"And the beat goes on…………….."
Every year I invite some of the leaders in our field - those with some life and career experience - to share some of What They Have Learned that they think might be of value to the rest of us. And every year I am struck by how wise and caring are those in our field. This exercise is yet another one of those things that make me so very proud and honored to be involved in the nonprofit arts.
Here are the entries from this year's invited group:
Moy Eng - Executive Director, Community Arts Stabilization Trust
I’ve learned how important it is to listen and to be listened to. I’ve learned that you can endure almost anything when you are hopeful and are loved. I’ve learned that it takes working smart, steadily, and very hard to follow your dream. I’ve learned (as Maya Angelou noted) that making a living is not the same as making a life. I’ve learned how important it is to take care of one’s self, more than a once-a-year vacation. I’ve learned that enduring love at its core is kindness. I’ve learned the importance of touching beauty each day. I’ve learned to thank those who have helped me along the way by staying in touch and returning that gratitude by helping others. I’ve learned the older I get, the more I realize how little I know and how much I have to learn. I’ve learned that when your heart and mind are in concert on a matter, you can leap into it with an open heart.
Ted Russell - Senior Program Officer for the Arts - James Irvine Foundation
As things move more quickly and my work becomes more complex and challenging, I see how important it is to value openness and honest expression. Working feverishly to launch a new initiative with grantees, evaluators, grants administrators, my fellow program officers, a program director and numerous consultants chaotically collaborating to create new moving parts to be assembled while the proverbial plane is flying, we all find it easy to criticize when the object of concern is not present. I decided at the beginning of the year to invite people to speak these criticisms, out loud, and directly to each other. It was too exhausting being the gentle translator in the middle.
So after the holidays, when the first waves of complaint began to arrive upon my doorstep, I saw in the returning flood of discord an opportunity to preserve for myself a bit of harmony.
I declared the New Age of Candor.
To improve the imperfections with polish of truth. To reward rigorous critique and invalidate callous carping. To resolve the tensions, the endless multitude of inevitable tensions, with candor.
We've all heard that the truth will set you free. I didn't know that meant during my day job in philanthropy.
Seriously, this is simple and practicable. This is how it works for me. Someone is criticizing about someone else's theory, policy, word choice, big mistake, whatever...and as the project lead I'm supposed to fix it. So here's the fix: candor. The operative question is, "would you mind talking to them and saying that?" When asking the criticizer that question starts to make me nervous, I know there's something at stake. And I do it anyway. Because for me, the work is too important, too challenging, too constantly uphill, too hard to sustain, to not ask for some truth sharing.
Last year, I was trying too hard to figure out how to explain difficult to understand things to other people and to decide which competing truths were truer. Now I know there's too much to be done for me to tie myself up in that role. Plus, I don't think it is good for one's health. Did I mention that it's exhausting? People tend to be more honest intellectually, and a little more kind, when sharing their critiques directly. The critiqued can't simply snipe in return when the mediator moves out of the way and the critic steps into the open and plainly shares their concerns. I'm convinced that all gain respect for each other...because usually, with the smart and thoughtful people undertaking this work, an honest response results. And the work improves.
The New Age of Candor. Consider this an invitation, your free trial offer. Enter it gently, with someone you trust. Ask your friend, the complainer, to go direct. You just might never go back to the old age.
Doug Borwick - CEO, ArtsEngaged; Author “Engaging Matters” (ArtsJournal), Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the United States
I am in grave danger of getting way too carried away with this topic. That said, here is some of what I have learned:
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Most people are reasonably good at more than one skill. Letting “should” force you into joyless tasks is soul killing, and, in the long run, counter-productive.
Work on those things the world most needs done and you most need to do.
The choice of activity in which to invest oneself is best found in those things that maximize benefit to the world and to your satisfaction.
“Crises” may resolve themselves if benign neglect is applied.
I am predisposed to “do.” It took holding positions in which too much was coming too quickly for me to learn that some “emergencies” are inappropriately labeled. Patient non-response is sometimes the solution.
