Sunday, March 31, 2013

We Are Our Own Gatekeepers - perhaps to our peril.

Good morning
“And the beat goes on...............................

Gatekeepers:  Those whose job it is to keep you and virtually everyone away from any access to their bosses.  They are the people who jealously and tenaciously protect the privacy and guard against intrusions on the time of the titans of industry, the politically powerful, the rich and famous, celebrities and the like. Chiefs of Staff, Executive Assistants, P.R. and Communications specialists, Schedulers - even secretaries.  You want to see the “man” (or “woman”) - you have to go through them, and pretty much their expectation is not to let you anywhere near the corner office.

Corporations have themselves taken the gatekeeper concept to the extreme.  We all have experienced the frustrating attempt to talk to someone on the telephone, only to hear this:  "Your call is important to us.  We are currently experiencing heavier than normal call volumes.  Please stay on the line."  And when, and if, you are finally connected you then hear this:  "We have recently changed our menu of options.  Please listen carefully."  If they were even remotely honest they would tell you this:  "No matter what prompt you select, you have no chance in hell of being connected with a living, breathing human being that can actually help you.  Just hang up now."

Now in our little world, there are very few people in positions that employ human gatekeepers  - if for no other reason than it costs too much.  There are a few in our midst who have gatekeepers - the NEA Chair, perhaps the Executive or Artistic Directors of the very biggest cultural institutions - but even in most of those cases we are talking about a secretary or assistant.   There are always ways to skirt the most tenacious gatekeepers - being of equal status, wealth, power, celebrity or fame may get you access, but the common folk remain outside the gates.  The easiest way past a locked gate is to have a personal relationship with the person behind the gate - that relationship almost always trumps the gatekeeper’s best efforts to keep you at bay - often times much to their chagrin.   In our world, getting past the gatekeepers is far less difficult than in other spheres.

In the arts, of necessity, for the most part we are all of our own gatekeepers, and we invariably figure out ways to guard against unwanted intrusions into our time and space because that time and that space is equally important to us as it is to the big shots.  The longer one is working, the more one figures out how to protect that time and space and guard our gates.  I use to have what I have previously mentioned in this blog - my “Three Fools Rule” - which, simply stated, was that I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t have to talk to more than three “fools” on any given day (defining fools primarily as those who were likely to blatantly waste my time).  I found that I could often get the third fool intrusion out of the way early in the morning.

But whatever the mechanism, we all employ some kinds of ways to guard our own gates.  Productivity and deadlines would suffer immeasurably if we didn’t have ways to manage our time thusly.  So whether you are aware of it or not, as your own gatekeeper you have set up barriers and walls for those who might want to access to you (especially for people with whom you are unfamiliar), to work with you, to pitch you new ideas, to share knowledge, to collaborate and cooperate.  You have figured out how to keep people outside.  And I think in many ways we become as rigid as professional gatekeepers in keeping our gates tightly controlled.

I wonder though if in being too rigid as our own gatekeepers we are not missing out on good ideas, new thinking and ways to actually be better managers, administrators and leaders; opportunities for new projects, collaborations and ways of seeing our world.  I wonder if sometimes opening up the gates rather than keeping them locked down tightly might be the better approach.  I wonder if we might spend a little time thinking about how we close the gates and if, and how, it might be to our advantage to open them up some; to be just a little less zealous in guarding access to ourselves.

When I was in the Music Industry, if you were a player - defined as having current or past success at some level - the gates were pretty much open - though the running joke was that you were only as welcome as your last big hit record (not necessarily yours, but someone you represented in some way).  Still I remember Clive Davis, then head of CBS Records and now legendary figure in the history of the Music Business, pretty much being accessible to anyone of the past or present (or even future) players - his philosophy being that one never knew where the next hit record, talented artist or ‘big trend’ might come from, and so he could ill-afford to keep the gates too tightly shut.  Of course, Clive would invariably be looking over your shoulder at any social gathering at which you might encounter him - looking for someone more important than you to talk to.  Still, he was accessible and his gatekeepers put on notice not to be too vigilant in protecting him.  And that approach was part of the reason he was so successful  His availability insured he was almost always in the bidding for new talent, almost always aware of rising stars and where the business was headed.

Mo Ostin - then Clive’s counterpart at Warner Bros. Records was similarly open and accessible.  He might not return your phone call for a week if he was swamped, but he always returned the call - even if you were not, as in my case, always on the “A” list of players.  My experience with Clive and Mo and many others was that the higher up the person in the industry, the more accessible (at least to take a call) they were.  I have found the same to be true in our business.  Still, I think we are all a little guilty of minding the gates too much sometimes.

Ideas - new ideas and good ideas - come from all kinds of places - not all of which are the most logical or familiar.  If you keep your own gates impenetrable, you very well may miss out on some of the new and good ideas - and it is that flow of ideas that is the lifeblood of everything we do.  The problem in acting as our own gatekeeper is that we develop protective mechanisms and once in place they tend to stay in place for a long, long time with no periodic review by us.  Moreover, many of the mechanisms we use may be so subtle as to even escape notice by ourselves.  Once in place we forget them and become unaware of their very existence.  And the reputation of one whose gates are always locked spreads far and wide and quickly.  That is, I think, a very serious mistake.

In Hollywood, in the movie industry, they came up with the “pitch” meeting as a way to let people through the gates, but still protect their time.  The “pitch” meeting (still not taken with every Tom, Dick and Harry) gave someone (ostensibly in the industry) with an idea for a new movie three or four minutes to make their “pitch”.  If they couldn’t succinctly convince someone who might “green light” their project of its’ worth within four minutes, they failed.  This, of course, led to some comical situations as those making the “pitch” looked for shortcuts to describe their newest idea:  “Imagine Hunger Games set to music with rap artists in an urban setting.”  "Ok, thanks.  Next."

Venture capitalists have taken a page from the movie industry and now regularly hold start up entrepreneur open ‘pitch’ meetings where a range of serious contenders are grilled on all aspects of their  ideas.  I wonder what would happen if a foundation were to do the same thing.  Once or twice a year, hold an open pitch meeting - if not in lieu of, than as an adjunct to, letters of inquiry.  I bet you would get some very good ideas.  Actually, I think Dennis Scholl at the Knight Foundation does that very thing - though through applications rather than in-person pitches.

But however you open the gates, at least wide enough so that the flow of new ideas and thinking isn’t shut out, the one that stands to benefit the most is YOU.

So gatekeepers - take a long look at how your gates are closed, then maybe open up a little and let em in.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit