“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry” With Aubrey Bergauer, VP at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Yitzi Weiner
Dec 6, 2019 · 14 min read

Well, when you’re on a mission to change the narrative for an entire industry, there’s no other way but to invest resources and energy. It’s all-consuming. The benefits are that when you believe there’s a better way, a better world that your corner of the universe can help create, it’s easier to speak up about it and put in the work to establish yourself as an authority on the issues. And then when there is a glimmer of hope and change, that’s when the benefit/reward really comes: when I get to see that there are other people in this world who believe in that vision too. I’ve learned the more I put a stake in the ground in terms of what I’m working toward and what I stand for, the more and more other people are attracted to that same goal and purpose come into my orbit. Now we’re talking about the beginning of a movement. Wow is classical music ready for a movement.


part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aubrey Bergauer (@aubreybergauer). Aubrey defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to remain relevant and meet rising ticket sales and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased audiences and revenue at organizations ranging from the Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Hailed by San Francisco Chronicle as a “dynamic and innovative administrator,” her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to double the size of its audience and nearly quadruple the donor base. A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. Bergauer has shared her ideas in speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (San Jose Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

ost arts administrators accidentally fell into these jobs. Many realized they didn’t want to pursue performing as a full time career, decided they wanted a more stable income, or just didn’t know that these off-stage management and administrative jobs existed until later in life. For me though, I’ve wanted to lead a major symphony orchestra as executive director since I was 16 years old. I played in the youth orchestra in my home town growing up, and when I was a sophomore in high school, the orchestra went through an executive director change. I remember before rehearsal one day, they introduced this new person to us kids in the orchestra and said a few words about what that meant, and that was the lightbulb moment for me. “There is a job managing this entire operation,” I realized, “and that’s the job I want.” Ever since then, I’ve been laser focused: graduated with degrees in music performance and business from a top school, worked in fundraising at the Seattle Symphony, in marketing at the Seattle Opera, oversaw both those areas at the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival, and most recently wrapped up five years in my first executive director role at the California Symphony.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

Classical music is my vehicle to do something about the things in this world that I think need to change. Whether that’s social justice and championing music education programs that lift children out of poverty; or gender equality and speaking up about the woefully male-dominated careers of conducting and composing; or inside the concert hall, dispelling the myths that the art form is inaccessible, and rewriting that it can be approachable, and can be a place that’s not a bucket list item and not snooty or elitist. At the California Symphony, by addressing these issues, we defied the trends of the industry: doubled the audience, quadrupled the donor base, brought the average attendee age down, and diversified the audience and the programming. These narratives we often accept can in fact, be changed, and chronicling the successes along the way has built a following around thought leadership in this space.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Hispanics and Latinos make up about 25% of the population where the California Symphony is based, about 20 miles east of San Francisco, but a few years ago, our baseline audience data showed that only 2–3% of attendees were Latinx (insert stereotype about orchestras being so white…it was true for my orchestra too). So over the next two years, the California Symphony doubled-down on diversity and inclusion efforts with a public commitment to diversity across every facet of the organization: the composers we program, the artists we bring on stage, the staff in the office and our hiring practices, and the board. In tandem, we started running digital ads in Spanish targeting Spanish speakers to welcome and invite these prospective audience members. And then one day, Spanish speakers started messaging us on our Facebook page in Spanish asking how to buy tickets. It’s like all of our efforts came together, and it got real. We scrambled to write them back, because anyone in customer service knows you can’t just take a day or two to call the translator, ask for help, then write the person back; we had to figure it out immediately. And it’s good that we did, because the trend continued. Then, we could see in our website analytics and e-commerce data that Spanish speakers were in fact buying tickets, so then I decided to brush up on my high school-level Spanish enough to be able to welcome the audience in both English and Spanish at the top of every concert. Through all of that, we saw Latinx audiences increase by 50%. From speaking a few lines of Spanish in a public setting to working with the team to provide customer service in a language most of us didn’t know, to realizing that at the end of the day, being welcoming and inclusive isn’t rocket science, it’s just different work than the normal default, this definitely has been one of the most interesting stories in my career.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader has vision for what the world — the narrative — could be, and ideas on how to get there. So often all we hear is negativity about the things that don’t work or aren’t working. In classical music, for example, we as a whole love to bemoan our own demise and irrelevance…for decades it’s been that way. And I’ve found that when you cast a vision for a better future and demonstrate with action and data to back it up that growth at a nonprofit arts organization and the industry is possible, that’s leadership (and thought leadership).

