The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Arvind Manocha of Wolf Trap
National Parks have been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I was born in DC and lived within a mile of Rock Creek National Park for most of my childhood. I spent summers visiting National Parks with my family and some of my fondest memories are of hiking the Grand Canyon National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Indeed, my passion for nature and the environment is part of the reason I’ve focused my career on climate and related communications efforts.
So it just makes sense to include National Parks perspectives in our ongoing series of Common Sense Colloquy Q&As with leading individuals. This month, we’re featuring not just any perspective, but that of Arvind Manocha, the president and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. In this role, Arvind manages the year-round arts programming for the nation’s first and only park for the performing arts. During his tenure, Wolf Trap has set records both for attendance and for the diversity of its entertainment offerings, accomplishments that are a testament to Arvind’s leadership.
Prior to joining the Foundation as President and CEO in January 2013, Arvind worked at the Hollywood Bowl and served as Chief Operating Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Earlier, he was a consultant at McKinsey and Company working with clients in Los Angeles and London. He is a recipient of the Washington Business Journal’s Minority Business Leader Award and serves on the boards of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Public Lands Alliance.
Although I’ve never worked with Arvind, he has been a friend since his arrival in D.C. more than eight years ago. He’s a smart, insightful leader and an amazing listener. And he knows his way around an interview: check out this amazing Q&A he did with Randy Shulman at Metro Weekly in July. It’s a tour de force of clear, compelling, compassionate communications. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to feature more of Arvind’s insights and perspectives on communications here in this forum.
My thanks to Arvind for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: You have a unique responsibility in your role at the nation’s only park for the performing arts. You work collaboratively with the National Park Service on park management, and you report to an amazing Board of Directors on arts management. How do you balance those roles? What has serving in this role taught you about the role and impact of communications?
A: With the Park Service, we have a very unique and very fruitful partnership, and, as you note, there’s a tremendous amount of collaboration at the heart of it. Wolf Trap is uniquely positioned within the Park Service, as it’s the only Park that was specifically created in service to the Performing Arts. So for the Park Service, there are any number of responsibilities at Wolf Trap that aren’t found at other parks, and I think part of our role at the Foundation is to help bring clarity as to what are the evolving needs of our artists and concertgoers. And of course the same is in true in reverse; there are all sorts of unique characteristics to the way the NPS manages Park lands, and they are very helpful in bringing clarity to those evolving dynamics to us at the Foundation. I think it’s a model public private partnership and one of which we are all very proud, and it takes care and feeding like all partnerships.
Our Board of Directors is large – as is the case in many larger arts organizations for which fundraising is such an essential component of success – and it is made of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Personally, professionally, and in their musical taste: many different points of view are represented. But what they have in common is a tremendous commitment to community, to access, and to the role music and art play in the creation of society. The relationship between the staff and the Board is constructive and healthy; it’s a form of partnership as well. We all want the very best for those who visit one of our venues or experience our work in an educational setting, and I think when you have the clarity of purpose it tends to make the rest a bit easier.
Q: Talk a bit about the importance of the arts to the national culture. Is there a special connection between the arts and nature that informs your decisions? What has working at Wolf Trap and being surrounded by the natural beauty of the park taught you about the arts that you didn’t know before?
A: Of course I believe that the arts are of paramount importance in creating the national culture; I think anyone who chooses to make this their career path has to have that very fundamental belief. But I think this past 18 months has absolutely highlighted that concept for all of us; it’s made even those who may not generally think of themselves as culture vultures painfully aware of the role art plays in their lives. Not being able to go to concerts or to the theatre or to a gallery for so long has created arts lovers out of people who may have previously thought of themselves as arts apathetic. It’s as simple as the old cliché of absence making the heart grow fonder.
We are drawn at a very primordial level to shared experiences. We are social animals. We have been gathering to hear the human voice in song, or to watch dance or look at cave paintings for thousands of years. And, in a similar vein, we are also hardwired to respond to the natural world. Feeling the breeze on our skin; watching the waves of the ocean; looking out over the expanse of a forest. We have a deep rooted desire to be outside.
Outdoor concerts are popular all over the world for this very reason; this marriage between the communal artistic experience coupled with the immersive nature of the natural setting. What’s unique in my mind about the setting at Wolf Trap is that we’re not just in a park; we’re in a National Park, and it’s not just music in a National Park, it’s the National Park for the Performing Arts. National Parks are created and protected because they are recognized as part of the fabric of our shared culture. They have meaning and status to help teach Americans about who we are. At Wolf Trap, artistry and the act of creativity are celebrated as part of what makes Americans American, and that’s a wonderful notion to pass on to all who visit.
Q: As a gay man of color, you’ve no doubt had to navigate the business world differently than your straight, white counterparts. What has this experience taught you? How has your lived experience guided your career decisions and your role as a leader?
A: Working in the arts for such a long time has meant I’ve been in a fairly progressive work place environment. My lived experience going back much further, to my days growing up in a not very diverse smaller town, probably has had the most influence in my approach to leadership. I think when you feel a lack of sensitivity as a child it teaches you to be more sensitive. When you think you may not be being treated fairly, you are hyper aware of fairness. When you feel a lack of empathy, you become empathetic. If you feel you or your family may be considered “different”, you go out of your way to make people welcome. And you also learn how to have your antenna pretty finely tuned. You try to understand the difference between prejudice and discrimination, while also making sure neither goes unnoticed. All of the things that you bear the burden of having to be extra aware of can help contribute to stronger leadership in the future.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: Know your audience. Think about who is on the receiving end of any particular communication and be thoughtful about tailoring your message and your style. And if you are doing a lot of public speaking, do the thing that everyone tells you do but you hate doing: video yourself and watch it back. It feels narcissistic but it’s the most efficient way of learning.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Pay attention to your communication, in all forms. So much of the interactions in the work place are not about rocket science or particularly arcane subjects. The difference between two different people making a similar point about the same subject is often simply in the communication. The material is often a commodity; the presentation of that material is where you can add value and distinguish yourself. I find more and more that those that are more apt to be hired, and then more apt to find success, are those who value the skill of communication.