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    Upside Down Pyramid?

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    January 9, 2011, was my first rehearsal as the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The ensuing eleven years have flown by. It was a Sunday afternoon. We met at the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Conference Center. That name and acronym were enough to let me know I wasn’t in Texas anymore. Where I came from, church names were simpler like 1st Baptist, 2nd Baptist, etc. 2nd Baptist had broken away from 1st Baptist over some issue such as alcohol, money, or women wearing pants. Then came Bethany, Grace, and Hope. It would be much later when churches began to use “Daybridge,” “Destiny,” and “Elevate” for church names! I digress.

    As I entered the church that afternoon, I had a feeling something big was happening—as if my entire life had brought me to that moment. I had no idea how big that something was going to be! The next eleven years would bring huge and exciting developments with the chorus. The public-facing strides have been amazing, from the Lavender Pen Tour, Gay Chorus Deep South documentary, the Artists Portal at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, and the Chan Queer Arts Center. The chorus also commissioned works from all the great composers of our day.

    But that is not the whole story. Seeing the chorus perform is one amazing thing. But we are also a family. Have you ever wondered how it functions on the membership level? Spectacular concerts are just the sausages you get to see, not the way they are made. I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit so you can see half of the sausage factory: the membership side.

    When I headed for California, I packed a number of things I thought would be needed and I hoped would transfer out here. I left my cowboy boots behind. I packed a sense of humor, excited anticipation, a dog (or three), humility, and a concept I had embraced in my last years in Dallas called Servant Leadership. It was quite the topic in Dallas as one of its most notorious adoptees was the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher. He took being a CEO to new “heights” as he literally worked in every level of the company doing every job from luggage handler to flight attendant in order to know how they did their job and felt about it. This was long before the TV series Undercover Boss. This and the hot pants and go-go boots built the successful company it is today.

    Upon my arrival, the chorus leadership immediately began discussing the concept of Servant Leadership—turning the traditional organizational pyramid upside down rather than top down. We began to discuss how we could incorporate that concept in a nonprofit, LGBTQIA+ arts organization. Some of the rungs of the pyramid needed help, specifically the organization within the chorus membership.

    Within the first eight months, we birthed a brand-new concept to SFGMC: Leadership Team with the Chorus’ first ever President in the chorus in its then 33 years. This is different from the Board Chair. The Board Chair leads the business side; the President, the membership. Once we started, we didn’t look back. We didn’t always get it right, but it remained a core belief.

    How did the inverted pyramid work for SFGMC? What did it look like? The Artistic Director and Executive Director were no longer at the top, but the bottom. It was our task to listen to all the rungs above us, learn from them, and support them in every way possible. The most important and radical change came in the 2nd layer: the singers. We knew we could not grow with only a few people running the ship. We would need help!

    Layer 1 (the top)

    The top and largest layer by far is made up of all the people we touch across the world—now in the hundreds of thousands: friends, families, fans, etc. (and, of late, a few detractors!). Our reach is now worldwide and will continue to grow exponentially with increased internet presence. This remains part of our overarching goal: to make a difference in as many people’s lives as we can. SFGMC TV and Zoom videos have accelerated that promise during the pandemic. Our goal is to serve them in all the ways our mission statement sets forth. To be clear, without this top layer, there is no reason for the other layers below it to exist.

    Layer 2

    The 2nd layer is the singers! They are the lifeblood of the organization. Let’s be clear again. Without the singers, there would be no need for any other layers—above or below—and the pyramid would simply crumble in on itself. But there needed to be another layer made up of singers who did even more. Layer 2 is divided into 2 sub-layers. All are volunteers, of course. They volunteer hundreds of hours, pay monthly dues, and pay for their own travel, wardrobe, etc. This commitment is huge in and of itself. The singer layer includes those who stepped up to something “extra” in the performance area. These include performing at outreach events, soloists, dancers, ensembles, narrators, stage crew, wardrobe, and on and on. The level of volunteerism required to create world-class performances is staggering. Most shows such as ours hire an army of professionals. Ours remain at least 95% volunteer. Of course, it is difficult to “do more.” But they do it with incredible talent, amazing ease and depth of passion. But, we still needed more help as we grew.