Privilege is systemic and an existential threat to the nonprofit arts industry.
As recently pointed out in this blog, the time for viewing diversity and justice as “challenges” is past. They must become obsessions for practical (e.g., demographic) and moral reasons.
There is no “them.”
Every habit of thought and action that leads to a separation of “us” from “them” is an impediment to viability in the arts sector. We are integral parts of our communities.
Excellence is heterogeneous.
Technique is important in the arts. So are relevance, inclusiveness, and impact–to name only a few additional criteria. Excellence is best sought in everything that matters but can seldom be achieved in all categories in equal measure.
Relevance is vital and defined by beneficiaries.
Relevance is critical to the long-term viability of the nonprofit arts industry. It determines the level of public support; and it is the public, not ourselves, that is the arbiter of relevance.
Olga Garay English - Consultant
Before I entered the arts field, back in the mid-80s, I had been director of the Center for Rural Education at Florida International University. The Center was piloting a program, based on Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to teach adult farmworkers literacy and English language skills.
Though deemed successful by independent evaluators, as soon as Ronald Regan came into power, the grants that sustained the Center were summarily pulled. And having only recently received my Masters in Community Psychology, I needed a job.
That was when I saw an ad in the Miami Herald (remember when jobs were posted in the newspaper?) for a new program launched by the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and funded by a collaboration from the NEA’s Expansion Arts and Local Arts Agency programs to incentivize local arts agencies to create expansion arts programs (for the uninitiated that was the term used for what was then called minority arts).
I applied (as did another 100 or so folks) and Kenneth R. Kahn, Executive Director of the Council and soon my mentor, took a chance on this Cubanita and offered me the job. As they say, the rest is history.
So what have I learned? The mid-80s were a heady time for people of color. The NEA had taken a leadership role in bringing people of color on to their many peer review panels and discussing inclusivity and parity during heated discussions as a means of supporting culturally specific organizations, which had not been faring well in the awarding of NEA (and other) grants. Soon after I got the Council job, I was serving on said panels as well as participating in other national and later international forums.
What I learned is that in order to be counted, you have to be present. You have to participate in the national/international dialogue. You have to raise your voice for what you believe in, even if you are leaving behind your comfort zone, and to do so in an articulate but insistent way. And you have to believe and to care about the field and artists first and foremost – even before you consider your own institution and your own career. And it is especially important, when you are given the weighty responsibility to shepherd the resources of a foundation or a government entity supporting the arts that it is not YOUR money that you are shepherding. I have always considered myself, in the end, a civil servant – emphasis on both the civil and the servant parts. This keeps one both humble and honest, critical components of leadership in my book.
This stance is often laced with risk – personal and professional, as the defenders of the status quo do not take kindly to being challenged. However, it is the only way I can be, and all I wish is that in the end this way of being has led to the creation of programs and opportunities that matter to artists and the arts organizations that I continue to serve.
Ken Foster - Director Arts Leadership Program, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California
Shibboleth [shib·bo·leth (noun)] a common saying or belief...one that is widely used or a belief that is widely held, especially one that interferes with somebody's ability to speak or think about things without preconception.
In more than thirty years of working in the nonprofit arts, directing the activities of five different organizations, large and small, urban and rural, from east to west coast and in between, I have been witness to the many trends in the arts that overtake us from time to time. I have watched -‐ and fully participated I have to admit -‐ as an idea emerges, gains widespread acceptance and becomes seemingly ubiquitous. At that point, it almost always also becomes a shibboleth: a clichéd truth repeated by many with great authority as if it were received wisdom that interferes with pour ability to think critically about what is really going on.
If I’ve learned anything over the last thirty years, it’s to not trust these shibboleths of the arts field. Indeed the more I hear an arts shibboleth repeated, the more likely I am to question it as well as the person repeating it. I do this not to be contrary, but to do what I can to insure that as leaders in the arts world, we operate from a place of thought, inquiry and examination. Just like artists do.
There are several shibboleths out in the field just now. So let me take this opportunity to question and challenge a few of them in the hopes that you will begin to do the same.
