Take My Job, Please

Come May I will be leaving Hawaii to assume the position of Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts in Portsmouth, OH. The University of Hawaii has posted my current position today and I thought I would draw attention to it since the classification of “Public Information, Public Events Planning and Publications” doesn’t quickly catch the eye of arts administrators.

My dean is rewriting the job description a little so the title is presented more naturally in the job ads. It will be posted on arts job sites shortly, but I thought I would give my faithful readers some advance notice so you can apply or pass the posting along to colleagues.

As you may have surmised from the illuminating job title, bureaucracy with all its arcane rules is the biggest impediment to the expedient execution of duties in this job. However, if you are well organized, good at planning ahead and adept at navigating bureaucracies, you can do well in this position.

The positive points about this job are numerous and are centered on the people.

The chancellor of the college is extremely supportive of the arts here. In fact, I was trying to keep a low profile about my job change but he found an article online announcing my new job and sent it around to all the deans and vice chancellors at the college. The dean of our division is also a very amiable and supportive guy who wants to help the theatre thrive.

As you may have read in some of my blog posts, there is a lot of cross-discipline activity that occurs almost spontaneously in the building. The tables in our backstage are a very social area where students and faculty from theatre, music and visual arts are often found chatting and offering advice about different projects.

Being able to engage in that conversation is key to the success of the theatre manager position. I may depart my office at a certain time, but often don’t leave the building until an hour later. Many of the problems and concerns for the facility get addressed during that period.

There will be a $7-8 million renovation of the facility potentially starting in the next year. I have overseen a large part of the planning and design. The goal was to be shovel ready once the funding became available.

Even if the renovation doesn’t happen in the next year, the theatre will be celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2014. I have started some very preliminary planning and grant writing to support some great events.

The assistant theatre manager is really well organized and has a good instinct for design. Our website was much more “blah” when I was making the design decisions. She will actually be chairing the search committee.

The theatre collaborates with the Performing Arts Presenters of Hawaii, a statewide consortium of presenters which leverages their collective power to negotiate contracts and write grants together. I have served as an officers on the board for the last 8 years. While you can contract artists alone, you definitely get more bang for your buck cooperating with the group.

It takes some patience and tenacity when advocating for artists. Sometimes dates and artistic mix don’t synch up for everyone at the same time. In some cases, you may have to reintroduce the artist over the course of multiple years to get the buy-in you need to make the tour happen.

On the other hand, you have people who are familiar with the intricacies of your organization bringing you well-qualified suggestions, many of them great performers you weren’t really acquainted with before. In many respects, they are helping you shoulder the responsibilities that are associated with booking a season.

The theatre also has a very active rental business with over 350 public events a year (not counting classes that schedule time on the stage). There are a lot of perennial renters who can almost run the show themselves. There are also many first time renters whose vision outstrips their budgets whom you need to teach about organizing their production. Fortunately, the technical directors have a deep commitment and long experience in doing that sort of thing.

Representatives from all these constituencies will be on the search committee–theatre staff, drama instructors, visual arts instructors, a representative of the booking consortium, perennial renters, a community artist. I believe the committee numbers about 8-9 right now.

Then, of course, there is the obvious benefit of living in Hawaii and interacting with the confluence of cultures which live and visit here.

So why am I leaving? Well many of the things I value about my current job are present in the one to which I am moving. The university president and many of the staff are really wonderful people. A community board has an amazing relationship with the university and shares in a great deal of the presenting responsibilities. I am absolutely looking forward to joining the organization.

So in short for those interested, the theatre manager position is suited for a mid-career arts professional with a solid background in performing arts who is prepared to act assertively to advance the interests of the theatre.

Please don’t apply if your qualifications don’t meet this level and are not entirely sincere. The school declared two failed searches before the search that resulted in my hire so they are not about to settle.

So write a great cover letter that inspires and expresses your vision. You will be writing to a group of arts people who want to be excited by the next theatre manager.

…Just realize those arts people are constrained by a pedantic bureaucracy that makes them go down a check list of the minimum qualifications. If they can’t find evidence you meet the qualifications in your cover letter or resume, it doesn’t matter how inspiring you are.

Also pay VERY close attention to the transcript requirements. If you submit online transcripts, the committee has to evaluate whether your experience is equivalent to a degree.

I am happy to answer any questions people may have. Just submit them through the contact link atop the page.

Info You Can Use: In House Professional Development

I came across a piece by the Bridgespan Group about creating professional development opportunities for non-profit organization staff members when you don’t have the money to send them to conferences.

Some of their suggestions included cross-training, job shadowing and stretch assignments which give people responsibilities outside their usual scope so that they can begin to develop in areas they are lacking.

One thing that caught my attention was the suggestion that employees be given the responsibility for organizing internal gatherings. In addition to having employees take turns organizing and running staff meetings, the article discusses companies where the staff arranges for speakers and other activities for in house professional development, training and team building exercises.

As I was thinking about this idea and who might the staff invite to speak or provide training, it occurred to me that this practice might be helpful in promoting greater understanding between non-profits, their boards and the community.

One of the first thoughts I had was that board members might either attend or be speakers at these events. The experience might either be very informative and help the organization move forward or reveal the gaps in understanding.

This is where things might get tricky. In the best possible situation, board members might come to an understanding of how the organization is run and the challenges it faces. Staff might learn new practices for the way forward.

On the other side, people may realize there is a huge lack of understanding. Staff may realize that a board member presenting a talk has no concept of the business model non-profits follow as they encourage the organization to embrace practices to move them toward greater profitability. How to approach them diplomatically and clarify matters may not initially be clear. However, it may provide a realization that a better board education program is needed.

The same thing can happen involving the public sphere. Staff may become aware of new trends applicable to their organization. Using these talks as an example, the non-profit staff could turn around and create/join a speakers bureau to raise awareness about their organization.

Finally, having read many excellent arts social media postings and blog entries by arts leaders, it is clear there are many very intelligent, well informed people out there in the non-profit world. If they are able to get up in front of their own company and speak objectively (rather than with a subtext about where the staff is failing to live up to expectations) about general philosophy and practice in their industry, I would bet those they work with would see them in an entirely different light.

It is so easy to get bogged down with the day to day details of running the organization, few in the organization may be aware of breadth of knowledge and passion their colleagues have. People may suddenly realize they have a unexpected source of expertise and inspiration readily available.

Of course, no matter what you do, you run the risk of he internal development/training sessions being entirely inappropriate and boring. But you can get that at a conference you pay to attend, too.

There Go The Brains of The Operation

I had been pondering on whether to post on this topic but Thomas Cott’s link to a Bloomberg News story about how leaders of arts organizations in the U.S. remain in that position far longer than colleagues in the UK.

The story weighs the benefits of leaders having long term relationships with donors vs. concerns about leadership becoming staid and slow to be responsive to changing times.

My concern comes from a slightly different, though related, direction. Over Christmas I received an email from a long time friend saying she was leaving the performing arts sector to take another job. We had been students together and I had initially modeled my career path after her’s until I realized I really didn’t want her career path. She was essentially the founding executive director for her organization and had held the job for over a decade before deciding to make the job change.

I have heard similar stories from other colleagues, including those in my cohort at Arts Presenters’ Emerging Leadership Institute. People ended up leaving performing arts, some only a few years after having earned a master’s in arts administration.

While I am pleased to see that a master’s in arts administration can get you jobs in other sectors, I am a little concerned about what this bodes for the future. I am not calling for long term arts leaders to vacate their positions and let others get their chance, though that is something that is frequently mentioned.

My concern is that there is going to be a huge leadership gap when the long time arts leaders do retire. My long time friend had about 20 years experience before she made her decision to leave the arts sector. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her assume a state or regional arts policy leadership position. Granted, she could easily return to assume such a role in the future. I wouldn’t discount it happening.

My knowledge of people leaving the arts is anecdotal and not backed by hard statistics, but I have to imagine there are quite a few others out there of whom I am not aware who are likewise leaving the arts. If so, there is a going to be a huge gap to fill if people with 10-20 years experience leave the sector with only those with less than 10 years experience to replace them.

And lets not forget, there is research showing that many people don’t want to become executive directors. There may be few of any level of experience who are willing to step up. This is where the research and the reasons given by my colleagues intersect–lack of opportunity and work-life balance are dissuading people.

I have written about this topic a number of times before throughout the years, but it was largely theoretical. Now I begin to see signs of the problem impacting my own experience and the repercussions become less abstract and more worrisome.

In terms of a solution, I look back to my post last month on the executive leadership as my best suggestion at this juncture. There I suggested there might be benefits in adopting emerging business models and changing job descriptions so that responsibility and involvement in marketing and development permeate the entire organization rather than being siloed.

Info You Can Use: Negative Feedback As GPS Data

In my last entry, I cited the pitfalls of providing too great a forum for feedback and expectations about how that input will be addressed. I think we all recognize though that as arts organizations, we need to solicit feedback in order to better serve our communities.

How you receive the feedback is just as important as how you ask for it. It is easy to dismiss feedback we don’t like or be paralyzed/depressed by taking it too much to heart. FastCompany recently had an article addressing how to take negative feedback on an individual level, but the advice can scale up to the organizational level.

The article talks about using negative feedback to make yourself more successful. I was interested to learn that openness to feedback is actually a significant factor in an employee’s success.

“A recent study found that 46% of newly hired employees will fail within 18 months. Of those that fail, 26% do so because they can’t accept feedback,…


“People who are at the bottom 10% in terms of their willingness to ask for feedback–their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 17th percentile,” says Joseph Folkman, president of Zenger Folkman… “But the people who were at the top 10%, who were absolutely willing to ask for feedback, their leadership effectiveness scores were at the 83rd percentile.”

One of the problems a lot of people face with negative feedback is that they see it as an indictment of them as a person rather than, say an indication of their poor typing skills. I don’t know for sure if it is any worse in the arts sector than any other sector, but I imagine given that those involved in the arts tend to derive so much emotional satisfaction from their work, negative criticism may be more apt to be taken personally.

Article author Denis Wilson suggests just treating the feedback as a single piece of data among many to guide your personal development rather than orienting specifically on it. He cites an apt analogy made by Joseph Folkman that a GPS device needs 3-4 sources of information to accurately track your progress. For the same reason, Folkman also cautions against relying entirely on your own perceptions.

The article goes on to suggest a number of ways to handle the feedback, again by mostly focusing on the facts of the situation rather than emotions involved. A patron may complain angrily and indicate that they have lost faith in you due to problems with their experience. Your focus should be on solutions to those problems rather than fixating on and reacting to the anger.

Of course, it it often no small feat to remain centered on the facts of a situation when on the receiving end of emotionally delivered criticism. Remember that being able to do so contributes to your personal growth.

There is nothing to say the person delivering the criticism will be satisfied with your composed reaction and apology. Just reading the comments to the article, it is clear some people have an expectation that those on the receiving end of the criticism will be contrite and cowed.

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