Leaders I/S/O Organizations Who Know Things Have Changed

I had a post appear on ArtsHacker today about hiring executive leadership in the context of the social changes which have occurred since the start of the Covid pandemic. My post primarily focuses on a piece Seema Sueko wrote for American Theatre, which I would highly encourage people to read.

Sueko was serving as a field advisor for a search firm specializing in executive searches in the arts and culture field. She discusses how she initially assumed that search firm would work with their clients to identify all the social, political and economic changes that occurred since their last hire, determine how the organization would need to change, and then what qualities the new leadership would need to possess to move the organization in that direction.

Finding out that was not the case, she surveyed 4-5 other search firms that also worked with arts and culture organizations and found they operated in much the same way.

She lays out some great ideas about how organizations can do a better job with leadership hiring. Many of the suggestions would probably please candidates to no end such as the hiring committee going through mock interviews and receiving feedback on how to do a better job.

As I write in my ArtsHacker post, I thought her best idea was one about creating an introductory video of a facilitated conversation about the job:

I recommend that the search firm record a Zoom meeting with the search committee where each committee member introduces themselves, followed by a facilitated conversation about the job opportunity. This video could be shared with all the candidates to level the playing field and capture some of the culture which can’t be conveyed through a written document. Such a video would also have the added benefit of demystifying and humanizing the search committee, which, I propose, will lead to more substantial interviews with candidates.

I am not sure about the current status of hiring for executive roles in arts and culture is at the moment. Readers may know that I changed jobs in November 2022. Around February-March 2023, the very first place I interviewed for when I started my search a year earlier contacted me to say the search had failed, board membership had changed and would I like to interview again.

While this certainly not indicative of the whole industry, I suspect it might not be far off the general environment. A lot of people have chosen to leave the field and hiring committees might be finding it difficult to identify good candidates because they are looking to hire for an environment that no longer exists and candidates are looking to join an organization that has acknowledged the work and change that needs to occur.

N.B. – regarding the post title. With all the social media abbreviations, has the old print classified “in search of -/i/s/o” entirely fallen out of use or do folks use it on dating apps?

Taking A Look At A Good Old Fashion Case Study

The blog for Master of Management in International Arts Management had a case study post by Donna S. Finley and Vijay Sathe examining how the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) and Alberta Ballet (AB) had revamped their business model in an attempt to stabilize their finances.

Feels like it has been awhile since I covered a good old fashioned case study.

One of the first things that Finley and Sathe discuss is that both organizations recognized they were already essentially serving the bulk of their core markets and that growth would only come from identifying new market segments:

At CPO, audience research led to the identification of two new audience segments: those attracted by the flexibility of single-ticket sales, and those seeking to enjoy classical music in non-traditional environments in a variety of venues within and outside of the city.

At AB, research revealed numerous new audience segments that all indicated a strong desire for before- and after-performance receptions, dining opportunities, special events for youth to meet dancers and purchase products and memorabilia, and alternative, more personal and customized venue experiences.

While these are programming and ticketing choices that have been identified as areas of opportunity for a large number of arts and cultural organizations, there was an additional area of growth Finley and Sathe mentioned that left me wanting to know more:

At CPO, new and unusual settings were found and facilitated both the renewal of traditional repertoire and the introduction of new works. New business focused on joint community programming initiatives, whereby revenues and expenses could be split between CPO and a community group such as the Rotary Club or the South Asian Association. The Orchestra found an immediate new revenue opportunity within services it had historically undervalued.

I was curious to know how this manifested. It sounds like Rotary or South Asian Association were co-sponsoring or partnering with CPO on producing new and traditional works in novel locations, but I wanted to know more about how the programming was executed, what attendance was like, if there was revenue sharing between CPO and the community organizations. Basically, all the stuff an arts administration and policy nerd gets excited by.

Another major point touched upon in the case study was both organization’s attempts to stabilize the cycle of engaging in capitalization campaigns, spending the money, then engaging in another campaign, all in the face of decreasing donations and funding. Especially while faced with the impacts of Covid. One of the things they did was outsource administrative functions to third party services providers with far more expertise which apparently saw a great deal of cost savings. When I first read the post, I thought perhaps both organizations had consolidated their back office functions in partnership with each other, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Unfortunately, they also realized savings by cutting artists contract weeks:

“…reducing musician weeks from 46 to 40 per year and dancer weeks from 42 to 36 per year; and, at CPO, reducing staff salaries by 20% while simultaneously introducing an incentive pay component with upside potential based on the entrepreneurial success in tapping new markets.”

The description of the entrepreneurial programs of both organizations were pretty general. (Granted, the title of the article does include “abridged.”) Apparently, for CPO the success of those efforts “more than made up for the 20% decrease in their base salary as part of the cost-cutting measures.”

What caught my eye was an apparent admission that for both organizations:

“… The artistic side, comprising the Artistic Director and their respective teams of artists, made its plans and decisions in isolation – disconnected from all or most aspects of the business operations.”

As a solution, both organizations are working toward streamlining their planning and reporting structures

Success Attracts Success

I was interested to see there was some research conducted with some of the earliest recipients of MacKenzie Scott’s unrestricted gifts to various non-profits between 2020 and 2021. The median of the grants she distributed was $8 million as compared to a median of $100,000 given by larger funders in recent years.

To be clear, some of the organizations Scott targeted in the first few rounds of giving didn’t sound like they had been getting anywhere near $100,000 grants. The biggest finding of the study was that the Scott grants weren’t just transformational for organizations, they were equally transformational for leaders who found they no longer had to lay awake at night worrying about keeping doors open. Now they not only felt secure in knowing existing programs could be executed, they began to dream about what else it might be possible to accomplish.

In interviews, more than three-quarters of leaders discussed the shift in their thinking that accompanied the receipt of this gift. A scarcity mindset was replaced with an opportunity to pursue transformational possibilities, as leaders were able to reimagine their organizations “in the ideal way to achieve the biggest impact that we could have.”

Close to two-thirds of interviewed leaders described a sense of relief and breathing room after having received their grant. Many told us of the opportunities to innovate and take risks that their grant has afforded them, knowing their organizations are now more financially secure. “It’s an opportunity to be innovative and creative because we have more foundational support,” said one leader. Another said, “For us to have money to pilot something to see how it goes is just a miracle from heaven.” Other leaders put aside a specific portion of the gift specifically for bold or risky ideas.

The most striking response for me was a leader of color talking about how she felt affirmed and vindicated after worrying her presence was a liability to the organization:

I’ve been told about two million times that organizations led by women of color get less than others,” one leader told us. “So, I was nervous about this because I’m thinking, man, I hope that who I am doesn’t cheat this organization out of opportunities, you know? And that’s a sad thing to even admit to you, but I did think that.” The grant from Scott was powerful for this leader because, as she put it, “it positioned being a woman of color as an asset, not a liability.”

What was also encouraging was that the concern others funders would reduce their support of recipient organizations was unfounded. In many cases, the organizations reported an increase in overall fundraising after receiving MacKenzie Scott’s gifts.

Have Things Changed Since 2008?

I am going to be traveling and preparing to take up a new position so I am dipping back into the archives to help provide some content while I am busy elsewhere.  One of the first entries I came across in my review of old posts seemed to be well-suited for re-examination. Back in 2009 Andrew Taylor made a post about survey work his students had done at the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) in Denver. Happily the links to his original post and survey results I included in my post reflecting on the survey results still work if you want to see them.

The conference was a meeting by members of different arts disciplines, including service organizations like Theatre Communications Group, Opera America, Chorus America, Dance/USA and League of American Orchestras. One of the observations made in the surveying was the different cultures of each discipline. I wonder if people feel things have changed since 2008/2009 or if this still generally describes things:

The dress and demeanor of the different service organization membership was a continual point of discussion in our evening debriefing sessions, and were often heard used as shorthand by one discipline to describe another (“take time to talk to the suits,” said one theater leader to a TCG convening, when referring to symphony professionals). Some of the difference was in rites and rituals: from the morning sing-alongs of Chorus America to the jackets and ties of League members, to the frequent and genuine hugs among Dance/USA members, to the casual and collegial atmosphere of TCG sessions.

Other differences, which manifested in more subtle ways, shed light on the deep underlying assumptions and values held by the respective disciplines. The team noticed, for example, that the word “professional” was perceived in a variety of ways in mixed-discipline caucus sessions. For many participants, “professional” staff and leadership was an indicator of high-quality arts organizations, and an obvious goal for any arts institutions. Several members of Chorus America, however, bristled at the presumption that professional staff was a metric of artistic quality, as they held deep pride in their organizations, which were run by volunteers.

Other topics I covered in my post had to do with degree of trust between arts administrators, community engagement practices, government relations, knowledge sharing throughout disciplines, as well as lack of sleep and succession planning.

While the status quo feels like it has remained in place on all these fronts, the one area covered in the survey which seems like it is finally being addressed seriously these last few years is diversity. Some of the summarized responses are a little cringe-worthy.

“Diversity was the most polarizing priority in the AmericaSpeaks process, and the issue for which there is the most disconnect in language and priorities….Some flatly stated that they did not think diversity was a priority, and others noted that people in their organizations may claim to support diversity, but don’t really mean it. Many noted ambiguity in defining diversity: that diversity “means different things to different people—there is no common agenda for inclusion.”

This was revealed in the stark differences in responses ranging from the claim that minority arts groups don’t have to make any efforts at white inclusion (“Why is it that primarily Caucasian-based groups look to ‘diversify’ their audiences while minority-based groups do not?”), to people who thought diversity meant “Getting minorities to see the importance of what we do.” Still others rejected the audience development perspective and saw the need for more systemic change. Said one respondent, “most of our organizations are not ready—we want to talk about it, but we are not prepared to become ‘diverse’ and accept the changes that may follow.” Some acknowledged that there were challenges in terms of comfort zones. Some noted that tying funding to diversity or pursuing diversity and losing money on such efforts might be counterproductive…

Respondents were more concerned with what they saw as others’ failure to address or understand diversity than with their own ability to effectively address the issue. As such, many did not envision opportunities for progress although they agreed that progress is needed.”

Here is the original survey report if you want to take a deeper dive.