The nonprofit model is dying/dead – I don’t think so, though many are calling for its demise as if that would somehow solve some problem. I actually think the nonprofit model has been misused and misunderstood for so long that it seems like it should die. Not me.
Being a nonprofit is actually pretty simple – have an educational/cultural mission, create a Board of as few as three people, incorporate, file a 990. Oh, and return any excess revenue over expense back into the organization, not into shareholders’ pockets. That’s pretty much it. The rest is up to you to make work in ways that are right for you, your organization and your mission. Why would we abandon this model for the supposed virtues of the for-‐profit model and its narrow focus on creating profit and gaining market share, values that hold true even for the much-‐ vaunted “double bottom line” organizations?
Being a non profit does not mean committing yourself to a life of helplessness -‐ begging rich people and cold hearted foundations for money as you work long hours for little pay and even less result. It means caring deeply about a cause and using your passion and creativity, as an artist would, to achieve that vision using whatever tools are available to you, which by the way are many and varied. Even when you are a nonprofit. I think we should stop decrying the form and figure out how we can make it work better for us.
Arts organizations should behave more like a business – After thirty plus years of believing and assiduously following this shibboleth, arts organizations generally find themselves in worse financial positions today than ever. The sad reality is that many arts organizations have actually achieved this goal and, as we saw when the Great Recession hit, realized that in so doing, we had successfully made our organizations – and our art -‐ as disposable a commodity as toothpaste and toilet paper. When the chips were down in 2009, few people felt the need to insure that the arts thrived above all else. While we believe in our hearts that a civilized society requires the arts, we behave in our organizations as if they are a “product” to be bought and sold, consumed and disposed of when they were no longer useful.
It’s going to take a lot of work to turn this around, that’s for sure. Re-‐creating our relationship with our communities is probably the most important step here; embedding ourselves in the life of the community so that citizens recognize that the arts are as vital to a healthy life and a healthy community as police, fire, libraries, healthcare, utilities etc. And I don’t mean “dumbing down” the art to do this -‐ which is the most often cited excuse (and is itself another shibboleth) for not engaging with community. I mean entering into a respectful dialogue with all parts of our community and working with them (not just talking at them) to discover how the arts can transform their lives, just as it has ours.
This is key to addressing a related shibboleth that I find particularly egregious which is that “there is too much art out there” and that the problem is oversupply and lack of demand. Even if you accept this, which I don’t, the solutions are always couched in terms of reducing the supply – “letting organizations fail” – a topic recently explored in the blogosphere. Let organizations fail? As if there aren’t enough failing on their own already? Maybe it’s time to think about how organizations can revitalize themselves and their mission in ways that make them indispensable to the larger community and not just the group of friends and “people like us” that they may have relied on for too long.
As long as we continue to believe that “art is a business” we will be stuck in the losing “art as product” paradigm. But once we truly believe that art matters to humanity and is vital to creating a healthy community, we can begin to find ways to insure that art and artists can thrive, even in what feels like a largely hostile environment.
For success, find and adopt “best practices” – There are in fact no such thing as “best practices” in a field of creativity and change. There are certainly successful organizations who have used specific strategies to achieve that success. And of course, we can learn (and steal) ideas, techniques, strategies, systems and yes, even “practices” from other successful organizations. But only if these are actually the right answer for you and your organization and not because someone (who are these people anyway?) deemed it a “best practice.”
This shibboleth also contributes to the all too common mindset that somewhere out there someone has it figured out and if we did what they did we would be successful too. Interestingly, we criticize artists for being derivative, but as organizations we are nothing but derivative -‐ suspicious of originality and new, untested ideas. After all, these are not “best practices.” This is a way of thinking that needs to change. Arts organizations should be as risky, innovative and exciting as (guess what) artists are.
People in the nonprofit arts need to strive for work-‐life balance. Um, no, not really. This idea feeds into the neoliberal construction that has encompassed our world that equates the economy with life. Think about it. Work-‐life balance means equating work with, well everything else. Life. Seriously?
