Monday, January 6, 2014

Job Satisfaction and Happiness Working in the Arts

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

Countless stories have run about how people love to work at Google (or Apple or Twitter or any one of a score of high tech companies, large and small).  Casual work places with play areas and foosball, perks ranging from free lunches and cappuccinos, to subsidized transportation, and of course, the promise of bonuses and stock options that can make one extremely wealthy, all lure those with dreams of starting their own Facebooks or whatever and seemingly attract the best and brightest.  If the stories are to be believed, the challenges of working at these companies approaches the zenith of jobs in the world.  And I have no doubt most people at these places are indeed satisfied with their jobs and happy in their workplaces.  And too, success very likely makes the working environment more satisfying.

But I doubt it's the "fun" atmosphere that makes for the satisfaction.  I suspect there are three principal attractions that swell the ranks of applicants:
1.  Money.  It would be a mistake to think that getting rich doesn't play into the equation.  While most Google employees will never actually become multi millionaires or billionaires, the hope and promise of moving on to that level of success plays a role.  And even if not, compensation packages at these companies are very attractive and certainly outpace what we can generally offer in the arts.
2.  The challenge of being part of something "big" - something transformative and part of the move to the future is I think a big component of why people gravitate to these companies.
3.  The chance to be a part of a first class team of really bright, accomplished and driven people is an attractive incentive on a number of levels - including the opportunity to develop one's own skills and talents and for what that might mean to career advancement.

What about the arts?  Are our people satisfied and happy in their jobs?

A recent report on the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government:  An Index score measuring the overall performance of agencies and agency subcomponents related to employee satisfaction and commitment ranks both the National Endowments of the Humanities (#2) and the Arts (#16) in the Top 20.

The much higher ranking on virtually all the criteria of the Humanities agency over the Arts Endowment is, I suspect, partly a factor of: 1)  the Arts Agency being under more public (and often negative) media and political scrutiny and pressure.  We are much more of a target than the Humanities community, and 2) the frustration felt by many at the Arts Endowment resulting from what they know they could do with all the challenges they face, and having to do with the limited resources (constantly under attack) they have available to try to address those challenges.  Still, the difference between the two agencies' ranking is splitting hairs.  Of the thousands of government agencies, working at either Endowment provides a remarkable level of satisfaction.

This is not surprising.   While it would be interesting and valuable were there a definitive national survey of how people who work at arts organizations across the country felt about working in the field and at the specific organizations, I suspect most people who work in our field do so because of a passion and commitment to what we are all, individually and collectively, trying to accomplish.  And that gives them a high level of job satisfaction.  But I also suspect such a national poll might also show varying levels of dissatisfaction in their working environment; in the chances for advancement, opportunities for development, learning and decision making, leadership and the availability of the tools necessary to do the job.  I would also suspect some differences in satisfaction and happiness between generations, and depending on the the size and even geographical location of individual organizations.

Besides the obvious attraction of the kind of work we do in the arts, what are the other components of what makes people satisfied and happy or dissatisfied and unhappy in their jobs?

Unlike Silicon Valley, we don't offer great financial reward for the majority of those working in our field.  Indeed, in many instances (particularly at the middle and lower rungs of the managerial field) our financial compensation and benefits packages are barely competitive.  So that isn't likely either the lure to become part of the arts workforce or the reason we retain people.

But we do compete, I think, in offering people the chance to be part of something "big" - something transformative and important - different from the high tech cutting edge of the newest in technology, but something perhaps even more satisfying on a different level.

What about the chance to work as part of a team of really skilled, talented, bright people - a place where you are constantly challenged to be your best, to improve yourself and to grow and flourish within that kind of atmosphere?  Is that part of our attraction?  Is it part of our reality?  I think the answer is yes and no.

Yes, there is no shortage of intelligent, idea people in our field; people with whom it is stimulating to be around and to work with, and learn from; people with sharp minds, who constantly teach while they learn.  They are everywhere in our field - at big and small, old and new organizations.  But to suggest everyone in our field so qualifies is, I think, a mistaken conceit.  But no, not everyone is an 'A' lister. The fact is there is deadwood in our organizations (and doubtless in the high tech field too).   That's just reality.