    Layer 2b

    Eleven years ago, the responsibility for running the chorus was entrusted to a fairly small group of people—mostly the board of directors. As we began to grow fairly quickly, in order for there to be a functioning chorus, the 2B level of the pyramid simply had to develop. We began expanding that layer; we’ll call them organized worker bees. We needed a volunteer force made up of singers, groups, and committees to enable the organization to run smoothly to make the singer experience as easy and enjoyable as possible. Today, that layer now numbers well over half of the average 275 singers who serve in various capacities on committees, task forces, ensembles, etc.

    In the last decade, we’ve been busy building an internal structure that would improve the life of the chorus and those singing in it. Level 2B has added the Leadership Team (from the chorus and for the chorus). And there is the Member Engagement Team (responsible for satisfaction within the chorus), RHYTHM (Reaching Youth Through Music), Homophonics (a cappella ensemble), Volley Awards (honoring members for service), Ryan’s Fund—formerly Financial Assistance Network (provides scholarship fund for singers’ expenses), Easy Bake Coven (bake sales), Forte (coordinates social activities), Member mediators (ensure internal peace), Queers in Recovery, Hot Mess Tickettes (internal ticket sales), Urban Hikes, Building Committee (for our new building at 170 Valencia), ENCORE (alumni organization), and more.

    We created an entire virtual world for the chorus during the pandemic with Chorus Conversations, SFGMC TV, Virtual Showcases, and online community building activities. And, of course, our incredible Medical Team was created to guide us through the last two years and now our energetic and purposeful DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiative. Volunteerism in this chorus—over and above singing—is a model for all choruses across the country.

    Layer 3

    The next level of support is our amazing board. They literally keep the lights on! There has been a huge transformation of the board. Under Executive Director Chris Verdugo’s leadership, the board has moved from a working board, moving chairs and providing water backstage, to a group that now manages a multi-million-dollar budget and a $10m building and arts center! They do their job phenomenally: keeping us fiscally sound, hiring executive staff, managing the strategy behind the machine, and upholding our mission statement. With their undergirding, we are able not just to function, but also to soar. At their very core is the desire to serve those in the rungs above them. The Chair of the Board and the President of the Chorus work in absolute lockstep with each other.

    Layer 4

    Near the bottom of the service pyramid are the paid and unpaid staff. This group of people believes so passionately in what we do that they sacrifice countless hours, giving up personal time, loving every moment and everyone in the beautiful rungs of the pyramid above them. Our staff is small for an organization this size, but everyone just loves what they do so much that it works. There is no way to thank each of them individually—but they are always grateful when you do!

    Layer 5

    This layer consists of the executive staff of SFGMC—all two of us. They are Executive Director Chris Verdugo and me, the Artistic Director. We are work husbands with all the rights thereunto appertaining. Chris takes care of the administrative functions and I the artistic. I am 100% clear that it is an unbelievable gift from the universe that Chris and I get to rest at the bottom of the SFGMC pyramid. I know I speak for Chris in expressing how grateful we are.

    As equal partners, Chris and I have learned amazing things about ourselves through this process. We continue to learn how to swim in different lanes while working as a team. One of the things we share that has been invaluable is the propensity to always say “yes” and figure out the rest. There is no question that this has been a huge part of where we are today. Chris has done his best to teach me patience, coining the phrase early on: “Patience, Grasshopper.”

    Just as Chris and the Board Chair shepherd the administrative side of the organization, I and the Chorus President do the same for the artistic/membership side. We can’t imagine how it worked without this structure and organization.

    As I look back and ponder this beautiful thing called SFGMC and the astounding successes, my mind boggles at the coordinated effort that it took. My heart, however, is not boggled at all. I know what love and passion can create.

    There is the whole membership sausage. I may have missed some of it, but you get the picture. The next time you attend a concert or see the chorus around the Bay Area or online, I hope you’ll see the upside-down pyramid behind those beautiful faces and glorious voices of the singers. And, while you’re listening, relish your position at the very top!

    In the sometimes completely overwhelming days of our work, we need only look up at the massive pyramid above us. We look up and see you. Looking up at the massive organization above is like looking directly into the sun. It is almost blinding in its power and magnificence. But it brightens and warms us and reminds us of the light we are creating together. Our jobs are so much easier when we remind ourselves of the beautiful, wonderful people we are allowed to serve. Again, YOU.

    Recent Birthday Wish

    My secret wish is not a secret. It did take me awhile to blow out 71 candles. When I got my wind back, I made my wish. My wish is to do all the magical things we do together—sing, laugh, and love—for the next six months. And I snuck in a second wish: for the chorus to continue to soar long after I put my cowboy boots back on August 1. Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on January 27, 2022