Monday, January 11, 2016

Legacy Project Report

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

Note:  I am overwhelmed,  humbled, and deeply grateful for the outpouring of concern and support for me.  I cannot thank you enough for your kind messages of comfort and encouragement.  

Here is one of the reports in the blog pipeline.


With special acknowledgment to Marian Godfrey as the co-author of the report that constitutes this blog post, and to our Legacy Panel members who generously gave of their time to share their perspectives on the issues.

The opportunity for me to interact with our esteemed panel members (whom I wish could constitute a permanent Think Tank), and especially the chance for me to work with Marian was a rare privilege, for which I am very grateful.  

Eighteen months ago, Marian Godfrey and I began a series of conversations on the coming exodus of long time arts leaders from their current positions due to retirement or other reasons for moving on.  We observed that the field's interest in this area - including issues of succession and transition - was principally centered on the issues of the leaders that are moving into the vacated positions the Boomers were leaving.  We were initially interested in the other side of the coin: the issues for those retiring Boomer leaders.

At first, we were principally interested in one small thread of this topic:  How to preserve some of the experience and knowledge of those with long careers and accomplishments in the field for the benefit of those remaining, and those still to come.   In our preliminary conversations with retiring, or recently retired colleagues, we have heard an almost universal wish to continue being of use to our respective fields.  We and our colleagues have speculated about to what degree the knowledge and wisdom we have gained is relevant to the next generations of leadership; if it is, how to create mechanisms that would allow for the intergenerational transmission of knowledge; and how to make it possible for those individual exiting leaders who are interested in continuing to contribute can do so.

But from our early conversations, it became immediately clear that the leadership exodus intersects with a host of other challenges and issues important not just to those who are exiting the field, but to mid-career leaders and those coming up, as well as to the field itself. There are now two generations of younger arts leaders who are, or will be, moving into positions vacated by retiring senior leaders.  We refer to them, for short, as Gen-Xers (born between the early 1960s  and the early 1980s), and Millennials, (born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s).  We recognize that there is great ambiguity about the age boundaries of these two cohorts, and that their titles have been freighted with stereotypes about each generation that are reductive and inaccurate.  Their needs are equally challenging and strikingly different.  We found that we share an interest with many colleagues in examining all of the impacts on all of the groups that this transition will have.

While there has been much discussion over the past decade about succession issues in our field, the focus has been on emerging leaders and the needs of those who are poised to replace the senior leaders now departing from positions of responsibility and power.  We are interested in shining a light on the other end of that continuum as well.  What are the needs of those who are leaving and what is the impact on the field of that (soon to be) mass exodus, which in our relatively young sector is happening for the first time.  We have embarked on a limited and preliminary exploration to test whether there would be merit in pursuing a more formal study, structured similarly to one conducted by Barry for the Hewlett Foundation.  That research looked at emerging leaders, and advanced the field’s discussion about generational change.  (Hewlett is currently in the process of developing a further initiative focused on the evolution of younger generations of arts leadership.)  We believe the study we are pursuing now may provide a useful counterweight to that work.

To move forward on this subject, we formed an advisory committee  (which we chose to call a Legacy Panel) that helped us to define in more detail the issues attendant to the exiting of the nonprofit leadership of the past fifty years, and to consider some of the possible ways to address those challenges - both for the individuals leaving and those moving up, and for the sector.  Members of this panel, who participated in our preliminary explorations, included:  Vickie Benson; Janet Brown; Roberto Bedoya; Talia Gibas; Devon Smith; Adam Huttler; Ruby Lerner; Ellen Lovell; Cora Mirikitani; Bill Ivey; Joan Shigekawa; Cynthia Mayeda; Shelley Cohn; Judi Jennings; Olga Garay- English; Jonathan Katz; Olive Mosier and Russell Willis Taylor.    

We assembled this small group with an eye to as much diversity—in position and role, experience, geography and ethnicity--as possible in a very small group, with an emphasis on senior leaders but with some next-generation voices.  We acknowledge the bias inherent in such a limited, personally selected group, and note with regret the many voices that are missing in the discussion so far.  But because of the speculative, preliminary—and unfunded—nature of our investigation, we began where we could, with a handful of distinguished leaders who were willing to participate and who, we knew, would have useful things to say.  We hope this modest effort is a beginning to a deeper understanding of the issues involved.