I think one begets the other in terms of thought leader versus influencer. To be a thought leader can lead to becoming an influencer, especially in the scenario of painting a thriving future — people want to be a part of a winning team and vision and want to follow that.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Well, when you’re on a mission to change the narrative for an entire industry, there’s no other way but to invest resources and energy. It’s all-consuming. The benefits are that when you believe there’s a better way, a better world that your corner of the universe can help create, it’s easier to speak up about it and put in the work to establish yourself as an authority on the issues. And then when there is a glimmer of hope and change, that’s when the benefit/reward really comes: when I get to see that there are other people in this world who believe in that vision too. I’ve learned the more I put a stake in the ground in terms of what I’m working toward and what I stand for, the more and more other people are attracted to that same goal and purpose come into my orbit. Now we’re talking about the beginning of a movement. Wow is classical music ready for a movement.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

For me, I was able to start my own full-time consultancy. It gave me freedom, ability, and scope to have an impact beyond the one organization I served. I went into my career as a classical music nerd, and now, as I mentioned, I realize that classical music isn’t the end, it’s the vehicle I chose to affect a lot of change in a lot of ways. More and more people and organizations outside classical music are now reaching out for speaking engagements and to work with me on all these same issues that affect so many of our businesses (growing our customer base, designing for loyalty, UX research, DEI, company culture, and remaining relevant to our community).

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Content: Prove It Again and Again

Executing something well once isn’t enough. Every time I’ve led teams to growth, it’s because we’ve delivered time and again, and more important, leveraged that repeated success externally to drive ticket sales and donations. The same is true for producing content, or storytelling, or whatever you want to call it. In a universe of short attention spans and fleeting loyalty, in order to grow trust and authority, the rest of the market (e.g. the community, the general public, potential supporters, prospective patrons, those not already drinking the Kool-Aid) needs to see proven and authenticated success before they’ll join the family. In other words, we need to give people a bandwagon, and bandwagons don’t happen because of that one cool piece of content that person generated one time. Deliver success again and again, and then make sure the market knows a lot of people are on board with that success, and they can be too.

Provide Value

From my first article on why “getting new audiences” isn’t the right answer, to sharing research on what newcomers really think about the orchestra experience, to efforts to invite and welcome multicultural audiences to our core repertoire rather than one-off culturally specific programs that encourage one-off culturally specific attendance, the goal is to constantly focus on how to bring value to others. At the Symphony, I say we must diligently, consistently, and even obsessively put the patron at the center of what we do. On thought leadership, I say that providing value and helpful information to those following my work is the single best thing I can do to grow that following.

Positivity Wins

Scaring people into action works in the short term; it does not work in the long term. I’ve read this is because motivating others out of fear or negativity articulates what we are against, which is more vague than articulating what we stand for. And when we are looking at orchestras, acting out of fear and/or negativity is sometimes an unfortunate part of arts and culture that spans fiscal year end campaigns (help us balance the budget to keep the music playing), union negotiations (do this to avoid a work stoppage), and the way we all talk on social media (see above comment about loving to bemoan the demise of this art form). None of those tactics ever work to create lasting change, and certainly not thought leadership. What does work though, is positivity. Talking about the future we imagine for my orchestra and the art form has excited donors more every time over “give by June 30” (a deadline that’s relevant only to the organization, not the donor); talking about programming and projects we are actively planning has proven better at the bargaining table with the musicians union (in other words, talking about how much we want to be playing over what it may look like to not be playing); and using my blog to talk about how the California Symphony actively addressed problems instead of only pontificating about them has built a following. When we are positive, others believe and buy in too. Positivity isn’t just a mindset, it’s a strategy.

Use Data…All. The. Time.

In an industry that can be incredibly subjective — which on one hand makes sense as art of any kind lends itself to subjectivity in its evaluation, but on the other hand has led to unobjective approaches in other aspects of our business — using data has served me and the organizations for which I’ve worked very, very well. Many times over the years, I’ve seen or been part of discussions about what color the brochure should be or what verbiage the fundraising appeal should include, and early on, I discovered that these decisions do not have to be based on opinion nor require a big time suck for debate; they can and should be tested and measured so the people executing this work can proceed with confidence. In other words, data matters because it’s the opposite of opinion or conjecture; it’s betting on a winning horse.

Experiment and Iterate

Author and Stanford Professor Jim Collins said it this way: Fire bullets before cannonballs, meaning try something and see how it plays out — whether that’s writing a blog post on a different topic than normal, or in the nonprofit space giving a subset of donors a special version of the fundraising appeal letter to see if the average donation is higher, or running a pilot education program before launching a full scale behemoth. And then when we know what’s working, with assurance we put more resource behind it. In other words, use an iterative approach. Try something, measure its effectiveness, revise, refine, and try again in the next go-round. It’s trendy because it works.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Patty McCord, Netflix Chief Talent Officer for 14 years who created their infamous culture deck. So many lessons from her: Be pragmatic. Make it easier…whether that’s simplifying performance reviews (or eliminating them altogether as she did), or just trying something new. If it doesn’t work in six months, change it back. Very rarely are the decisions we make truly irreversible, so we should give ourselves and our teams permission to innovate and pilot test. She says as organizations grow they do not have to always be more complex…sometimes scale makes things easier, and sometimes we’re holding ourselves and institutions back by overcomplicating things. Responsibility and freedom go hand in hand; trust employees and expect high performance in return. I could go on and on with all the ways her thinking has led out, in Silicon Valley and way beyond.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think it’s a huge compliment. I remember the first time someone I respected called me a thought leader — it felt amazing. The word inherently means that you are an authority in a given area, respected, trusted, listened to, recognized for your work and ideas. There’s nothing bad in that. It’s like when people gripe about “pop music” — “pop” means “popular” — so baked into the word is that someone or their work has a mass following…that feels good no matter what label you give it.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Find your why. (So Simon Sinek sounding, I know!) When we know the reason why we’re doing something — the greater purpose behind it all — then a few things happen: 1) we get clarity on the things that matter and the things that don’t, and that helps us cut down and prioritize the amount of “stuff” we have to do; 2) purpose-driven activities and tasks don’t burn us out, they fill us up.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I can’t think of something bigger and more impactful than a movement for arts and culture, and especially music. It is a singular vehicle to address almost every problem in our world today. Music education is proven time and again to develop more well-rounded adolescents and adults, to correlate with greater cognitive abilities, mathematical performance, and leadership skill development. Blind auditions (where musicians audition behind a screen to conceal their identity) are a case study in almost every business book on equity and fair hiring practices because of the way they reduce bias and have brought so many orchestras to near gender parity when evaluating candidates for a chair in the ensemble. Music itself can move us, can heal us, and has been written by people of every color, gender, creed, sexual orientation, and level of physical impairment. A movement that celebrates all of that at the forefront, that says music is a fundamental right to developing a whole person, and that says it takes all those types of people on stage and off is a movement that sets an example for every facet of our society and every industry on the planet.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Stop caring what people think.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Sheryl Sandberg. Love or hate Facebook, what she’s done for that company while simultaneously re-energizing the movement and discussion around gender equality is undeniable. I think it’s more than fair to say that her work in both those realms has changed my life. Most of our lives.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@aubreybergauer (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, YouTube)

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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