Going Corporate

Drew McManus came out with a really strong entry in his Shop Talk podcast today. He talks about transitioning from a non-profit arts career to a commercial career with guests Marc van Bree and Ceci Dadisman, who shifted from orchestra/opera to companies which handle e-commerce shipping and real estate, respectively.

Some of what they say is a little hard to hear. Van Bree and Dadisman talk about the lack of investment/mentoring in employee skill and professional development in non-profits and the low tolerance/preoccupation with failure and mistakes. While this can definitely be attributable to lack of resources and the recording could support a plea to funders to allow money to be used in this area, the guests suggest there are fundamental practices non-profits are failing at that no expensive CRM can fix.

While he was reluctant to use the word “regret,” van Bree said he wonders how much further along in his career he would be if he had started in the commercial sector rather than non-profit.

As the conversation moves on the guests, acknowledge that a corporate environment can be extremely toxic and pretty callous, especially when it comes time to “right-sizing” the employee base. Van Bree makes the observation that work culture follows results, not the other way around. Ping-pong tables and free beer won’t yield great results, but great results can create a positive work culture that doesn’t need ping pong tables to feel fulfilling–a situation which is not exclusive to either commercial or non-profit environment.

The conversation turns toward the difference between an entity focused on creating value vs. generating profits. In the commercial world the latter can manifest in a company whose focus is to look so good on paper they get bought out. Things can go to hell quickly if the company isn’t bought out–and can go to hell immediately after the buy out when that impetus is removed.

Near the end Drew asks what his guests felt they brought from the non-profit world that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Both mentioned that having a broad skillset, both theoretical and practical, and vocabulary that allowed them to speak the language of other departments was something that their colleagues who had been on a more narrowly focused track didn’t possess. (Though Van Bree says knowing how to fix everything and being tempted into doing it may have gotten him in trouble a couple times.) Van Bree said that having to interact with so many different non-profit stakeholders from audience to board members provided him with a very broad range of social skills and savvy.

There is a lot of really poignant reflections and observations made so it is worth paying close attention as you watch/listen. Especially if you are a sci-fi/fantasy fan and understand the Star Trek and Lord of the Rings metaphors at the end which are particularly spot on.

One quibble I did have with the guests comments. After Van Bree wonders about his career path had he started in a commercial career, he suggests that had he gone into non-profits in his 60s after a commercial career it would have been an atypical career arc. I actually think it is all too frequent a path and may be the cause of some of the non-profit arts world’s current woes. So many times we see someone appointed to the top executive position of an arts organization having come from health care, energy sector or other corporate environment.

Dadisman and van Bree said they face some skepticism transitioning to commercial jobs about whether they had the capacity to work at that level, but there doesn’t seem to be the same barriers for people going straight to the executive suite of a non-profit without much prior experience in the field.

I am increasingly beginning to believe that may be adversely impacting the artistic missions of many organizations.  While protecting monied interests from being offended has always been a factor, in these times when the importance of equity and inclusion has been brought front and center, I have observed two separate executives violate their most publicly stated core value about equity in the face of very mildly controversial content (i.e. akin to child perceiving parents divorce is their fault when the facts may be otherwise). Even when this lack of consistency has been pointed out, they stick to their decisions and then continue to publicly announce their core value about equity without any sense of irony. I feel like this comes from a very corporate focused cover your ass and keep repeating slogan mentality.


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/)

I am currently the 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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