CEO Spotlight: Sarah Trahern of CMA

Sarah Trahern

The CEO of the Country Music Association shares leadership lessons she has learned in the past 18 years, the importance of collaboration, and the spirit of Nashville.

Spark: COVID has brought on change in every industry the last 18 months. How has the CMA adjusted and navigated these changes as an organization?

Sarah: I think there's... It could be easy for anybody just to go in a corner and cry like, "It's not fair." Well yeah, of course it's not fair, but the whole world is dealing with this. Nobody asked for this and nobody has a clear path of answers, but I think there've been some silver linings out of it with, in our case, competitive business people working together to help find solutions.

            Companies that day in and day out fight against each other to get to whether it's an agency winning an artist or a promoting company, how do we find a solution to when we can't open venues? How do we managers who manage competing artists get together to talk about the mental health of keeping their artists strong during this time? And so I think you can see a lot about people who choose to either say, "It's unfortunate, but how do we live with it?" And I think they will be the people who will help pull us through this period. 

What values has your organization clung to really give you that foundation and strength to move forward?

I think we... You always have to go back to the big picture, and it's so easy to go down a rabbit hole and think, "Oh my gosh, this isn't happening, this isn't happening, this isn't happening." Okay. Yes, but what can happen? And I kind of joke that I'm either an optimistic realist or a realistic optimist, and I'm not quite sure. Some days in these scenario plans, I feel like I have to go to the worst case scenario. What happens if we don't have this revenue? What happens to our bottom line not just next year, but the year after, the year after?

            The implications for this are deep not just for our industry but certainly looking micro at how does it impact our team. But I think one of the things that is particularly important is being comfortable with scenario planning. What's changed today that we know about what we're allowed to do, what's safe to do, who's even comfortable coming to do anything? And so those scenarios change and morph. And I think one of the things I've learned the most about my team is who's comfortable being uncomfortable.

            Some people just want to know what to do. "Tell me what to do, put me in, coach, and I will go run the ball." Okay. I'm going to wait until we're ready, we know what to do, and put them in to run the ball. And other folks are comfortable going, "Yeah, we don't have answers." Those have been the ones who really have become, right now, my kitchen cabinet. Because it's not black and white, and when we get it black and white, then I can utilize the other folks and utilize that. But it's getting comfortable with uncertainty, getting comfortable with evolution of concepts is I think a really key survival instinct right now.

They say that character's revealed in hard times. Going back to your younger years and when your character was being formed, can you think of any one particular incident or defining moment that instilled character in you that you've drawn on in these last days?

Well, certainly. I mean, having been in news in a prior life, so many things are based on scenarios. And you can't always plan for them, too, by the way. If President X, who is a former president and died or was on his death bed, died before five o'clock, we're going to stop the network and do a special at seven. If they die after six o'clock, we'll just do a news break and do something the next day. If they die on Sunday, we're going to do... So you get used to thinking about how do you deal with uncertainty. Now the thing it doesn't plan and that I had happened to me was, I had a whole lighting rig blow up in the middle of the Republican convention. Okay. You also have to think, okay, how do I think on my feet when stuff you don't anticipate happens?

            So I think knowing that from a character standpoint, I've never been necessarily a totally linear person. So I think that certainly has helped me now. And the other thing is I've had places where I had to make decisions based on what's the right thing to do from my moral compass or my ethical compass. And I think when you know that everything doesn't revolve around your job. I love what I do. I get up in the morning. I think about it. I'm in the shower. I think about it.

            But I also know that that's not my entire life. And I think that's where I look at the blessings of COVID. Whether it was time training our new dog, or actually, frankly, getting to know some people in our business on a totally deeper level because this forced us all to slow down and go to the big picture, not just as this artist doing Music Fest, but how can we help that artist keep their crew fed during the time when they have no revenue coming in?

            What is the impact for my friends who are managers, who are working harder than ever now with no income coming in for at least a year, year and a half. And really like, "How are you doing today?" Not just, "Hey, how are you doing?" I think out of that authentic connection, we will all be better not just business people but individuals on the other side of COVID.

To bring the empathy into that is really a profound statement. Can you talk a little bit about the values of CMA in your organization and which ones that you point people to that, "Hey, this is real, this isn't just words on a plaque that we ascribe to."

CMA was founded in 1958 when Elvis Presley was taking over the radio, and country radio stations were turning from country to rock and roll to follow the commercial success. And a number of our industry leaders back in the time, in the 50's, got together and said, "We're going to put our competitive interests aside to see how we can keep the business strong." And one of the things I always tell our young staffers is: You may not care about the history. You may look at me and say, "Hello. Okay, boomer. You know. Great."

            But those values that we were founded under in terms of people checking their agendas at the door for what makes the industry better is what we get to see today. We get to see it today before COVID, with our 85 board members who give us an incredible amount of their time to help move the ball down the field for our business. But in the COVID and post-COVID era, I see it so much more, as I mentioned earlier with competitive business people.

