Executives without Direction

Short Aside

Before I begin the main portion of my entry today, I just wanted to call attention to an article about how publishers are wooing top amateur reviewers on Amazon by providing them with free books to read and write about. Quite similiar to the idea I put forth in my entry a week or so ago, Bloggers As the New Arts Critics?

On With the Show

One of the things I have been considering lately is the practice of management in the arts, specifically in terms of the position of executive director. In theory, the CEO of most businesses is supposed to be looking at short and long range planning, trying to determine trends and identify opportunities for the future. In practice this may not be generally true, but from my perspective, it almost didn’t seem true at all as applied to the arts.

I wanted to see if my perception was valid and decided to do some research. I couldn’t really bother a lot of executive directors to ask them how much time they spend on management activities as opposed to leadership activities. (I found two interesting articles about the difference between leadership and managment from Inc magazine and the Small Business Administration) Instead, I decided to look at what executive directors were ideally expected to do in the course of their jobs by looking at position descriptions.

I looked at 26 job descriptions for executive director dating back to August 2003 that were listed on the NY Foundation for the Arts website, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters website, and ArtSEARCH. Some of the jobs are currently listed, others I had copied on to my computer over the course of my job search. There was a fair cross section of theatre, dance, music and visual arts organizations (or organizations which encompassed more than one of these areas).

I tallied the expected tasks executive directors were required to fulfill:

Rent/Manage Facilities-2
Strategic Planning/Vision/Direction-6
P/R, Marketing-11
Personnel Management-12
Programming/Booking Events-9
Oversee restoration of building-2
Board Development-1
Outreach/Community-Government relations-6
Volunteer Development-2
Event Management-1

As I expected fundraising was the most often mentioned job. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that non-profits are expected to raise a fair portion of their budgets through donations and grants. However, in 16 instances it was the first thing listed and just as often seemed to be the specific duty of the executive director rather than a function of a development director that the position oversaw.

I have often read that university presidents are discouraged because an increasing portion of their jobs is fundraising rather than leading their schools. I was likewise discouraged to see that so many organizations listed fundraising as an expectation and so few listed long range vision and strategic planning. The implication is that it is more important that the director keeps things running and much less important that he/she shepherds organizational development.

The majority of the responsibilities listed in these descriptions seemed to be more appropriate for a managing director and artistic director. I didn’t look at the specific staff set up for each organization, but from the listing of duties I would feel confident guessing many didn’t have managing or artistic directors or even general managers. In about five cases, it was pretty clear there also weren’t marketing and development directors. In a couple instances, it was evident that the executive director was just about the only paid employee.

Because the executive director has to take on the responsibilities usually handled by artistic and managing directors (and then some), it is no wonder there are few expectations the the person will employ a cohesive vision for the future–there isn’t any time.

In times of economic hardship, it isn’t unexpected that organizations will seek to save money by consolidating job functions into one position. Something valuable is lost in doing this with a chief executive position. When a CEO gets bogged down in dealing with the day to day concerns of an organization, they lose more than time needed to create a vision that will move the organization forward. If the person doesn’t have the time to get educated and consider the potential negative effects of trends upon the organization, they will find themselves scrambling to find solutions in reaction to the consequences.

The ultimate health of the organization depends on the CEO having the opportunity to act in advance to minimize these negative effects. Being in the position of dealing with the picayune daily concerns of an organization and then being forced to play catch up to deal with situations there was no time to foresee can overwhelm and burn out the executive director.

When disaster strikes, 20/20 hindsight can cause boards of directors and executive directors to say, “It was so evident this would be an important variable! You should have seen it coming!” Indeed, it should have been foreseen–if the director had had the time and opportunity to rise above the day to day concerns cast an uncluttered look over the landscape.

The executive director has to be free to be a leader and leave the management of the organization to other people. Certainly, having more time to survey the situation is no guarantee of success. A bad CEO will be a bad CEO with more time on his/her hands. The good CEO will take the opportunity to emerge from the mines and shine in the sun providing a beacon for others to follow along the new paths the executive director surveys from this new perspective.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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