In an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review by Patty McCord, the former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, she offers two conversations she had with early employees to illustrate the underlying principles the company employed to attract the best talent possible:
"One day I was talking with one of our best engineers, an employee I’ll call John. Before the layoffs, he’d managed three engineers, but now he was a one-man department working very long hours. I told John I hoped to hire some help for him soon. His response surprised me. “There’s no rush—I’m happier now,” he said. It turned out that the engineers we’d laid off weren’t spectacular—they were merely adequate. John realized that he’d spent too much time riding herd on them and fixing their mistakes. “I’ve learned that I’d rather work by myself than with subpar performers,” he said. His words echo in my mind whenever I describe the most basic element of Netflix’s talent philosophy: The best thing you can do for employees—a perk better than foosball or free sushi—is hire only “A” players to work alongside them. Excellent colleagues trump everything else (italics and emphasis mine).
The second conversation took place in 2002, a few months after our IPO. Laura, our bookkeeper, was bright, hardworking, and creative. She’d been very important to our early growth, having devised a system for accurately tracking movie rentals so that we could pay the correct royalties. But now, as a public company, we needed CPAs and other fully credentialed, deeply experienced accounting professionals—and Laura had only an associate’s degree from a community college. Despite her work ethic, her track record, and the fact that we all really liked her, her skills were no longer adequate. Some of us talked about jury-rigging a new role for her, but we decided that wouldn’t be right.
So I sat down with Laura and explained the situation—and said that in light of her spectacular service, we would give her a spectacular severance package. I’d braced myself for tears or histrionics, but Laura reacted well: She was sad to be leaving but recognized that the generous severance would let her regroup, retrain, and find a new career path. This incident helped us create the other vital element of our talent management philosophy: If we wanted only “A” players on our team, we had to be willing to let go of people whose skills no longer fit, no matter how valuable their contributions had once been. Out of fairness to such people—and, frankly, to help us overcome our discomfort with discharging them—we learned to offer rich severance packages.
I tend to agree that one of the most important factors in making for a fulfilling and happy workplace is working along side of people whom you know will bring out the best in you; who will help you become better at what you do, and who challenge you to bring your 'A' game every day.  Bright, intelligent, idea people who relish challenges and strive for solutions help create a culture in a workplace that is simply intoxicating; people who carry their own weight and are part of finding solutions, not adding to the problems.  A whole team of really good people creates its own dynamic.

But identifying and attracting those people is not always a simple and easy prospect.  Every organization that hires a new person believes that person will indeed be a perfect fit, and a valuable addition to their ranks.  Hiring someone to fill an important post is an arduous task that takes time, resources and money.  Often the decision to let someone go is a prolonged one, and the replacement recruitment process takes even more time and effort.  Competition is fierce, and the playing field isn't always equal.  And the reality is that very often it is simply a crap shoot; a guessing game that you hope will turn out right.  And when it doesn't work out (and if we are honest with ourselves, it doesn't work out much of the time), then there is great reluctance to quickly move to yet another change process - taking more time, more effort, more resources.  And we can't lessen the negative aspects of letting someone go by offering a generous severance package like Netflix can.

Say your current development director isn't working out and you go through a protracted search for a new one, and within a few months that one isn't working out either.  Do you then go through the process again?  Can you afford the time and empty chair to even consider that?  Is the alternative to simply make do with what you have?  Can you afford to do that?  That is a big problem for us.  But if you want to create and maintain a truly "A" team, it is probably essential not to settle, even when circumstances seem to dictate you have no other immediate choice.

In another interesting article (this one by Ryan Babineaux posted on the Daily Beast and reported on Yahoo), the point is made that successful company cultures embrace the idea of "Failing quickly in order to learn fast—or what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs commonly call failing forward—is at the heart of many innovative businesses."  The advice is to accept that there will be countless mistakes made, but that the response ought to be to recognize them as early as possible and move quickly to try to correct them.  If the culture of 'A' list talent is critical to not only job satisfaction and workplace happiness (for everyone) - which directly impacts success - then the advice to quickly move on likely applies to hiring and firing of people as well.

This harkens back to two of the principles set forth by Patty  McCord in her article about the principles employed at Netflix:  1)  Hire, Reward, and Tolerate Only Fully Formed Adults, and 2) Managers Own the Job of Creating Great Teams.  Bottom line is that the culture of a workplace sets the tone for everything an organization does.  It isn't easy to get it right, and arts organizations lack many of the resources high tech companies enjoy in mounting the effort, but we need to start asking the right questions about how we make our organizations the absolute best we can make them.  And people are the heart of the organization.  

Clearly, the chance to work as part of an 'A' list of bright people does not trump all the other negatives of inadequate pay, a dearth of skills enhancement opportunities, limited chances for advancement, ineffective leadership and constantly having inadequate resources to do your job - but it does set a certain tone for an organization and is likely a fundamental stating point to address the other challenges.    The most successful organizations will put that issue on the table and find ways to move in the direction of assembling and then keeping such an 'A' team.  If there are people who aren't cutting it and you need to let them go, do it now.  Your obligation is to the whole of the organization and to all the other people on your team.  Be direct, honest and kind, but do it.  As Patty McCord said in her article - that team is more important than foosball and free sushi in attracting people you want, and, I would add, in your ultimate success and even survival.

Have a great week.  And for those of you in the north and east - stay warm.

Don't Quit.