The Future of Arts Leadership Green Paper

This season, Americans for the Arts is hosting an online salon on arts-related topics surrounding our future. As part of our work of the Emerging Leader Council, I crafted this green paper in collaboration with the ELC’s ideas about where our leaders (and leadership) are heading. You can follow and participate in the discussion here.

We owe a great debt to the generation of leaders who established the nonprofit arts sector as a viable career choice, one that both offered and required preparation and expertise. Those leaders, who established and shepherded arts nonprofits from fledgling grassroots efforts to massively successful organizations, have in turn mentored and developed the next generation of arts leader. Along with their support, today’s nonprofit workforce can access formal education in arts management graduate programs, which have become common nationwide, as well as join professional development organizations that segment us by field, by discipline, by region, and by our level of experience. This means our ability to pool resources—human, intellectual, and community-based—is at an all-time high. It also means that we, like our sector, are accustomed to—and thrive on—change.

That’s fortunate, because our sector is in constant change. In the last twenty-five years, much of this has been due to technology, with its great leaps forward that have radically altered both the way we get work done as well as how we communicate with our constituents and with our colleagues. With the increased education and awareness of the nonprofit model, we’ve learned that in order for our organizations to thrive, we have to think with a mission and behave like a business. Borrowing standards, practices, and policies from our for-profit colleagues have been an essential part of the professionalization of our sector, and it has ensured the continued success of many nonprofits. We must not be “nonprofit” in the sense that our businesses make no income; instead, we must be “not-for-profit,” an important distinction.

As leaders, we have learned not to fear change, but to embrace it. The future of leadership must do more than just embrace change, however; it must anticipate it, rely on it to push our organizations forward. We have identified several effective strategies to implement change management into organizations as part of healthy life cycles.

Conventional wisdom has been encouraging leaders to become well-rounded, being “competent” in all areas of management and leadership, but we ask why this should be so. Competence is rarely invigorating, nor does it inspire change; it encourages stasis. As in physics, when all variables are held constant, the system remains inert. The last ten years have demonstrated that the world in which we live and work is anything but inert, that change is pandemic, and that the speed with which change occurs has only increased. In the life cycles of organizations, different skills will be needed at different stages. In times of growth and expansion, an entrepreneurial leader can be visionary and motivational to the constituency. In times of stabilization, a more administration savvy leader can steady the ship. In times of external change (such as the recent recession), resourceful and collaborative leaders can be most effective. It is a rare individual who can be entrepreneurial, bureaucratic, and collaborative all at the same time, but it is sometimes possible for a single individual to evidence these skills in a single tenure. But we hold that this individual is a rare find.

Small organizations—the vast majority of our sector—sometimes fear change, particularly staffing changes, because vacant positions prevent work from being done and knowledge from trickling down into databases and organizational files. Instead of fearing staff attrition, we should incorporate it into our organizational goals and visions. While the traditional, even corporate, ideal is to create professional growth opportunities for staff from within, the reality is that smaller nonprofits will not have this luxury. The fluidity of staff and projects will be acknowledged, and even embraced. Strategic plans provide the best sense of what kind of staff and leader an organization will need for a five to seven year period. Based on the goals and objectives of their plans, organizations should both capitalize on the strengths of their particular leader and make arrangements to staff the organization with the necessary skills to carry out the work ahead.

We foresee more and more situations wherein employees and organizations can create mutual “win-win” scenarios that involve a three to five year employee commitment (shorter term employment) to pull the organization toward a specific goal. For example, an organization beginning a branding process should invest in a multiyear commitment to a design professional who seeks to build a portfolio that will further her own career agenda; at the end of the period, the employee can move on (and up) while the organization brings in an employee whose skills will stabilize the brand rather than continue to innovate it. The trend in our culture means workers will have more jobs in their lifetimes, and this is because people are constantly seeking education, training, and new opportunities to grow and develop, as well as to advance to positions of greater responsibility in their careers. Because arts organizations can be small or specialized, it could take years, even a decade before an employee would hope to move up the ladder in one organization. We need to encourage transition between organizations as a means to keep all our organizations fresh, vibrant, and forward thinking.

As leaders, we can spark change and development in our organizations by creating and maintaining smart staff development programs and evaluation processes that are employee-focused. We agree that some organizations cannot match salaries of our for-profit peers and thereby risk losing talented and effective labor to other sectors, so the strategy of including staff development and training as benefits might be viewed as an important opportunity for bright, advancement-minded individuals. Evaluation programs that are employee-minded stress the importance of skills and development needs, not “successes” and “failures.” For all staff, not just leaders, 360-degree reviews provide a panoptic sense of their impact and effectiveness. This practice also encourages employees to be reflective not only about their performance, but about how the effect the organization as a whole. This kind of external concern, this fundamental self-awareness, is an important trait of a good leader and often one of the first to develop.