Working in the arts does tend to be a calling, not a job, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Nonprofits are mission driven so the people running them should be mission driven as well. If you are here simply because it’s a “good job” you are in the wrong field. That said, we do tend to take on the “martyr to the cause” role which is not healthy either and leads to the burnout that has generated this very popular work-‐ life balance shibboleth.
I prefer to think of work/life integration – that my personal life and needs are integral to my sense of my self, as is my work, and I need to find ways to integrate the multiple aspects of my life, including work, into a life that is well lived. The only person asking you to sacrifice everything to the nonprofit cause is yourself. Get over it. Create a meaningful life that includes all the things that matter to you. Otherwise why bother?
These are just a few of the shibboleths that are out there and I’m happy to say that they also form some of the cornerstone ideas of the curriculum and content of the Graduate Arts Leadership Program that it has been my privilege to originate and operate at USC in Los Angeles. It is unlike any other similarly named program in the country. We strive mightily to encourage participants in the program to question everything – especially those shibboleths that get in your way and tell you can (or can’t) do something that matters to you and to our world.
As is probably evident by now, I find inspiration in artists: creative individuals and collectives who follow their passion wherever it takes them, who thrive on innovation and originality and abjure work that is derivative and who create a complicated but rewarding life for themselves. As arts leaders, arts administrators, cultural practitioners, whatever we call ourselves, shouldn’t we do the same?
Linda Essig - Professor, Pave Program, Arts Entrepreneurship, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Arizona State University
Thank you for the opportunity to participate. You’ve posed a HUGE question, but I opted for thinking fast (intuitively) rather than thinking slow (rationally) and jotted down five “first thoughts” while on a plane. [Bonus entry: a lot of good thinking can happen on long plane rides.]
Learning is (or should be) a lifelong endeavor; it is necessary to always be learning in order to lead, facilitate, and manage change and complexity.
We live and work in a climate that is rapidly changing both literally and figuratively. Working in the arts and culture sector requires a commitment to always be learning. This does not mean always following the latest fads or trends, but rather always be open and willing to learn deeply about the issues that will affect the work, the people who make it, and the people who participate in it in myriad ways. We live and work in a complex market-driven economy; whether you want to exploit that system or subvert it and beat it into submission, learn as much as you can about it.
Prioritize and honor relationships with individual human people ahead of honoring relationships with the work itself or the organization.
This is not a clichéd statement about “work/life balance,” but rather about the fact that people want to collaborate with people, donors want to give to people, and it is people who are in our audiences. Organizational structures matter, yes, but people matter most. Build one-on-one relationships; pick up the phone even when an email will do; better yet, grab a cup of coffee or a meal together.
“NO” is an exercise of power, but “YES” is an exercise of empowerment.
Find a way to say “yes;” empowering others will empower you and support creativity.
The audience/community is the artist’s most important collaborator.
Nobody likes playing to an empty house and paintings piling up in the proverbial dusty garret help nobody, most especially not the artist. Artists can make work that is both for themselves and for their audience/community. This is true in the classroom too: my students are my most important collaborators in their learning (and in mine).
To get to the point of collaboration, the community needs to invite you in.
Collaboration is a bi-directional or multi-directional relationship. An artist can’t “go into a community” or “have access to a community” unless they are invited in or generously given that access.
Kary Schulman - Director, Grants for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
What I’ve Learned: A random list of 15 aphorisms, most having no specific reference to the arts, developed over 40 years of working in arts administration and funding, and one piece of advice from an obscure U.S. President.
1. Leadership is to an arts organization what location is to real estate. If you have it not much else matters; if you don’t have it, not much else matters.
2. Whoever cares the most, wins. A small number of tenacious and highly motivated people can overcome/thwart the wishes of large numbers of adversaries with less-strongly held convictions
3. In times of plenty, plan for scarcity. In times of scarcity, plan for plenty.
4. Freely give credit and gratitude; be more parsimonious with blame.
5. If possible, try not to find reasons why things can’t happen. If possible, always try to find ways to make things happen.