            The people who are still economically sound are listening to the folks who are going to lay off half their staff. Or Butch was on talking about the impact on tourism on Nashville. Somebody was talking about the psychological condition of their artists. I mean, what do you do when not only just they have this creative urge to feed themselves, it's not just about making money with the fans, but some of them just have to get out there and perform?

            And then the thing... The biggest misconception we have, I think right now about our business, it's like, "Oh, it's so nice. You know, so-and-so, and so-and-so, can't work for a year, but it doesn't matter. They have millions." But that person employs 180 people. Even having millions, they can't keep everybody on their food chain.

            And those people aren't just the band members and the promoters. But what happens at the popcorn seller at Bridgestone? He's not making money now because there are no events at Bridgestone for six months, nine months. So the impact of the circle from the entertainment business was so much broader than I think anybody gives it credit for. And it's one of the things we've really tried to help put a number on. It's not just Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood not playing shows, but how many mouths get fed by any given individual show? And there's a lot of them downstream.

What are some leadership lessons you learned this past year?

I can tell you right now what I do really well, and I have a really good sense, even better sense probably, than what I do well is what I don't do well. And so what do I do to lean into those things I don't do well, and to help surround myself with people who do those well? One of the honest things I've learned this year is, I'll share... I had some senior people on my team who are the next generation. I never think of myself as a micromanager at all, but I realized that they were trying to do some things outside of me and bring it to me when it was baked.

            And I kind of wanted to be in the room where they were getting their hands dirty. And I realized they weren't being disrespectful. Like at one point, I'm going, "Oh, they're doing all this outside of me. They must think I'm not effective anymore." It was just the opposite. Because they needed the space to grow their ideas. And then they wanted to bring me something they were proud of to respond to.

            And what I had to look at is how I interacted with what they were doing and realized they were forcing me to be a better leader. They were looking to me to be a better leader, because I didn't need to be in the weeds. They could do the weeds. And out of that has become just a whole different level of our efficiency and functioning. And also, I don't feel so alone. It's okay, I think, as a leader to have the courage to say, "I got this, and I've got my back, and I've got strong shoulders, and I will take this on," but also to realize that you don't have to take everything on together. Whether it's your senior team, whether it's your senior leaders in the industry working with you.

            And so while there's times they'll talk about how lonely it is at the top. And sure, there've been times, particularly in COVID, when they don't know all the inputs that are coming at you day in and day out. But at the same time, I'm also learned the value in sharing that more. I'm a big believer in collaboration. I think that talking to a lot of people, those of us who are fortunate to work with other people, that has been the spirit that's kept them going through this period. I think my friends who work by themselves or more entrepreneurial or solo have had a harder time than those of us who can rely on others to consult and collaborate.

Last question. Can you talk a little bit about the character of Nashville and how you see it from where you sit?

As you said that, I felt a tear in my eye because my... A firm belief, the secret sauce of what makes our industry strong and what makes the city strong is that collaborative environment that is our community. And as this unfolded in March 2020, I think about many people that you and I talked about earlier today, phone calls I had with them cross field. "How are you doing dealing with this? How's your staff? How's your family? How's..."

            And how we as a community all feed together, whether it's the bars on Second Avenue or the big facilities or city tourism or the mayor's office. The police department. We work so closely with them on things like Music Fest. Bridgestone, the Titans, the Predators. We all share audiences. And I think that one of the things that pulls Nashville out of this will be the fact that we all work together as leaders across business sectors to make the city strong and help us recover faster than perhaps some other communities.

            The hardest part is because we are so dependent on entertainment, as a city, from multiple sports teams to venues to tourism, music on all scales from the buskers out on the street to the big shows at the stadium, it really has hit us harder than maybe some other communities that don't have such a tourism base. So I can't wait for us to grow out of it. And I think there'll continue to be stops and starts throughout this process. It would be nice. I had someone on staff early on when we were looking at scenarios say, "Can't you just make a decision which of these scenarios it is?" I was like, "Yeah, if I had to make a decision today, it would be this worst case scenario. And I choose to still live in these multiple scenarios till I have to make that decision."

            And we're ready to make that decision tomorrow. I have no problem. It's not keeping me up at night that I have to make that decision, but I'm going to keep working on scenarios till I know that that worst case scenario is the only one that's left. And I think, during that period, how much I called other people and they called me. It continues to be that way. "What are you hearing about this? How are you dealing with this?"

            And I think that's the thing that's so special about Music City is that it's not just, oh, you're in healthcare or you're in banking or you're in real estate. You're in sports. I'm on the phone with all those people. You're with the Chamber. I'm on the phone with all those people. And I pick up the phone, call them. They pick up the phone and call me. Because when it all comes down to it, we all want to see Music City come back and come back strong. 

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