark Davidoff (pictured above), who served as DSO board chair from 2015-2022.
Here are excerpts of Davidoff’s thoughts on how the DSO board has stayed the course.
Davidoff credits former board chair Phillip Fisher with making changes that streamlined the DSO governance process to assure that the fiduciary board was properly sized and structured, while providing other leadership opportunities outside of the board.
“Our board, like a lot of boards, grew over time,” Davidoff said. “But at some point, you realize that a larger board can have challenges functioning as a fiduciary board. You need the right amount of people with the diversity in skills, experiences and thought.”
As part of creating a smaller, more nimble board, the DSO looked at the expertise and backgrounds it needed to guide the organization for the long term. “You have to find room for those who want to contribute their time and skills. You have to work with them and see where they feel comfortable and where they want to be,” said Davidoff. “We started and refreshed a skills matrix. We asked: ‘What do we need? What are we missing? How do we complement each other and close those gaps?’”
An orchestra in a city the size of Detroit serves numerous constituencies: a diverse and changing audience in a major metropolitan area; more than 80 high-caliber, professional musicians; an internationally known music director; a broad community of donors; an administrative, creative and technical staff responsible for programming, funding and supporting the enterprise.
For the DSO, culture took on an even larger role as the organization came out of a work stoppage in the spring of 2011.
Davidoff again says Fisher was instrumental in setting the tone at the board level.
“There was a lot of healing that was needed, and setting the right culture in the board room and how the board relates to all of its constituencies was important,” he said. “We adopted the One DSO commitment. We are a family, and families take care of each other.”
Sometimes an organization’s search for its next generation of leaders occurs with order and process. Other times, those in charge have to figure out how to fly and fix the plane at the same time. The DSO board has experienced both in recent years.
When it was announced that Leonard Slatkin would be leaving as full-time music director after the 2017-18 season, the DSO began the meticulous process of finding a new artistic maestro.
“That was one of the hardest searches I’ve ever been involved with,” said Davidoff. “There’s only so many people on the planet that can do that job — win the hearts and minds of the orchestra while driving the artistic excellence and vision that it needs.”
After an intensive search that lasted nearly three years, Jader Bignamini was introduced as the 18th music director of the DSO in January 2020.
Then there was the board’s role in working with Anne Parsons as she battled a terminal illness while planning for her successor, a process that Davidoff described as “gut-wrenching.”
For assistance, the board relied on one of its members, Nancy Schlichting, the former CEO of Henry Ford Health System, who chaired a process on succession planning, said Davidoff. One of the scenarios was dealing with a “black swan event” — an unplanned transition.
“Nancy had laid out an amazing playbook, and it all became applicable during my chairmanship,” he said.
Parsons died in March 2022 after losing her battle with lung cancer. The DSO conducted a national search for her successor before selecting vice president and general manager Erik Rönmark as the DSO’s next president and CEO.
Just as a musical performance relies on its members listening to each other, board and organizational success depends on having people who develop the right chemistry with each other.
Davidoff said the experience he gained during 15 years at Deloitte, where he eventually became Michigan Managing Partner, taught him the value that comes when individuals blend their strengths for a bigger purpose.
“Deloitte has invested deeply in understanding business chemistry,” he said. “The ability to understand someone else’s chemistry and the ability to modulate your own is art and science together.
“The leaders we’ve been able to attract understand than intuitively. That’s when you get great outcomes,” Davidoff said.
One of those outcomes that came under Davidoff’s tenure was a decision that will have far-reaching positive implications for the financial health of the DSO. After selling the Orchestra Place office building, the board had a decision to make. How should the proceeds be used? Adding to the endowment? Investing in the physical structure? In the end, the board opted to de-risk the orchestra’s largest pension fund liability.
The move locked in the pension benefits for those who had paid into the plan, while at the same time eliminated a major liability from the DSO balance sheet. It was the kind of thoughtful decision a well-functioning board makes to ensure long-term success of the community treasure it is charged with growing and protecting.
“The DSO is one of the oldest orchestras in the country. And it’s on the road to permanent financial sustainability,” said Davidoff.