Words by Meher Khan + Photos by Marie Ketring
When Kevin Smith was twenty-four years old, he never expected to be in a position of leadership. He was in a band in Los Angeles and following his passion for rock and roll. The band was traveling back to L.A. in a VW bus when they were rear ended by a semi truck. The crash destroyed the band’s equipment and, as he put it, “kind of the band members.” It was a pivotal moment in his life: a chance to reassess his career goals and take a new direction. As twenty young, nonprofit professionals gathered for YNPN Twin Cities’ Leadership Breakfast in the Minnesota Orchestra’s board room overlooking a rain drenched Peavey Plaza, Kevin shared what’s he’s learned about leadership since that fateful car crash.
Kevin eventually found himself with a job in classical and dance departments, which led to a continually evolving and growing career in production and, eventually, management. As a stage manager for the Minnesota Opera in 1981, Kevin had his first experience leading through an organizational transition. Almost the entire staff was laid off, but Kevin was one of two asked to stay on the team. As a result, he was thrust into a position of learning on the job; he had no training outside of music, and many of his responsibilities involved business skills. “In the arts you don’t get formal training in these areas,” Kevin told us. When he was asked to do a cash flow projection, Kevin turned to his wife, who was getting her MBA, for help.
An integral lesson at this point in Kevin’s experience is to be open to learning outside of your current abilities. If Kevin hadn’t been open to learning the business and administrative sides of the organization he worked for, he wouldn’t have been able to grow in his position, and leadership took note of his ability to learn on the job. When the new director resigned, Kevin became the general manager, and eventually the director in 1984.
Today, Kevin has led some of the most influential music organizations in Minnesota, including the Minnesota Opera and, currently, the Minnesota Orchestra, where he serves as the president and CEO. Although he never saw himself becoming a leader or had a goal of being in a leadership position, the people around him saw his innate leadership skills and gave him opportunities to develop and apply them, benefiting both his personal growth and the growth of all the organizations with which he’s worked.
Kevin knows two things about leadership:
1) Leadership is about working with people.
2) leading people means developing them and bringing out the best in them.
All of Kevin’s advice sits on this firm foundation of what a leader is and, from his leadership journey, what a leader isn’t.
What a leader is
Leaders, whether they label themselves as such or not, are people with high levels of emotional intelligence. They see the collective performance of those they lead—the entirety of their organization, group, or company—as the indicator of their success or failure. They work with people, as colleagues and partners, and work to bring out the best abilities of the people around them. Leaders are always alert and aware of how everyone around them is doing. Are they frustrated? Are they engaged? Leaders know that happy people who love their job and the environment they work in deliver great results, so they work to make sure this is a reality for the people they lead.
What a leader is not
A leader is not someone who sets out to lead, or to be followed. As Kevin put it, “If you’re aspiring to be a leader, you probably won’t be one.” You can’t attain leadership by focusing on your individual contributions. If something goes wrong and your reaction is, “that’s not my fault,” you have left the realm of leadership. Leaders know that positive incentives are a more effective way to elicit people’s best work, while those who rely on and abuse their authority are not leaders.
Kevin’s second transitional position came when he took the position of president with the Minnesota Orchestra, after a very public and long shut out. His leadership skills were integral in unifying all the talent and hard work that made up the orchestra—which were severely disjointed at this point-—and from there, guiding them to move forward. His first step was to say to everyone, “We’re changing. Get on board.” Once everyone got into the spirit of change, they were less worried about losing their jobs and didn’t push back against Kevin’s new ideas. From there, he made sure to establish an environment of trust by making sure to meet with everyone regularly, and keeping open communication with all the groups involved, including the board. He trusted those working with him, and they trusted him. From this foundation, Kevin was able to do a restructuring of the whole organization using a new model, which has since become a model for other orchestras.
Kevin is such an effective leader that he has already attempted to retire and was called back into his current role. And yet, Kevin never saw himself as a leader. Perhaps the biggest lesson from his experience is that leadership is not a label, but a state of mind, focused on the collective success of the organizations and people he leads.