We began with a brief survey that was completed by 17 members of our panel, and based on their responses developed a protocol for individual interviews with each of them.  The survey and interview questions were divided into four sub-categories:  The concerns of retiring (Boomer) leaders; perceptions and needs of incoming (Gen-X and Millennial) leaders; considerations of transition and continuity for non-profit organizations; and implications for the nonprofit arts sector as a whole.  The balance of this report summarizes our tentative findings within each of those four categories.  We acknowledge that our limited survey was unscientific and in no way could be thought of a truly representative of the nonprofit arts field as a whole.  Nonetheless, we believe that the collective wisdom and perspective of our panel offers insights that might inform the field and suggest areas for more dialogue and conversation.  We had hoped to convene this panel for an in-person summit to delve deeper into the issues with an eye to specific suggestions in meeting the various challenges those issues pose.

I. Retiring or Retired Senior (Boomer) Leaders

This cohort contains various categories of individuals (not all represented on our Legacy Panel):  1) those who have already long retired from active positions; 2) those who have recently retired - including both those who are no longer active in the field, and those who have transitioned to some (at least tangential, but different) continuing role in the field; 3) those with imminent retirement plans – some with no plans to stay involved, and others with definite plans to stay involved; 4) those contemplating retirement in the near term; and 5) those who might retire in the near term.  It also became clear to us that within each of these classifications, the reasons for exiting the field might be very different.   Most, but not all, are voluntarily leaving, although for many, that decision is/was not easy.  Others are being forced out - either by term limits, confrontations, political considerations as appointees or otherwise.  These categories have a combination shared and unique needs as they face the challenges of transition.  The challenges are broad and varied, and include: 1) making the decision to move on (timing, announcement, succession, and transition including advice and counsel as to legal, logistical and other matters), along with questions of health care, retirement support and surviving and thriving in older age; 2) unpacking and downloading their knowledge base - with or without specific invitation to do so; and 3) landing - what comes next if they want something to come next.

About 70 percent of our legacy panel members had recently (within the past three years) retired when they took the survey.   Nearly 60 percent of retirees continue to attend conferences and symposia; 50 percent serve on one or more arts organization boards; 36 percent work as consultants; 43 percent are or plan to be mentors to upcoming leaders; and 28 percent are writing or plan to write for publication.

Asked to rate the importance of issues, from the perspective of the retirees, to be considered by the field as it faces the coming wave of Boomer retirements, 100 percent of panelists rated imparting/unpacking knowledge and experience to be important, very important or critically important, and 93 percent rated imparting information about key relationships important to the organization as important to critically important.  Similarly, 93 percent ranked making the decision to retire, the exit/transitioning process and financial issues in retirement as important to critically important.  Maintenance of personal and collegial relationships was rated important to critically important by 86 percent of panelists; post retirement health coverage was rated 79 percent; and post retirement options allowing continuance of making a contribution was deemed important by 71 percent.

The individual interviews provided more nuanced perspective about these answers.  Senior leaders, as the survey showed, are interested in and concerned about how knowledge, expertise, interpersonal connections and organizational trust are transferred from retiring leaders to next generation leaders.  However, for the most part their sense of how and to what degree they should be responsible for the transmission of both explicit knowledge (e.g. relevant data and organizational protocols) and implicit knowledge (e.g. the benefits of personal relationships with trustees, donors, policy makers or other stakeholders) depends upon whether they are currently leading an organization or already retired.  Senior organizational leaders see the preparation of trustees, staff, donors and incoming leaders for transition as an important part of their jobs while they remain in their positions.   On the other hand, most expressed a strong belief that once retired, senior leaders should intervene with either their own previous organization or other organizations (i.e. as a consultant or trustee) with restraint and only when invited—by trustees or by their successors.