6. When in an adversarial situation, try to find the smartest and most eloquent adversary. Your ideas are stronger after testing against the best opponents.
7. Never make excuses. Own your mistakes.
8. In a job candidate: The right attitude, energy and chemistry are generally more important than specific skills. A talented generalist can learn to do almost anything.
9. When someone says, “It’s not about the money.” It’s usually about the money.
10. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.
11. Partner relationships are important; important relationships are often with unlikely partners.
12. When asked about “cultural competency”, it occurred to me that “cultural humility” might be more appropriate.
13. The only law that’s always followed, never broken, is the Law of Unintended Consequences. (I’ve learned this from over 30 years of working in government).
14. Long ago I was given very good advice by a supervisor. He said, “Don’t do anything stupid just because you’re following your own rules.”
15. All change is not “reform”.
And finally some advice attributed to Calvin Coolidge (possibly apocryphal): If you see six or seven big and overwhelming problems rolling down the hill toward you, rather than tackling all sometimes it’s better to stand still and take a breath. Often some of them will roll on their own into the ditch and then you can deal with the ones that are still coming.
Diane Ragsdale - Blogger Jumper
What have I learned in the past 20 years that seems worth sharing?
For 15 of the past 20 years my life centered on work and, as a result, when I encountered periods when I was without work I lost all sense of contributing anything of value to the world. And I was lonely. Work in various art worlds brings social and cultural capital and, when both are rising, one’s life can feel incredibly rich and rewarding. However, it’s important to have a sense of self separate from work and relationships in this world, as both can disappear in an instant.
When you finally get a seat at the table resist the temptation to start speaking immediately and loudly. Listen for a period of time. When you have the opportunity to share your thoughts, speak clearly, courageously, and with all due respect. On the flip side, after you’ve been at the table for years, and the field has heard your two cents on all the issues of the day and then some, don’t make others wrestle the talking stick out of your hand. Pass it along willingly and use your influence in the field to advance others.
Know which art forms, artists, genres, or styles you really love and which you do not. In other words, have a point of view about art. What’s your aesthetic? Can you write an essay on it? Can you name five composers, playwrights, directors, choreographers, or visual artists who interest you greatly? Do you know why they interest you? No matter your job in the arts and culture sector, make it a goal to cultivate and develop your aesthetic sensibility over time.
Make time to read some of the seminal memoirs, histories, research reports, and journal articles that have been published in your field over the past 30-50 years. If you don’t know where to start, ask a mentor for a reading list. If you don’t have a mentor, get one. As someone who has been immersed in the history of the resident theater movement for five years I can attest to the value of studying history, and talking to those who made it, in order to better understand the challenges of today and possible ways forward.
Cultivate your inner philosopher and make time to daydream. For as long as I can remember I have made it a habit to carve out time every week to, basically, think. Sometimes this is focused pondering—mapping a problem to work through it logically; and sometimes this is staring out a window and allowing my mind to roam freely. Many problems can be solved and ideas generated with an hour spent doing either.
Related to the last point, I chuckle today at dilemmas that stole entire nights of sleep when I was in my 20s and 30s. Some of this is my personality but it’s also true that with experience comes perspective. The longer you do anything the more you realize that even the most difficult problems often can be resolved if addressed (ideally, as soon as they are recognized). If you feel in over your head reach out to others and ask for guidance. The outcome may not always be the one you hoped for, but life will go on and you will be OK.
If you gain your street cred in the field as the cheeky wunderkind or fighter-of-the-establishment (and this is how many reputations are made) then the skills, tactics, personality, and behaviors that you cultivate early in your career may work against you once you find yourself in a position of authority within the establishment. You may need to shift from pay-attention-to-me mode to listen-and-learn mode. You may need to cultivate grace.
I’ve learned that I am impatient, with myself and others. This may be the flipside of being someone that generally can be counted on to deliver; but it also creates unnecessary stress in the workplace. I want to do great work and I want to be a decent human being; however, these goals can be in conflict. Walking the tightrope between them is one of my challenges. These days I try to recognize immediately when I’m sacrificing relationships to performance at work and make a course correction. One of the greatest things you will learn as time goes by is who you are, what makes you tick, your best and worst qualities (often flipsides of the same coin), the roles you perform well, and those you perform poorly. Put this information to good use and your life will be better for it.
Gary Steuer - President, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation
1) Fully engage your team in the process and the objective, not just their task. In my first job out of college, working as an aide to a United States Congressman (began as an intern and eventually joined the staff where I served for three years), the Congressman’s Chief of Staff went out of his way to explain to me how every task I was assigned, no matter how seemingly trivial or menial, contributed to a larger agenda. It would have been very easy for him to simply assign me a research project, or ask me to draft a press release. Instead he would make me feel valued and would give me the context I needed to both feel motivated in implementing my task, and to feel a part of the bigger picture. He was also a brutal but kind editor, often making me re-do a piece of writing a dozen times before it was finally acceptable. But along with the criticism came explanation of why sentences did not work, why points were not made effectively. This approach to supervising staff and building a sense of shared commitment to a vision, and to excellence, has always stayed with me. I also learned the lesson to respect and nurture everybody, including junior staff and interns.
2) When you get to a position of leadership, being liked all the time is no longer possible. As you are working your way up in a career it is easy – and valuable – to always be part of the club of colleagues where possible. It has been my experience that while assholes and backstabbers may flourish in the short term, their duplicity and lack of humanity virtually always comes back to undermine them at some point, especially in a field like the nonprofit arts. However, when you get to be an ED or CEO, it just is no longer possible to be “part of the gang”. You will have to make tough calls about budgets and allocation of resources, about hiring and firing and compensation, and a little bit of distance from your team is essential. That does not mean you can’t be a good, humane, honest person, and have that be a part of your leadership style. The best illustration of this I saw was in a leadership training based on Shakespeare run by Tina Packer of Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts and John Whitney (former CEO of Pathmark). They co-authored a book called “Power Plays – Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management” and taught a companion course at Columbia B-school. When I was running the Arts & Business Council we ran a televised series of arts and business forums, and they did a condensed version of one of their classes for a corporate audience for one of our forums, using live Shakespeare & Company actors. One of their Lessons used Henry V to illustrate that as young Hal grew into King Henry he had to leave behind Falstaff as part of his growth into leadership. The transition, while painful to both, was important to King Henry being respected as a leader and not distracted by Falstaff’s influence. It doesn’t mean you can’t go out for a beer with your staff now and then, but a little distance is not a bad thing…
3) We are running businesses about changing the world for the better through the arts and that must be reflected in our values and our organizational structures. Having spent a good part of my career in arts management, policy and philanthropy at the intersection of the arts and business, I have had the benefit of observing lots of corporations in action, getting to understand their values and corporate culture. A number of years ago at an Alliance for Nonprofit Management conference, Paul Light of the Brookings Institute gave a keynote talk where he pressed back on the common nonprofit language of how we need to be more “businesslike,” to emulate the organization, rigor and strategic focus of the for-profit sector. He noted that increasingly the most successful companies were, in fact, more “non-profit-like” in that they were driven by a desire to improve people’s lives, and value and respect their employees. In fact this trend has only accelerated. Look at Google, Tom’s Shoes, the rise of B-Corps. Yet many nonprofits – including arts groups – seem to try to model themselves on IBM from the 50’s, with strict hierarchies, rigid approval and decision-making protocols, departments, org charts, job titles, etc. Let’s be humane, let’s adopt structures that are right for what we do. We are supposed to be creative – let’s be creative in how we manage as well. Let’s offer great benefits and reasonable compensation to our employees, and if that means a smaller team for now, or fewer productions or exhibitions, so be it. In the long run, that team that is valued and treated as such WILL lead to success, and ultimately better and more artistic output.