Collaborate and participative leadership strategies—a flat-organization structure in which staff make concerted contributions to the organization’s leadership—can also serve a staff development function while building in a means for seamless succession. The win for organizations when they employ collaborative leadership strategies is that they ultimately plan for succession. By observing them first hand, employees learn the skills and qualities of good leadership. They will appreciate the increased investment in their abilities, and as leaders, we should not fear losing this expertise to other organizations. It is certain in our future employees will leave organizations for better opportunities. We must accept that. But we should not let attrition cripple our approach to maximizing the time we do have with our staffs because this ultimately only hurts our own organizations. In addition, by contributing to the skill development of the field, we cultivate a healthy and savvy sector workforce of peers who will buoy the nonprofit arts in our country. The camaraderie of the field will continue to be important as it has in the past, and our networks of associates, mentors, and mentees will only become more essential as technology makes us able to collaborate over great distances.

Lastly, we must confront, without fear, significant organizational change. Whenever a for-profit industry bubbles in a period of great expansion and growth, everyone accepts that some of them will fail, will close. We, too, must accept this of ourselves. As more and more arts nonprofits have developed, so has the competition for financial resources, for funding. It’s possible that, like for-profit business, the market and/or the community cannot sustain the sheer number of organizations coming into existence. Looking ahead, some of our organizations will close. Some will forge cooperative partnerships with other nonprofits, while others will seek alliances with for-profit colleagues. Some organizations will merge to pool resources and missions. And some will continue to grow. The nonprofit life cycle includes this, plans for this. Even when it will be difficult to do so, as leaders, we must make these difficult decisions.

It may seem oversimplified, but the only consistent aspect of leadership will be the necessity of change leadership. We foresee a future of arts management wherein arts leaders do not remain in their positions for decades unless they are able to evolve with their organization’s change needs. It could be that the relationship Executive Director and Managing Director (or other second-in-command) will become even more essential and that it is through staff evolutions in these positions that we will see the most effective use of change leadership. For most of our workforce, it will mean job transition, in the interest of skill building and leadership development, will be the primary goal rather than dedication to a single organization or cause. We can see reflections of this in our for-profit peer organizations as well, meaning that our vision of the future of nonprofit leadership is in line with trends in other sectors as well.

Organizational Change & Development in Tabatha’s Salon Takeover

Bravo has been running a lot of this show lately, and since I’ve been laid up (or, more accurately, laid out, like a cadaver) with a wrenched back, I’ve watched a bunch of episodes. And I’m kind of hooked. I was initially sort of reproachful about the show’s premise–über-wench Tabatha Coffey (formerly of the first round of Shear Genius) goes into a failing/miserable/grody hair salon, knocks everyone around, and teaches them but good. But you know what? The manager in me really likes this show a lot.

Tabatha does go into salons that are basically on their last curling iron, and yes, she does brusquely put people in their place, and she can be a little terse. But she’s also encouraging, fair, professional, and, in the end, she turns the salons into high-functioning team environments focused on customer service.

It’s a journey that–well, let’s just say it’s one I’m familiar with.

Organizational dysfunction is actually so common it has become “function.” Workplace environments are chock full of people with issues, people dodging responsibility, people viciously guarding their little fiefdoms, and people hating each other. Even the best teams I’ve worked on have had these elements to them in some proportion; at worst, it’s all there’s been. This is why the workplace is such a common setting for sit coms. (And why The Office is funnier if, you know, you work in an office. See also Dilbert.)

There are a few pretty consistent things Tabatha has pointed out in her salons:

1. Clutter is the devil. A lot of the salons are a physical mess, which is often a symptom of emotional and intellectual messes you can’t see. Cleaning things up and getting things organized is an important part of the transition, and it puts everyone in the salon in a good mood.

2. Leadership is not optional. Several of the salon owners I saw were reluctant to be real leaders. One was basically an irrational tyrant who felt her job wasn’t to “coddle” her employees by giving them pats on the back; the rest were all mousy or immature versions of real leaders who were afraid of being disliked. Tabatha helps them understand the difference between being liked (or feared) and being respected.

3. Dead wood must go. In organizations, people who don’t carry their weight are often buffered by the high-performers around them, so they can coast along without putting in much effort for a while. Tabatha roots these low-performers out, gives them a set of standards and expectations, and then gives them a chance to improve. If they don’t, she cuts them loose–or, better yet, gives them an opportunity to quit on their own when they realize the salon is evolving beyond their ability to participate.

4. Clients come first. A few of the salons I saw had strong teams in them; it’s just that the teams were more focused on having a good time with each other than they were on giving their clients what they want. Tabatha refocuses their work away from that unhealthy dynamic toward perfecting services first, then developing the internal team second. And really, the internal team development is the responsibility of the salon owner and manager, not the team itself–Tabatha reinforces this.

Tabatha, after her week in the salon, comes back about six weeks later to see how things are going. Most of the salons have hit their stride and do much better, even if they’ve painted over Tabatha’s repainting and refurnishing. (But that can be an important “reclaiming” of the territory by the owner.) At least 1 owner completely restored the salon to its’ pre-Tabatha operations, including terrorizing her staff and demoting her only functional leader in the team. It was sad to see. But it was clear that owner just wanted out of the business and she was hellbent on making her salon fail.

Whenever people have to work in groups, things get nutty. I think when artists work together in groups, it can get nuttier pretty quickly. Watching this show has reminded me about the importance of remembering what a leader’s responsibilities are, and that even when we don’t want to, we always have to do the difficult things we are called upon to do.

You don’t have to be 40 years old to be a nonprofit executive director.

On my radio show yesterday, we had an incredible discussion about leadership with four nonprofit executive directors under 40 (see their full bios here):

Trista Harris, Headwaters Foundation for Justice
John Mark Eberhardt, The Steward’s Staff
Bridget Clark Whitney, Kids Food Basket
Laura Zabel, Springboard for the Arts

In a special 90 minute episode, my guest shared insights about the paths they took to become an executive director, the responsibilities they have as the head of the organization, how they use social media in their leadership role, their strategies for managing staff, how they build relationships with funders, and their approach to work/life balance. They even talked about their salaries!

O Academe!

Working in academia has its pluses and minuses. All summer long I enjoyed what amounted to a private city, with restaurants empty at lunch time, wide sidewalks and quads free of pushing and shoving and skateboarders, and on-campus services like the gym and library that seemed to be waiting for me to command them into activity. It’s a stark contrast from the other nine months of the year. Throughout the academic year, students swarm the campus like picnic ants. Waiting for Starbucks was more excruciating than waiting for Godot. And food in the union, when it was even available, was like revenge—always cold and never what you were expecting.

The rest of my “mini-moir” is up at the Americans for the Arts blog as part of their Emerging Leaders Forum.

The Tao of Wayne Gretzky

One of my colleagues at work gently teases me about my ability to bust out a situation-appropriate platitude at just about any given time, for any purpose. Some of my favorite nonprofit work platitudes come from—yes—Wayne Gretzky, hockey great and coach of my beloved Phoenix Coyotes.

Gretzky’s most famous quotations rival the deep, metaphorical simplicity of another famous platitude-r, Peter Sellers’s character Chance in the film Being There. In the film, Chance, an isolated, seemingly simple-minded man, is the gardener for a wealthy DC resident. A series of events cause people to start interpreting his throw away observations as intrinsically brilliant metaphors for the modern world, to help them make difficult decisions, etc.

A great athlete, Gretzky’s musings on the nature of hockey play have this same kind of resonance. In the interest of new beginnings, I wanted to share these with you in hopes that they can guide you on your journey as well:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Applicable to: any situation where hesitation will sound the death knell. I most often play this card in fundraising situations, or to encourage people to take risks. When you consider that inaction ensures failure, action doesn’t seem so bad. Also, it’s statistically true!

“I don’t like my hockey sticks touching other sticks, and I don’t like them crossing one another, and I kind of have them hidden in the corner. I put baby powder on the ends. I think it’s essentially a matter of taking care of what takes care of you.”
Applicable to: recognizing interconnectedness and interdependence. For me, this statement guides my human resource philosophy. I perceive supervision as an act of service, not a demonstration of power. One of my first rules of management is to put staff concerns ahead of all else. I want to take care of my people.

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be.”
Applicable to: entrepreneurship, growth, change, development, risk-taking, planning, strategy. I use this quote to encourage people think not about the immediate return of their action, but how the action fits in with long-term expectations and goals. Sure, you can play at the puck and get a lot of game action. But you’ll also have to fight for every stab you take at it. When you can anticipate the movement of your game, that’s when you have the greatest opportunity to score.

“The only way a kid is going to practice is if it’s fun for him.”
Applicable to: Lightening up. Very few of us in arts nonprofits are saving lives or saving the world. But we are making the our world a better place to be when we ensure our work stays fun and enjoyable. There will always be stress and strain in the workplace, but as long as you can all step back and laugh together, it will never seem so bad.

Arden in the Big City

Since moving to DC, Arden has decided that she, too, wants to climb the nonprofit career ladder.

Here she is seen in my office, where she’s interning and assisting me on a few important chewing projects.

She’s also a bit of a micromanager, wandering around the office to visit the staff to make sure they’re doing they’re work. Such a taskmaster!