Similarly, interviewees, while shying away from being designated as mentors in any formal sense, almost universally expressed the pleasure and satisfaction they have felt in the opportunity (present or past) to teach and guide younger staff of their own organizations, and to prepare them for leadership roles in the field.  A few sustained those relationships with younger leaders after retirement, although their point of view shifted, and they provided continued advice and information only when asked for it.  In general, our panelists are careful to steer clear of any assumption that just by virtue of their long experience and deep knowledge, they automatically have useful information to impart to younger generations.  Several explicitly noted that younger leaders, already endowed with their own experience, should be trusted to know what they do and do not need to learn from their elders.

Most senior leaders were very concerned about the financial constraints imposed by retirement.  Several commented that not being able to afford to retire is a key reason why they in particular and the Boomers as a generation are staying too long in their positions and thereby crowding out the next generation of leadership.  Nevertheless, most did not believe that there was any field-wide or blanket responsibility to provide financial assistance to departing senior leaders.  There was some feeling that very long serving and very effective retiring leaders ought to be recognized by their trustees through some form of transition funding.  But for the most part, interviewees noted that these matters are contractual and ideally should be dealt with as part of the hiring process.

Retiring senior leaders were eager to hear from members of the next two generations about their expectations—both of Boomer leaders and of arts organizations.  Better communications among these cohorts could undoubtedly lead to more effective service to the field by both outgoing and incoming leaders.

II.  Incoming Leaders

While our panel had only a few members within the Gen X and Millennial cohorts, both they and Boomer respondents had thoughts on the issues of concern to and for mid-career and emerging leaders.  All respondents noted that the interests and concerns, as well as experience, of Gen Xers and Millennials were distinct: that their life experiences, attitudes and ways of doing things are as different from one another as they are from the Boomer generation.  For example, Gen Xers are now, in general, in mid-career (and middle age) and are the likeliest successors to the Boomers retiring now and into the next decade; but demographics suggest that their cohort may not be large enough to constitute an adequate pool to fill all the positions likely to open up in the near-to-mid-term future.  Millennials may well be tapped for a portion of those positions.  On the other hand, Millennials, because they are an even larger cohort than Boomers and because they tend to take maximal advantage of professional training and development opportunities, may generate a far larger number of trained and skilled arts leaders than there are positions for them to fill, at least at the level of professionalism they expect.

Asked in the survey to rate the importance of issues, from the perspective of the incoming leaders, to be considered by the field as it faces the coming wave of Boomer retirements, panelists placed greatest priority on 1) the challenge of maintaining important organizational relationships during and after the leadership transition; and 2) the related challenge of garnering trust and respect for the incoming leader.  In the interviews, there was general consensus that it is the responsibility of the organizations to address both of these challenges as part of the governance obligation to ensure board and staff continuity, generally through succession and transition planning.  Among retiring Boomers there was no consensus on how best to help and support the incoming leadership; some suggested a minimalist approach: merely to be accessible for consultation; others suggested providing detailed written thoughts, observations, and information.  There was general agreement among the Boomers, as noted previously, that no advice or counsel should be offered by retirees except that which the incoming leadership specifically asks for.

While there was agreement that the transfer of knowledge from retiring leaders to the incoming leaders would be of value, there was no overarching consensus on the best way to effect that transfer.  Mentoring (or the more preferred term “coaching”), in some form, was enthusiastically supported by some, and dismissed as unimportant or unworkable by others.  Some dismissed any kind of impersonal online brokering in favor of the development or continuation of personal relationships; others supported the role technology might play in facilitating knowledge transfer if the appropriate platforms and approaches could be established.  Several interviewees suggested the establishment of some kind of knowledge bank that would match those with knowledge to those who wanted to be matched, but with no agreement on what form that might take.  Further discussion could usefully identify which types of knowledge, e.g. operational, interpersonal, historical—might best be transferred through which mechanisms, e.g. in-person, via databases or via more sophisticated social media approaches, to which constituencies—individual leaders, organizational units or the sector as a whole.

There was support for insuring that the history of both specific organizations and of field trends, such as arts funding, arts education and cultural policy, be captured and disseminated, and there was substantial support for a project that might record, and preserve for the future, oral or written interviews with those who have lived that history firsthand.  Some interviewees noted that the arts as a field celebrate story-telling, and that stories of the field’s history are worth preserving.