4) Increase your tolerance for risk. No organization has ever become successful always playing it safe, nor has any leader. Yet I feel too many arts groups (and too many arts leaders) have operated in a way that is more about self-preservation than anything else. I have learned – both through success and failure – that we must learn to be risk-takers, to be bold. It may sound trite, but failure done right is a learning opportunity, and will lead to more success in the future. (AKA the start-up mantra: “fail faster.”) We must guide our boards to understand this as well. It has always astonished me how high level corporate leaders – who in their own work deeply understand the risk/return ratio – become too timid and risk averse in their trustee role, afraid somehow that failure will reflect on them, or put more pressure on them as trustees to plug the resulting hole. Of course, all risks should be taken with careful planning, and not done recklessly, but lack of certainty about an outcome should not preclude us from action. And, as I have written about before, when arts organizations have lost their artistic energy, let’s not be timid (as managers, trustees and funders) about engineering a graceful exit and moving on. Restaurants open and close all the time, and we still have an ample supply of food.
Judith Jennings - retired Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women
What I learned About Work/Life Relationships, Being Real and Having Fun
Five years ago, at age 62, I made it my mission to retire by 65. I liked my job a lot, and truly loved many aspects of it. Yet because both my parents had died in their mid-50s, I knew that being able to retire shouldn’t be taken for granted. Rather, retirement should be planned for, and, well, seized. Three years later, in 2012, I had achieved my necessary financial goals, and I had served the foundation as Executive Director for almost 14 years. I cheerfully informed the foundation’s Board of Directors that I would like to retire at the end of December 2013.
That didn’t happen. Although my title was Executive Director, that did not mean I could always control my work life. Unbeknownst to me then, my stated intention to retire began a process, both painful and liberating, of pealing off layers of perspectives and practices accrued by me and around me in my position as ED since 1998. These kinds of accrued perspectives and practices are not always captured in Board meetings or in performance evaluations and can, therefore, go largely unexamined. So I, and I daresay several other KFW community members and observers, learned a lot over what turned out to be a nearly two-year process of preparing for my departure.
In March 2014, the foundation announced my retirement and commenced a search for a new Executive Director. On June 30, 2014, I retired at age 66, only six months behind schedule. But, ah, how much learning had transpired! In hopes that my experiences may benefit others, here are my top three lessons learned.
1. Work and life really are all about relationships.
Work relationships, including staff, Board and peers can be warm and friendly, to be sure, but what happens when they are time limited? Short answer for me: the basis of these relationships became a lot more clear. As the retirement clock ticks down, it becomes joyfully or painfully apparent which relationships are based on shared values, common goals and mutual respect and which derive from real or perceived positional power and authority. My impending retirement made the nature of the relationships clear, but maybe I could have been more discerning sooner? (See learning 2)
And what about the web of every day relationships based on your place of employment: the parking lot attendant, security guard, maintenance man, cleaning woman, barrista and lunch server that you interact with weekly? What happens when these contacts become time limited? Short answer for me: I told them how much I appreciated them and wished I had done that sooner.
And then there are your family members and dear friends. Of course, they know you love and care for them. They understand that you are very busy and may only have time to talk to them on the weekend or even only once a month or so, right?
Since my retirement, I have spent quality time with my great nephew at the beach, gone to music class for babies and toddlers with a former colleague and sat outside a French café all afternoon on a pretty day with a dear friend. I see now that it is important to practice, not just say, that family and friends should come first because in truth, they do. Family and friends are way more important than whatever work-related task you may think you have to do first.
2. Keep it real
I was aware of and wrote about this before, but it became more obvious as I retired and bears repeating. There are some occupational hazards of being in the field of philanthropy, and a big one is staying grounded and keeping it real. Those of us who came to philanthropy from low-income backgrounds are especially aware of how having money or access to money can have both good and bad effects. Learning number one above was about the effect of access to money on other people. This learning is about the importance of self-awareness when practicing philanthropy.
Also, as funders we can sometimes get mixed up and think that grant money is what is most important for making art or creating social justice. But really it isn’t. People make art and work to advance social justice because of their values and their goals. Grant money is a good thing, usually, but it is an effect and not a cause of creativity, hard work and dedication to justice.
