Member Spotlight #21: Colleen Theis, Chief Operating Officer at The Orchard
shesaid.so member and active supporter, Colleen Theis, shares her views on empowering others, hands-on mentoring and not sticking to the plan. [Interview by Clare Everson]
In October, The Orchard and shesaid.so partnered for MEETSSS, the network’s inaugural female-first, music-forward conference. For this month’s Member Spotlight, we speak to Colleen Theis, Chief Operating Officer and previously Managing Director of UK & Europe at The Orchard.
Colleen joined The Orchard in 2011 and throughout her roles has overseen a dramatic period of international growth for the company, as well as the company’s full acquisition by Sony in 2015.
But Colleen has been anything but complacent with a linear career path and her own has taken both leaps of faith and geography.
In 2001, Colleen moved to London with Rykodisc to manage the roll out of their new indie distributor network across Europe. Rykodisc was acquired by WMG in 2006 and it was then that Colleen joined ADA to oversee the international team.
Moving from her role as SVP of ADA Global (WMG), Colleen sees her decision to take the UK and Europe MD role at The Orchard in 2011 as one of the most pivotal moves in her career. “The industry was in a very different place”, Colleen explains. Describing how the mainstream music industry’s focus at the time was to stop digital piracy rather than how to harness the digital age, Colleen says she had people question her decision to leave an SVP role at a major, to take a role at a company that was “kind of new and unproven”.
“I saw The Orchard had a vision for creating a modern music industry that was transparent and using technology on the platform to be able to service a larger amount of independent clients in a way that empowered them.”
“I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker I guess… and [taking the role] obviously changed my life!”
But even the most confident risk takers benefit from inspirational role models. Talking about the most influential women in her career, Colleen highlights the privilege of working under the leadership of Sylvia Rhone (the company’s then CEO) when Colleen was an international assistant at Elektra, describing Sylvia as “a warrior and a trailblazer” then and now. Other individuals she has admired in her career are Emma Banks, leading agent and co-head of Creative Artists Agency, and Julie Greenwald, Chairman and COO of Atlantic Records: “what a force!”.
Recognising her peers as an important source of inspiration too, Colleen also came in to the industry with Camille Soto, Owner of Get Low.
Reflecting on Colleen’s words, there’s a sense of questioning what more we can do now in 2019 to support, encourage and celebrate our peers, to take everyone forwards together.
A similar philosophy imbues Colleen’s perspective on mentoring, which shines a light on the benefits of hands-on mentorship: “I think helping support people day to day within your environment is the most effective mentorship you can give”. She names Arthur Mann and John Telfer from Rykodisc as her two most prominent mentors. Partly enabled by the nature of the indie business, Arthur and John took the time to teach Colleen multiple aspects of the business.
“Arthur and John really empowered me and gave me a lot of responsibility and let me run with it. They were also there to guide, answer questions and make introductions.”
Having never participated in any formal mentoring programme, although employees at The Orchard are able to be part of Sony’s mentoring initiative, she agrees there’s a lot to learn from peer mentoring.
“I’ve worked with some people for the whole stay of their careers; I learn from them and they learn from me. I think we’re all mentoring people without even realising it in way, sharing knowledge and getting stuff done!”
Colleen’s enthusiasm for technology also permeates her advice to people trying to get in to the music industry in 2019. When she was looking for her route in to the industry, the internet wasn’t the hive of networking opportunities that it is today: “Now there is more information and more opportunities out there than ever before.”
And the advice she would pass on to those similar to her younger self is all learned from experience:
“Look at what your unique skill-set is, whether you speak another language or you have knowledge about a specific genre of music, or you write code, you are good at customer service or teamwork, and then forge your place.”
“Be humble but keep moving forwards… Only you can manage your career so keep building on your skill-set and looking for opportunities and creating your own opportunities.”
1. Listen to your gut.
2. Use strong results to advocate for yourself rather than waiting for someone to notice.
3. Speak up (in meetings and elsewhere). Understand that your words are valid and your thoughts have weight.
Retrospectively, there are many decisions in Colleen’s career that could be considered as brave. But her bravest decision in her eyes was leaving New York. Moving to work in Philadelphia, but thinking she would go back to New York at some point, she was then offered a role in London, where she moved with little to no preparation time. What was intended to be a 6 month assignment in the UK extended further than Colleen’s expectations and she continued to oversee international marketing with Rykodisc for 11 years, which she describes as ‘an amazing experience’.
It is clear that her experiences at both Rykodisc and The Orchard have provided Colleen with invaluable international expertise, both in terms of a successful international record release, and sustainable international company growth.
In her opinion, a successful team enables an effective release strategy and for a business looking for sustainable and successful international growth;
“It’s about empowering people locally to be the experts in their market, and allow them the bandwith to be able to manage their market but also have them think globally. [At The Orchard] we are able to offer a global solution for a release no matter where it’s coming from.”
As COO, Colleen is not afraid to admit there is process driving creative efficacy: “If you want to scale a business there has to be certain processes that you follow in order to be successful, but remember to be nimble at the same time… Be open to the ever shifting business that we work in.”
When asked about how to plot a five year career plan, Colleen’s advice is again inspired by her own unpredictable path:
“Five year career plan?! I never had a long-term plan, that’s a hard one.”
“My advice is to tell people to be open to opportunities that might be slightly off of their road-map or may feel a little bit left-field. Because each opportunity in life leads you to another set of opportunities and different people that you meet and different things that you learn, so always keep learning.”
“Nothing ever works out like you think it’s going to work out… Some of the best things that have happened in my life have been because I was open to something that I didn’t have on my life road map.”
Her position alone could be considered that of a positive role model for aspiring women. But how does Colleen hope to initiate positive change for equality in the music industry herself?
“The number one thing that I can personally affect is to empower the next generation of women leaders… make sure that they are remunerated equally, that they have access to all the opportunities and that they have the light shone on them that they deserve.”
Moreover, Colleen believes that to initiate positive change is to lead by example.
“Beyond our own company we can support organisations such as [shesaid.so] and amplify what those organisations do through sponsorships and supporting those efforts.”
Providing spaces for those meetings to happen is also important to Colleen, and The Orchard recently held an event in their office for international day of the girl in collaboration with shesaid.so, The Creator’s Suite and ROLI. In addition, she is passionate about The Orchard’s work with organisations who teach coding to young girls and emphasises the need to make sure there is access to training in fields that may have previously been male-dominated fields.
Equally, learning about ourselves can benefit the relationships and teams in which we work. Colleen highlights empathy as “the most valuable attribute a person can have”.
“Surround yourself with people who have had different experiences from yourself, so you can learn from each other” and be able to see a situation from another perspective.
Colleen is a supporter of shesaid.so and its initiatives, mentioning the Alternative Power 100 List as a brilliant way to highlight “the work of people who are doing really unique and interesting things and moving the needle in all kinds of ways”.
For someone who ‘never had a plan’, Colleen continues to plot a disruptive commercial path and forge a trailblazing career.
“At The Orchard we are just scratching the surface for where we can take this company.”
I wonder if we applied the same optimism to our own situations, either businesses or careers, what potential we’d find for ourselves tomorrow.