Additional issues for the younger cohorts of leaders include:  inadequate pay and compensation packages; the dearth of vertical promotion opportunities within the sector; inadequate opportunities to have real impact on outcomes; and as a result of those challenges, questions about whether leadership positions as they open will actually be attractive or desirable to the available younger leaders.  The panelists expressed deep concern about the potential that Millennials, especially, may be uninterested in committing their efforts to the leadership opportunities that currently exist in arts organizations and in the sector as a whole, and may choose to exit the field entirely rather than working with existing organizations or creating new ones as means of transforming the sector.  We repeatedly heard that:  1) unless compensation in the field increases dramatically and becomes competitive, a percentage of Millennials will choose not to stay in the sector; 2) unless there are ways for Millennials to access promotion opportunities at early stages of their careers, more Millennials will likely move to other sectors; and 3) Millennials want to make a real impact in their work irrespective of where they sit within an organization, and will gravitate to opportunities to have such an impact.  Finally, these younger leaders need to be excited. Boomers should remember that they gravitated to and stayed in the field in earlier days precisely because they were excited—by the arts, and by the potential to make a difference in their communities.  Millennials want no less.

III.   The Organizational Perspective

The survey asked respondents to rank the importance of issues, from the perspective of the organization from which the senior leader is retiring, that need to be addressed as the field confronts the coming wave of Boomer retirements.  Panelists ranked two issues as having the highest importance:  notification (about the leadership transition) of the organization’s board, staff, donors, funders and clients; and maintaining the key professional relationships with donors, funders and supporters that were enjoyed personally by the retiring leader.  The search process for the replacement leader was ranked as of nearly as great importance, followed by financial (severance/exit contract) obligations to the retiring leader.

In the interviews, panelists clarified their belief that organizations must engage in both succession planning, to prepare for leadership turnover at both board and staff levels in advance of any specific leadership change; and transition planning, to manage opportunities and challenges involved in the actual process of leadership change.  Panelists also agreed that once a leadership transition is announced, it is the role of the board chair and board, rather than the exiting leader, to lead a process of transitioning key professional relationships with donors and others.  The retiring leader should participate in that process when and if asked to do so by the board chair.  Similarly, while the survey responses also placed high importance on helping the incoming leader get up to speed, and helping the incoming leader to establish confidence within the institution, panelists in the interviews stressed that the retiring leaders might not be in the best position to assist or mentor incoming leaders.  Board leadership should determine the best way to orient and coach incoming leaders.

The distinctions between succession planning and transition planning, and the importance of both to the good governance and sound operation of every organization, was the most common and strongest recommendation made by our panelists.  Such planning is largely honored more in the breach than the observance, and yet it responds to the most basic, and one of the most urgent, requirements for organizational success.  Again, this is an issue for nonprofits in general, not just arts nonprofits.  Our panelists believe that arts organization boards and executives need to be educated about the importance of succession and transition planning.  Well developed plans address all the concerns raised by senior leaders in our survey and interviews, from transfer of knowledge, to brokering relationships between incoming leaders and key stakeholders, to ongoing staff mentorship and trust-building within organizations, to finding fair ways of recognizing and compensating the long service of retiring leaders (where appropriate).

Regarding the question asked in the survey about whether organizations have a responsibility to provide adequate compensation (including retirement support) to senior leaders, several interviewees thought that the field could benefit from thinking more realistically about compensation for all staff.  Given how poorly most small and medium-sized organizations are able to compensate staff, and given the higher expectations of younger entrants into the field about compensation as well as work-life balance and related issues, panelists saw this issue as an existential challenge to organizations and to the sector.  One noted that this is not an arts issue, so much as an issue for all nonprofits, and that whether or not organizations can afford to offer pension or retirement programs for staff, they could and should offer access to financial information and retirement planning resources so that staff are educated and able to make informed choices for themselves.  Another interviewee speculated that both nonprofit arts organization boards and arts funders could benefit from discussions about the importance to the success of the field of more realistic staff and leadership compensation, and the value of considering increased compensation as part of the larger field-wide discussion about what constitutes adequate capitalization of cultural organizations.  On the other hand, as one interviewee said, “Get real—I’m worried about just making payroll this week!”

