Don’t Believe Your Own Press…Paradigm’s Story

debaseinstallFinancing the Marching Arts

During my career in non profit and about a decade ago, I worked at one of the premier substance abuse treatment companies in the country. It is safe to say, that the company I worked for “owned” the industry in Florida. Working in that environment made it easy to forget how hard we had to work to keep the doors open and to keep our name in the public eye. Every three months, the CEO would gather all of the managers together for a leadership meeting and she always started with this phrase, “Don’t believe your own press, for if you do, you will surely fall.”  Companies all over the world use that phrase as a reminder that at any time, you can fail by the simple belief that you are unbeatable. In the real world, you often hear of athletes, actors, artists, entrepreneur’s and businessmen fall, because somewhere along the line they believed their own press and didn’t pay attention to the climate around them. Color guards are no different.
How many guards have we all seen come and go and somewhere in the process of many of those programs, there is probably a story where the staff didn’t pay as close attention to the money, the membership, climate, or process as closely as they should have. Paradigm is no different and our story is one of caution and the climb back. It’s one every person can probably relate to or at the very least learn from.
In 2005, Paradigm reached the height of competition as a program by placing 7th in World Class at the WGI World Championships by displaying one of the hardest and to that point one of the most standard setting flag features ever. By completing the entire phrase with our feet and in the horizontal position, it was by standards of the time a true test of the world class sheet. In the midst of the season and looking back, it was very clear that the staff hung our hat on that moment and even the program. For us, it was truly a Cinderella season, but in the midst of it all we started to believe our own press and lost who we were as a program. We believed that we had arrived and with that feeling comes arrogance. Below are just some of the mistakes we made.
  • We didn’t take the pulse of the emotions and sensitivities of the performers in our quest to push the envelope
  • We believed that because we were a two time World finalist, kids from around Florida would just flock to us
  • We didn’t assess if the program was moving too fast for the financial structure
  • We didn’t assess the veteran status of the performers and who would come back and who wouldn’t simply based on time in the program and time to move on
  • We didn’t assess the stress level of the staff
  • We didn’t assess our competitors competitive growth and proximity to us
  • We didn’t assess the national climate
These are just a few things we didn’t assess. How do you build upon one of the best moments you’ve ever had? We didn’t ask that question. If I remember correctly, we didn’t ask a lot of questions. We moved into the next season with a simple assumption that everything would just work. We believed our own press and it backfired on us. It took us two more seasons to realize that success is fleeting and if you don’t continue to spend the majority of your time focusing on the administrative side you will eventually fall. By 2007, the loss of a significant amount of the membership, and low turn out at auditions resulted in the decision that 2007, would be our last season as a program. 
The staff scattered and it took us five years to realize that we needed to be back together, but in 2012, we still didn’t do it right. Once again, we believed in our own press, no matter how old that press was. In today’s world of social media, texting, and the internet, it’s important to realize that five years ago is a lifetime and five minutes ago is all that really matters. 
That was lesson number one.
Social Media has changed the way we recruit, communicate, and even train color guards. It is probably without a doubt the most significant shift in the way the color guard world works. Every thing you say and do is there for the world to see.

Lesson number two
The second mistake we made was that we wanted to rebrand ourselves, but in the branding process we threw out what worked and kept what didn’t. We completely did it backwards. The one thing that has always worked for Paradigm, no matter whether or not we have had a good or bad season is that the staff is truly one. We act as one and function as one. We are never off message as an organization. The trust is strong. We thought that by shifting the staff around that we could rebrand, but still be Paradigm. Wrong. When we did that we lost the soul of the program.

Keep what works and know what doesn’t work. Take ego out of the equation.

Lesson number three
After a disastrous 2012 season, we attempted 2013 and realized that there was no way we could come back out without a plan. After a disappointing audition and difficulty securing the right staff, we made the decision for the second time in our history to fold the program, but this time, would only be temporary. We would spend the 2013 season planning. In December of 2012, what would have been a design camp, we met as a staff and brought in a few outside opinions and spent two days hammering out a strategic plan that would expire in April 2016. At the end of 2016, our goal was to walk on the floor in A finals. I can only speak for myself, but at times my ego got in the way as how do you go from World Finals and a standard setting, standing ovation moment, to making a three year plan to make finals in Independent A class? I struggled internally with that.
Let you ego go if you want to save the program. It’s about the program…not about you.

