"And the beat goes on………………"
This post was meant to be up some time ago. My intent was good, but my follow-through not so. I even missed by own June deadline; June because that's graduation month and Commencement Speaker time. And these contributions below are like mini-Commencement speeches. My sincerest apologies to the contributors for its delay. Fortunately, the content of these contributions is timeless.
For the past several years I have invited senior leaders in the field to share what they have learned over their years - both professionally as arts administrators, and personally -- lessons learned about work and life.
This time, rather than invite the same cohort of leaders with long histories nearing the end of their tenures, I thought it might be interesting to the readers to hear from leaders whose stars are still ascending; younger (but not necessarily young) leaders who have already made major contributions to our field, but whose careers are still moving upward. My feeling was these people had a lot of lessons learned and wisdom and insight to share.
Eighteen of these leaders accepted the invitation, and here are their contributions.
Managing internal change is ridiculously hard. It’s more likely to kill a good idea than any logistical, budgetary, or artistic issue. In any project that requires someone within your organization to change their behavior, spend nearly as much time figuring out how to bring everybody on board with you, incorporating their ideas, addressing their concerns, as you do actually implementing the great idea.
Apply for jobs slightly beyond your skill set, and work your ass off to prove your value. Once you start that new job, take time to build relationships with co-workers - in the long term, those relationships matter just as much as your work product. My instinct is always to buckle down and show how hard I’m working. Resist. Take your colleagues out for coffee, chat for a minute in the hallway with your boss about the show you saw last night, join the committee planning the holiday party. Meet all your deadlines, but spend some time at work “not working.”
Nothing beats working for yourself. The vacation policy is fantastic.
Give away all the knowledge you have. People will pay you to create even more. Regularly blogging/writing for public consumption is enormously time consuming and often fear-inducing, but it will make you a better thinker. Coherently explaining your ideas is half the battle to get ahead in your career. And writing is a great excuse to talk to people, and put yourself in situations, you wouldn’t otherwise get access to.
Best insights come from related fields. If you want to address an issue in the arts, study what they’re doing in economics, or healthcare, or the military, etc. Look for artistic inspiration everywhere - from Instagram to a haberdashery, IKEA to a burlesque show.
Speaking at conferences builds momentum for your career. At most conferences, you won’t learn that much, you won’t meet that many new people, you won’t develop that many new business opportunities. But seemingly insignificant moments, nuggets of information, offhand comments by new friends, will come around and pay off in the long term. Conference organizers attend other conferences - get noticed at one, and you’ll get asked to another.
Fake it until you make it. Have a few facts in your hip pocket, and a thoughtful point of view, but say it with confidence and they’ll actually believe you.
Most people secretly like getting asked to do stuff, or at least don’t mind as much as you fear. If you want to talk to someone, no matter how famous or important they seem, get in touch and ask for a quick phonecall or a casual coffee; more often than not they’ll happily agree and feel honored you want to hear their insights. I’ve never not been able to find, or figure out, contact info for someone just by Googling them.
Don’t let them tell you to be less emotional. Don’t let them guilt you for occasionally breaking down in tears when you are overwhelmed, whether by anger or frustration or grief or confusion or whatever it is that’s making you a little crazy today. It’s a stereotype, but in heated situations some people yell, and some people cry. Neither is more/less a show of strength.
No one knows how to measure their impact, ROI, or KPI. You’re not alone.
Thank you for inviting me to participate, Barry, I’m honored.
May I reframe the prompt question a bit? Hoping you’ll instead accept what I’m thinking about right now, drawn from experience and observation, things that I’m chewing on as part of my work in the arts.
Starting with new-millennium lessons.
For my generational cohort of Old Millennials or Young Gen X-ers (depending on the math), marks left by the 21st century’s first decade-and-a-half should not be minimized or dismissed.
I graduated from college with an arts degree 4 months before 9/11. Then there was war. Then another war. Katrina. The long and bruising Great Recession. Countless climactic acts of violence and discrimination.
For so many of us, these events, and the inequities they illuminated and intensified, marked the total disruption and dissolution of narratives we’d learned about our individual potential and the idealized American Dream – just as we stepped out into the universe to make our own way.
Some essential truths were made manifest: hard work and investment might only take you so far, guarantees are largely illusory, and in many cases, a safety net simply doesn’t exist.
As a result, creativity, adaptability, empathy, and resourcefulness are not just buzzword traits desired by corporate CEOs. For us, these traits might mean survival.
Artists and creatives are well-equipped to lead amidst the chaos of this rapid change.