Another variation on keeping it real is seeing how courtesy has become a commodity in our consumer culture. Like when the airline agent wishes you a good day after telling you your flight was just cancelled. When you no longer work in philanthropy, it is easier to keep it real by being yourself and also practicing courtesy as a human connection and not a transaction.
3. Have fun
I was fortunate enough to participate in the Shannon Leadership Institute a few years back, and my group leader was the legendary Ronnie Brooks. At our closing party. one of the group members asked Ronnie if she liked to have fun. Ronnie thought a minute and said, “if by having fun you mean engaging in mindless frivolity, the answer is no.” I actually like occasionally engaging in mindless frivolity (and may have been doing so at the time), but that is not what I am talking about here. I mean the type of fun that Ronnie would approve of where you are your best and most relaxed self, maybe laughing with a dear friend. savoring the moment and not worrying about what might have gone wrong beforehand or what you have to do when your time of enjoyment is over.
After I retired on June 30th, I treated myself to a three-week “liberation tour” in Spain and France. In those beautiful countries, I practiced being present and living in the moment. I promised myself I would do the same when I came home to Kentucky. My first week at home, I happily went to the Farmer’s Market in my neighborhood on a Monday morning. I bought some beautiful tomatoes. I was so proud of my retired self.
Then I realized I could have gone to the Farmer’s Market any Monday before that. I just didn’t take the time. Having fun means taking the time to do things you care about, being real and connecting with friends and family. But you don’t have to wait until you retire to do that.
Dennis Scholl - Vice-President, Arts, Knight Foundation
I have spent the last 35 years as a patron, a collector and recently as a philanthropist. Cheering on creators from the sidelines and providing support, but not experiencing what it takes to be an artist. All that changed for me in the last few years, when I began to make documentary films about the arts, where I was responsible for the creative content and subject to audience and critical response.
I became an artist.
This year, I debuted my first feature length documentary, “Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound” at the SXSW Film Festival, an as we approached the screening, I felt the weight of the creative process.
I began to learn how damn hard it is to make anything of worth. I had no idea how many decisions go into the creative process. While I surround myself with a team of talented people, I still felt the burden of the result on my shoulders. I also wanted, so much, to make a good film, to honor the subjects of the film, amazing soul musicians from the 60s who had been forgotten over the last 50 years.
So my big lesson this year has resulted from moving from the sidelines to the playing field. I don’t think I will ever view the creative process in the same way. I’ve learned to be a lot more empathetic toward my arts grantees. And for a philanthropist, that is a pretty good lesson.
BARRY: And searching on the internet, I came up with these lessons learned that I thought of value to all of us:
“I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life. I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as making a "life." I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Sean McCabe (found on Quora) Ten of his Twenty Five Lessons Learned
1. Learn & Never Quit
2. Be Driven
3. Make Things, Not Excuses
4. You Have to Say No to a Lot of Good Things…In Order to Be Able to Say Yes to a Lot of Great Things.
5. You Are More Than What You Do
6. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
7. Focus On What Matters
8. Inspiration is Everywhere
9. You Will Never Influence the World By Trying to Be Like It
10. Life is Happening Outside Your Screens
Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader, Myanmar
"Mindset in Leadership" - Here are excerpts of her speech to students at the Singapore Management University:
“Leadership must begin with commitment; with conviction.
You should be able to fulfill the need of the people who are willing to be led by you. They are willing to be led by you because you fulfill their need for hope, their need to believe in themselves. If you cannot make those people you are trying to lead believe in themselves, you cannot really be a leader. So to make people believe in themselves, you’ve got to respect them. You’ve got to truly value them.
Leadership entails vision. Otherwise where are you leading people to? If you don’t know where you want to go to, you have no right to ask people to go along with you. So that is what vision is; knowing where it is you want to go and and to be able to explain this to those whom you aspire to lead.”
Thank you to all of those who shared some of their wisdom with the rest of us. We are richer for your generosity.
Have a great week.