Lesson number four

You have to figure out how to re-brand and rebuild without living in the past, but keeping the spirit of the tradition alive. 
In the two days of strategic planning, there was much debating, arguing, and at times some storming out of the room. We had to agree to drop blame and leave the past behind. This was hard, because it was the time that we had to agree that yes we screwed up and yes we should have paid more attention to the dynamics of the program, but there was no one person that could be pointed to that owned that blame. This was when we discovered that we truly were friends, that everyone owned a stake in the program and doing that allowed us to put Paradigm first.
Lesson number five

When you strategic plan, it’s crucial that all voices are heard. Opinions matter and dreaming big is a necessary step. Strategic planning is a concept of starting big and ending with realistic short term and long term goals. It takes commitment by all involved. We were honest with each other and all agreed to specific tasks and were held accountable for those tasks. 
Listen to each other no matter how crazy the idea’s are and brainstorm as a group.

Lesson number six

When we started the planning session everyone was given an assignment. “Write down the companies you feel have the qualities you want to see in a color guard.” There was no wrong answer. Starbucks, Target, Fed Ex, the Rays Foundation were all mentioned. Comments such as, “great customer service” and “efficient” were just a couple of reasons those companies were mentioned. The question was also asked in reverse. “Who do you not want to mirror?” We discussed other guards and drum corps that we respected and didn’t respect as organizations. We made a list of qualities that we wanted and did not want as an organization.
Family, financially viable, unique, community, open door policy, and advocates were words frequently used.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from others and take the most necessary qualities you want to see in your organization.

Lesson number seven
Setting goals was the crucial step. Once we decided who we wanted to be, we needed to decide what type of competitive organization we wanted to be. We knew a couple of things. We would have to be patient. There was no rushing to get back to World and we were willing to take as long as needed to get the right kids, staff, and financial backing into place. Nothing was going to replace the foundation that the kids come first and our goal has always been to be a place where any performer can feel at home. Patience allowed us to look at the financial picture with open eyes and invited new ideas from other creative and business outlets. 

Be patient and build your foundation. The finances, staff, and performers need to grow as one entity and not separate aspects of the program.

Lesson number eight

In the process of strategic planning we did what is called asset mapping. We made a list of every color guard within driving distance. We looked at their staff’s. We looked at where the kids were gravitating to and why. This was a long process, but helped us identify where we should be located and how we should recruit. It taught us to not waste time recruiting from certain area’s and helped us reach out the the right staff members. It helped us find our niche’ area. This then helped us look for rehearsal facilities and find a community to “own.” One of the most crucial pieces of Paradigm is that we believe that a color guard, band, or drum corps should find a community to not just exist in, but to be a part of. Community is what started this entire activity to begin with and we made a goal as a group that we would return our program to the roots of the activity.
Look at your community. Do they even want you there? How can you work with the community to gain their support? 
Lesson number nine

Mentor and succession plan. This was the next step. There was no way that Paradigm would exist with the current staff structure. We realized that it was time for the older staff to serve as mentor and consultant and the younger staff needed the opportunity to step up to design, tech, and administrate. So that’s what we did. We created a succession plan. The goal was to turn the program over to the right young people and make it theirs. We vetted staff carefully for not just skill, but to make sure their philosophy fit our philosophy. Most of the current staff have performed in the program before, but not all. Outside experiences are crucial. Moving staff positions around was also crucial to this plan. We had to find where the best fit was for all involved.
Once you reach the top, it’s important to send the elevator back down. Mentor those invested in your program and give them the chance to be successful under their name…not yours.

Lesson number ten….MONEY

Money was not going to be left to chance. In no way, under any circumstances were we going to function in the red. We would fold, before go broke. We also knew we would not exploit the performers for dues. Keeping the dues manageable, while staying competitive was our biggest goal. We knew that making money outside traditional fundraising means was a necessary component to keeping Paradigm afloat and making money just to survive was not an option. So we laid out every idea we could think of to raise our public profile, write grants, and raise money in the non traditional sense. We worked it like a business first and color guard second. Let me repeat that.

We function as a business first and color guard second. It’s the only way to survive in the long term and everyone on staff is required to understand that.

In the end, our taking the 2013 season off  to assess the climate and write a strategic plan, was the best thing we ever did. That one weekend in December 2012, set us up for walking on the finals floor in Dayton in 2016. The current strategic plan has expired and it’s time for another one. We will follow the same structure and invite outside voices to the table. All opinions will matter. It was a long road back to the finals floor, but the biggest lesson we learned is that we will never again…believe our own press. We will assess and assess and assess. We as staff members ask the kids to always look at their rehearsals and shows to assess their performance and our philosophy is that we as the adults should also as well. See you on the floor in 2017. Who knows where the next strategic plan will take us??