Just what does a consultant do? To find out, we spoke with our own Josh Borenstein, Long Wharf Theatre’s managing director, and a former arts management consultant.
Steve Scarpa: How would you define the role of a consultant?
Josh Borenstein: Every consultant is different. What I did was much different than what the character of Amelia does in the play The Consultant. My job, like most management consultants, was to offer a view from 15,000 feet where an organization was and how to move that organization forward.
SS: What was your process of researching an organization when you first got involved with them?
JB: When we’d start a project, there would almost always be a period of interviews. We’d talk to 10 to 25 people affiliated with the organization. We worked mostly with non-profits, so I’d always talk to staff members and board members, and I also might talk to audience members, key donors, and community partners. Those conversations would help me understand the organization, the culture, and the perception of what the problems were, which may or may not have been the actual problems. And then we would do a lot of analysis. I would do a lot of financial analysis. We also would often do a market analysis for these organizations. We would use the interviews – the qualitative component – to understand how people felt about the organization. And then we would use the data to test whether those views were accurate or not.
SS: When you went in, how were you viewed?
JB: A variety of ways. I would say a lot of the time we were met with skepticism. I think there is a lot of consultant fatigue in America.
SS: How so?
JB: There is a perception that consultants are often brought in to fire people, to help a company downsize, which frankly is often true. The consultant is brought in to help make the organization more efficient, which can be code for downsizing. And companies pay a lot of money for consultants. Because you are paying for a short term engagement, you are basically paying triple than if you hired a staff member doing the same kind of work. If you were paying an arts staff member $50 in wages, benefits, and payroll taxes, the consultant might get $150 an hour. Many people see that an organization is under financial duress and then see a seemingly large bill for the consultant’s services, and they can get frustrated.
SS: You mentioned the skepticism, but there must be times where your client said, ‘Thank God you’re here.”
JB: For every person who’s skeptical, there’s another person who was thankful we were there. I always tried to leave very satisfied clients. I would say 95 percent of the time people were really happy with the work we did. We did arts consulting because our work could really make an impact in communities. For example, I look at our work in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus Foundation, which is their community foundation, and the arts council worked together to understand how they can better capitalize their arts sector, which was struggling in the aftermath of the recession. We got an e-mail from the head of the Columbus Foundation after he read our first draft. He wrote that the thinking was very good and how he was proud to have commissioned that study because it is going to make an impact.
SS: When you read The Consultant, what did you think of the depiction of the work? Did it ring true to you?
JB: What rang true to me was the skepticism with which people meet Amelia. Amelia has two strikes against her, one of which is that she’s an outsider. The way people treat the outsider coming into an organization, there were elements of that that I could really connect to. Amelia’s other strike is that she’s really young. She’s 22 in the play. I think novice consultants come in with the same kind of enthusiasm she shows, thinking “I’m really going to make a difference to this organization.” Within the first 15 minutes of the first assignment, you realize how hard it is going to be. I connected to that realization that Amelia goes through right at the beginning of the play.
The play asks how do we help each other and what do we owe each other. I really tried to be authentic this issue about as a consultant. You have to really ask yourself what is the best way to help this organization, what do I owe to my clients, and what is the best way to help them. And what if the help the client thinks he or shee needs isn’t the best way to help them. I think Amelia struggles with these same issues over the course of the play and that is something I could relate to.
SS: Has there been crossover between your skill set as a consultant and the skill set which is required to run Long Wharf Theatre?
JB: Being a consultant was one of the best professional moves I made. I learned a lot working on 50 projects over my time. I learned a lot about different clients and the different challenges which organizations have. I also learned that there is a lot of similarity in the challenges we are all having. I also developed skills that are enormously useful to leading an arts organization. Maybe most importantly, I learned to take a step back each day and try to see the big picture for Long Wharf.
— Steve Scarpa