In conversation with Alison Nadebaum – our new Director of People and CultureBy Stephanie Eslake, June 2021
You won’t see Alison Nadebaum on stage. But when you attend a Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performance, you’ll see her work shining through every part of the event.
You’ll see it in the staff member who politely shows you to your seat. You’ll see it in the smile you receive alongside your tickets from the box office. You’ll see it when you watch the musicians of the orchestra treating each other like family.
“If we’re doing it right – and we’re creating, enhancing, and building a culture that lets all those different people flourish – I think audience members can tell,” Alison says.
“Even if it’s a few steps removed from me sitting at my office, or me supporting staff behind the scenes, that’s how [audiences] will see it.”
On 21 May 2021, the TSO announced Alison as its new Director of People and Culture. Alison brings with her 15 years of industry experience, having worked across Australia’s major performing arts organisations. This will be her first post with a symphony orchestra, and she intends to help every musician, crew member, and arts administrator thrive as they pursue their own careers with the TSO, too.
“Someone can approach a People and Culture role – an HR role – just doing the contracts, hiring and firing, and maintaining the status quo. But for me, it’s really about how we help our people flourish,” Alison says.
“It’s how they’re flourishing professionally, and how they’re flourishing personally. In the arts, those two things are really interwoven.”
Home is where the orchestra is
I chat with Alison via Zoom, and her face appears framed by boxes and bags filled with her possessions. Having accepted her position with the TSO, she gears up to travel to the island, making a new home where the orchestra is.
Alison tells me it’s not the first time she’s relocated for her arts career, having originally uprooted from Perth to move to Sydney; she worked in events and business management at the Sydney Opera House for a decade. She then moved to Adelaide, where she worked as Chief Operating Officer at State Opera of South Australia.
Still, it’s never easy to start fresh, and Alison was highly selective when applying for a new role that would be right for her – a role that would “entice” her to give it her all. After taking a year to study her Master of Business Administration, she found the right role with the TSO.
“Each interaction I’ve had with the company so far – during my interviews, and even after I found out I got the job – has been authentic, kind, and personable. But also, the kind of commitment to excellence really shines through.”
During this interview with Alison, I find her to be authentic and kind, too. She talks openly about her “deep respect for the artistic process”, and her intentions to combine strategic decisions with empathy to help motivate the creative people around her.
Fostering a positive culture for Tasmanian arts workers
In any arts organisation, a healthy work environment starts with a positive culture behind the scenes. Alison’s first job as Director of People and Culture will be to introduce herself to the team – and to forge meaningful connections with people she’s never met.
“You come in new to the organisation, and you haven’t built trust yet – people don’t really know you,” Alison says.
“For me, it’s definitely a marathon – not a sprint – to form deep trusting relationships with everyone in the organisation.”
Alison considers there to be three types of people who work in an arts organisation: those who focus on the business side; those who prefer the creative; and those who are right in the middle. The third is where Alison positions herself, and she sees herself as “a translator” who can support each group and enable them to work together.
“We’re not working in a bank or building roads: it’s a creative place, and we need to be cognizant of trends and our views on art and life, the different views within a company, and how we may incorporate that into our work or not.”
When it comes to the musicians of this 47-piece orchestra, Alison highlights their need to be constantly “on” and energised for each concert. They must tap into their creativity and perform at their peak, even when they might be having an off-day.
“What I can do is figure out what sorts of things – practical, philosophical, professional-development – artists need to try to keep them nourished and supported, so they can bring their ‘A game’ as much as possible.”
On a practical level, this means keeping an open-door policy while being “the cheerleader, trying to inspire and motivate, making sure people have their contracts, and making sure people know what’s what”.
Honouring the past while embracing the new
From the Sydney Opera House to the State Opera of South Australia, Alison has worked with arts organisations with long legacies – and the TSO is no different. When she helps contribute to the positive culture of this organisation, she’ll be honouring what’s come before, while at the same time working to ensure it’s fit for 21st-Century purpose.
“How are we making sure we’re not stagnant? That we’re honouring the past, but being a really contemporary company?
“How are we encouraging an appetite to try new things without being scared? To take risks – artistic or otherwise – so we can keep earning our keep, and earning our position that’s embedded within the community?”
Everyone fits into this “TSO puzzle”, Alison says. And whether you’re a concertgoer, administrator, or musician, you’re a piece of that puzzle, too.