IV.  Sectoral Perspectives

Several concerns raised in relation to outgoing senior leadership, incoming generations of leadership and/or arts organizations as collective entities also lend themselves to consideration at the sectoral level:

Preserving and transmitting outgoing leaders’ knowledge:  What knowledge needs to be preserved and made available to subsequent generations of leaders; what mechanisms are most effective for recording and providing access to that knowledge; and how that access is provided, are separate though intertwined questions.  There is some consensus that operational knowledge has value in allowing leaders to proceed more efficiently than when they only can learn through trial and error, and that formal—including digital—mechanisms could be developed for transfer of operational knowledge.   Implicit, or personal, knowledge (that is, knowledge not susceptible to being formalized or written down, or sometimes even verbalized), can only be transferred through long-term personal interactions that build mutual understanding and trust.  There was agreement that this kind of knowledge is valuable and highly desirable, but no consensus about how best to create sectoral-level opportunities for leaders to learn from one another.  We suspect that this is an intra-generational, as well as inter-generational question.

The continued participation of senior leaders in the sector, even in retirement:  Our limited research strongly suggested that most retiring senior leaders are not exiting the field, but only their current, often long-held positions.  Most expect to continue to be active, either through a career-capping new employment position, a move into a consulting role, or participation as board members or advisors.  How can they best be mobilized in support of the next generations of leadership?  There is concern on the part of some of our panelists that their influence could be unhelpful, because not relevant to the challenges incoming leaders confront.  How can we explore further what aspect of senior leaders’ legacies are useful, and what are not?

Support for and preparation of incoming leaders to succeed in their new positions is important to the sector as a whole.  What are the opportunities at the individual, organizational and sectoral levels that can be amplified and supported?  The senior leaders in our panel generally expressed a desire to support incoming leaders.  Younger leaders, both those in our panel and others with whom panelists have discussed this question, are also eager to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from their predecessors.  At the organizational level, it was generally agreed that it is a governance responsibility to ensure that incoming leaders succeed, and to make resources available to them accordingly.  At the individual level, personal mentorship can help.  At the sectoral level, the question of the success of incoming leaders is tied to broader questions about the changing role of the arts, and arts organizations, within our communities and our society.   What changes in the sector will ensure the committed participation and leadership of Millennials and even younger generations?

V.  Recommendations

1.  Engage in additional, and share, research and information about intergenerational leadership concerns with other entities also interested in strengthening leadership in the arts, e.g. with the Hewlett Foundation and Grantmakers in the Arts.  We are aware that similar conversations are cropping up in other parts of the nonprofit arts sector, and hope that the findings of our panelists can contribute to broader conversations.

2.  Create intergenerational opportunities for senior, mid-career and early-career leaders to communicate and exchange ideas with one another about leadership development and the needs of the sector.  Both our interviews with the Legacy panelists and our conversations out in the field conveyed a hunger from leaders at all levels to learn from one another about how we can collectively move our sector forward.  Younger leaders see themselves as having different strengths and capacities than Boomers, and want both to benefit from their predecessors’ historical knowledge and experiential wisdom, and to have their own professionalism and skills (both technological and cultural) affirmed.  Senior leaders want to participate in the development of incoming generations of leaders, but don’t want to inject unwanted, irrelevant or counter-productive ideas and opinions into the process.

3.  Advocate for both succession and transition planning as good practices that sustain intergenerational leadership and that should be adopted by nonprofit arts organizations.

4.  Advocate that financial planning resources and training be provided to staff  of small and mid-sized arts organizations as a way to begin dealing with the compensation issues that challenge the nonprofit arts sector.  How to change the organizational culture of the sector such that adequate compensation is both valued and achievable is a difficult, long-term challenge; perhaps the inter-generational communications recommended here is one place to start. See the Appendix below for one suggestion about creating a policy-level forum for such discussion.

The transition from one generation of leaders in our field to another is underway. It will likely take a decade or more to complete.  We believe that the needs of both those leaving their positions and those who are moving into those jobs, along with the needs of the organizations experiencing this transition, and the field as a whole, and the issues raised, are important for the field to discuss.  Both Marian and I hope this limited report can contribute to a wider dialogue and discussion of the issues.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit