What Is Your First Hint?

I was reading today how the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, has insisted that all employees be working at their corporate campuses by June rather than telecommuting. Yahoo has not been doing well in recent years and she took it as a bad sign that the parking lot was slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty out at night, something that is atypical for Silicon Valley tech companies, including Google where Mayer was recently an executive.

This got me to thinking about what the signs for arts organizations/companies would be that your staff wasn’t fully invested in the company? Since working conditions at many places are rarely optimal to start with, it may be difficult to know when morale and organizational culture is waning.

While we shouldn’t depend on people’s passion to keep them motivated in lieu of actually paying them, the passion is often the primary motivator ahead of pay, if the staff as a whole seems to have lost that feeling, you have to ask why.

There is a point where it is patently obvious to everyone that morale is low and the spark is gone. What I have started thinking about in reaction to the stories about Yahoo is what the warning signs might be that things are heading in the wrong direction but could be turned around before the negativity became omnipresent.

I would say the parking lot test is one indication. If people are leaving as soon as the job is done and seem reticent to come in any earlier than necessary, then the situation may be deteriorating. In my experience, unless it is 2 am after a load out of one show and a new show is loading in at 9 am the next morning, a fair number of theatre staff will hang out together for another half hour or so chatting and decompressing after the event.

I would also say that the lack of discussion about the event around the office the next morning is a bad sign. There is always need for a debrief and examination of what could be done better the next time. But even beyond the practical considerations, if people around the office aren’t spontaneously reflecting on the quality of the event and exhibiting some sort of intellectual or emotional connection with the experience (even if it is to reflect on audience reaction), then the environment may need to be examined.

What other signs are there? I have worked in performance most of my career so I would be especially interested to learn what is considered a bad sign in the visual arts. Though everyone should feel free to comment, regardless of what discipline you identify with.

I am not really looking to open a gripe fest where people complain about how the cheap bastards cut off the free coffee. But maybe you started noticing people stopped participating in the weekly “Bring Your Own Meat” barbeques in the summer and knew things were going awry weeks before anyone said anything.

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.


3 thoughts on “What Is Your First Hint?”

  1. When I’m hiring freelancers, I can tell that an org’s reputation (as a place to work) is starting to slide by the short pause on the phone, the little hemming-and-hawing after the person realizes they are available, and the increased frequency in people first asking how much the job pays.

  2. How willing staff is to participate in a meeting, especially someone who is usually vocal; the dynamics of the group – the whole staff collectively – is there a bad apple that is bringing down others? Did it go from being a place where staff collaborated and talked through issues to being a place where people are talking behind each others’ backs and/or tattling to the boss? I also used to tell things were changing for the worse when top management would suddenly have a lot of secret closed door meetings…or if a few of your co-workers were let go, that always puts others on edge, including anyone interviewing. Finally, is the org losing business? Bottom lines speak volumes and staff know – suddenly their marketing or programming budgets are cut.


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