Which is why I’ve never been able to grasp what I observe to be a fundamental insecurity in arts leadership at many levels, as well as in the national rhetoric around arts support, manifesting in a myopic focus on substantiating our relevance, often at the expense of actually developing our capacity for relevance. There’s a difference. Relevance isn’t a status to be achieved, it’s a process.
As a process, relevance requires ongoing dialogue, risk and experimentation, comfort with ambiguity, openness and humility in the face of inspiration. It’s creative practice. It’s what the arts sector does and it is essential and I think we should be more assertive about it.
Because while the arts indisputably complement and enhance other-sector and multi-sector interests, creativity and creative practice are not decorations to be sprinkled cautiously over community challenges while pleading a case with “authorizers.” Creativity is a foundation. We should lead with it.
There’s a Ronald Reagan quote I come back to all the time, from a National Medal of Arts luncheon in 1987. Join me for a moment, as we travel back in time:
“We honor the arts not because we want monuments to our own civilization but because we are a free people. The arts are among our nation's finest creations and the reflection of freedom's light.”
Now. I remember most of the 80s, and I haven’t forgotten all of the ways the arts were exploited as a cultural cudgel, or how the deliberate use of the arts for that purpose was a particularly rich betrayal. More importantly, not everyone living in our nation feels, or is, truly free.
Still I come back to that quote again and again because it resonates with the way I value the arts as a potential extension – a realization! – of freedom, and the way-down-deep responsibility I feel to advance creativity as a principal element of our individual human capacity and our collective humanity.
So what I’m thinking about, moreover, what I feel, is that arts leaders and policymakers and those working with authority in systems meant to support the arts – at our model best, we are champions of imagination and ideas. We have tremendous capital with which to experiment, and because of that we have great responsibility. We should not be timid.
We should be impassioned evangelists for our nation’s creative potential. The cause is certainly worthy of bold leadership.
If we are to be “a free people,”
We must start acting like it.
I am a just-under-40 mother of three (ages 6 and under) with a mortgage, dog, husband, and a challenging and inspiring career in arts education. Not to mention a community of quirky, bold, and intelligent friends that I don’t see often enough. My work gives me a great sense of purpose but often keeps me up at night—along with my 1 ½-year-old son. Almost as if they’re working together on that . . .
But besides partnering with my son to keep me awake, working in the arts has given me an incredible professional education. I’ve learned that it’s important to do things that scare you. I try to do one terrifying thing at least once a year. In the past decade, I’ve moved from the Midwest to the desert to New York City to New Orleans, traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language, given birth, completed a dissertation, accepted a major promotion while swaddling a newborn, and climbed up the side of a temple in Tikal (conquering a major fear of heights). When you step out of your comfort zone (or become completely unmoored), you’re forced to lean on others, use different muscles, and slow down. Those are the moments of growth for me. I’ve learned that when I’m scared or nervous it means I care lot.
I’ve also learned it’s not a race. There is no finish line. So it’s important to live your life now. Don’t put off taking that class, calling your friends, learning a second language, having children (if you want them), seeing art, making art, or taking that vacation because you’re too busy with work.
Use all of your vacation time. And when you do, unplug. Completely. I travel a lot for work and I never wear headphones. I’m continually amazed and inspired by the people I meet and the insights I gain from their stories and interactions. There are lessons everywhere but you have to look up from your screen to see and hear, or invite in, many of the subtle and unexpected ones.
I’ve learned there is no such thing as a life/work balance. If you care deeply about your work, you can’t just switch it off at the end of the day or vice versa. Reflect on what you’re passionate about, where you want to grow, and how you want to make an impact in the world—“lean into” that and find ways for your life and work to feed each other.
Don’t be constrained by your job title and description. Ask to participate in, and listen in on, meetings or play a part (even if it’s just a small one) in challenging projects. Ask questions and remain curious, and seek out mentors and professional development. Trust that you have something to contribute. A strong work ethic and a spirit of inquiry will be recognized and open up opportunities for you (many of which you can’t plan for but can be ready to say ‘yes’ to). And if you find you’re not growing, personally and professionally, in your job, seek another.
I’ve learned how much the arts and arts education matter—to individuals, to communities, and to our humanity. It’s how we dream, innovate, heal, and hope. I’ve learned that we, as arts leaders, can make the biggest impact when our programs are responsive to the needs and interests of our communities and what is happening in the world. It’s important to listen deeply and continuously to the people we serve in order to stay relevant, and to look outside the arts (to other fields) for inspiration and connections.
