MPW '14: Leading a cultural treasure

Ryman GM Sally Williams channels history, dreams big

Sally Williams shares her vision for the future of the Ryman Auditorium, as well as for Nashville as a whole, by digging into its past. As general manager of the historic venue since 2008, she tells the story of the Ryman as if it were a living, breathing thing that has always been evolving — from its opening as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 to becoming a gathering place for community, education, political and cultural events, to its status for more than 30 years as the Mother Church of Country Music.

Williams’ role in writing the next chapter of the story is making sure people are still as excited about coming to the Ryman decades from now. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the renovation and reopening of the building and Williams’ vision involves it continuing to evolve alongside a growing Nashville.

“One of the most beautiful things about our city, from my perspective, is the strong sense of community, the teamwork, the rising tide raises all boats mentality,” she says. “Thanks to this amazing collaborative spirit, we’re booming and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Williams was named the Ryman’s GM nine years after joining its parent company, which now goes by Ryman Hospitality, to manage concerts and events. Last year, she was promoted into the wider role of vice president of business and partnership development at Opry Entertainment, the Ryman unit that also includes the Grand Ole Opry and other assets.

The importance and privilege of leading a cultural treasure like the Ryman — which holds numerous venue-of-the-year titles — isn’t lost on Williams. She says she is constantly inspired by the legacy of Lula C. Naff, the Ryman’s first GM, who brought the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, and Katherine Hepburn to the stage. Along her journey, she says she’s been taught her the power of working hard, empowering others and thinking big by several mentors. Her parents taught her she could get further by working hard and smart and her advisor at the University of Missouri, Kathy Murray, helped her create a plan to harness her potential and empower her to chart her own path. Currently, her mentor is Steve Buchanan, president of Opry Entertainment, who she says encourages his whole team to think big and be creative.

Williams is driven each day to create better experiences for her team’s guests, which include fans, artists and those working behind the scenes. Success to her is when “the lights go down in the auditorium and the all those entities are enjoying an experience together that I know they’ll remember forever.”

Being able to create experiences like these hinges upon her ability to lead her team effectively.This isn’t hard to achieve for Williams, who says she leads a team of very passionate professionals that shares her goal of creating the best possible experience for guests.

“When you’ve got the right people on board, I believe that respect and empowerment are the keys to ensuring they perform at the highest level,” she says.

The greater entertainment industry and the Nashville community are also relationship-driven. Getting external buy-in is a matter of communication, understanding, and finding common ground, according to Williams.

The downside to an industry where success relies on relationships is the difficulty that can come with navigating egos. Taking things personally and becoming discouraged was a challenge in Williams’ early career, but she was able to overcome it by sticking to her philosophy of working hard and treating others they way she wanted to be treated.

“I’ve been working in this business for nearly 25 years now and the biggest lessons I’ve learned are that we’ve all got jobs to do and that we all deserve to be respected,” says Williams.

Just like the legacy with which she has been entrusted.