Make time to acknowledge the contributions of others. Fostering communities is a big part of what we do at the National Guild, and supporting the community of our staff is also important. That means sharing your good moments and working together through tough times. Asking for help when you need it. And helping staff and coworkers feel like an integral part of the work your organization does—like an integral member of the community.
And finally, at the end of the day, find the time to get some sleep.
Earlier this year, I was invited to moderate a panel discussion following a keynote address by my former graduate school advisor, Steve Seidel. Steve is one of three or four of those teachers I’ve had in my life. The Teachers. The capital T, “made your head explode while modeling how to be an awesome human being” kind.
Facilitating a coherent public conversation between a group of opinionated individuals is challenging under any circumstance, let alone one in which you have to share the stage with your mentor. I fretted about holding the audience’s attention and keeping the panelists on track. Shortly before the event began, Steve and I sat down for coffee and a private chat - our first in about a year and a half. We talked about work, life, the state of the world. I told him I was nervous about moderating the panel. He paused before responding.
That pause struck me. He pauses a lot, creating space in dialogue, a beat or two between a statement and a reply. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that in that pause I felt better, not because of great words of wisdom but because I was aware, in that moment, that I was being heard. Acknowledged.
Good god, I thought. He is a really good listener.
A few hours later, I was on stage fiddling with a lapel mic, readying to kick off the panel. During Steve’s keynote I’d resolved that my only two goals as facilitator were to listen as intently as possible, and to allow space between the words. It was my own private game of “What Would Steve Do?” courtesy of stage fright.
The result? I can’t speak to the audience’s experience of the panel, but I can speak to my own “a-has.” Listening, it turns out, is exhausting. It’s requires much more energy than simply not talking while someone else is speaking. It’s also liberating. In training all of my attention toward what others were saying, my internal dialogue (“What should the next question be? How much time do we have left? Why does my nose itch?”) started to melt away. I found a place of stillness, and the space it provided allowed me to absorb much more than I had anticipated.
I’m realizing that deep learning requires time and space - like the time and space in Steve’s pause, and the time and space that I found tiring but exhilarating on stage. It requires listening. Listening, however, isn’t something many of us are explicitly taught to do. Throughout school and most of my professional life I honed and was rewarded for wit and analysis. I was taught to process information quickly. To debate, scrutinize, rebut, problematize, frame, reframe, and connect. These skills have helped me to churn out articles, conference presentations, and harebrained ideas, many of which I’m really proud of. I realize now, though, that not all of them are products of deep learning.
All of the Teachers in my life -- the educators and colleagues who I consider to be ninja rock stars -- have been extraordinarily good listeners. Their ability to listen allows them to absorb large quantities of information and to approach their day to day work with compassion and kindness. They are able to make connections and advance their causes because they are tuned in to the overt, big picture challenges as well as the low rumblings that seem far away. They make the people who work for and with them feel validated, acknowledged, and heard.
So what have I learned? I’m learning to stop thinking about how I’m going to respond when someone else is speaking. I’m learning to not be afraid of pauses. I’m learning to listen to myself, to acknowledge what’s going on inside and how it impacts my ability to be present and listen to others. I’m learning to not fill every waking moment with stories, anecdotes, articles, or ideas to process.
I’ve learned I need to be a great listener to be the leader I’d like to be. I’ve learned I’m not a great listener - yet. But I’m learning.
Dr. Kristin Greer-Puglia:
My first year as CEO of a nonprofit, I learned that values, purpose, and hard work go a long way, but true systemic change also involves discomfort. With twenty years of experience as an arts educator and advocate, I somehow imagined that I, my staff, and our trustees, would make our mission the center of daily life, and contribute sweat equity, and equity equity, to the limits of our capacity without hesitation or resentment. Then, reality hit, and I found myself feeling more angry and discouraged at the head of an organization, than I ever had at the head of a classroom, project, or program. Thankfully, there were fewer moments of irritation and disappointment than inspiration and gratitude, but more than I was prepared for. It occurred to me one day when I was feeling especially low, sick with the flu and calling people to ask again to help raise the last $75K of a $1M matching gift challenge, that it was time to draw on an almost forgotten bit of understanding I held close as a young artist and teacher. That is, spreading new ideas, changing perspectives, and driving social progress is hard, slow work, and often means taking some heat. So, as I registered the annoyance of the taxed donor on the phone, and asked myself how this ended up being my job, it hit me that this is how leadership is supposed to feel. So, whether it is my own discomfort asking for money and help, or making others uncomfortable because every single time I will put the benefit to our service population over the needs of the person standing in front of me, I am learning to tolerate this feeling of discomfort that goes hand and hand with transformation. I hope to learn to relish it.