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We Need To Stop Optimizing Our Synergies

Yesterday, I was speaking with a friend who was learning English as a second language. I don’t remember which word it was exactly, but we got on the subject of corporate speak, the nigh-meaningless terminology that businesses use to recast their activities as something impressive sounding.

I ended up sending her a link to Weird Al Yankovic’s recent video, “Mission Statement” which makes fun of corporate speak.

I let her listen to Weird Al sing about synergies, operationalizing strategies, monetizing assets and other esoteric phrases set to “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” preparing to be asked what the heck those words meant.

As I waited, it suddenly occurred to me that my hopes for simplified grant reports where non-profits honestly reported the results of the project rather than claiming everything went as well or better than planned, were probably impossible.

As long as for-profit companies are using this self-aggrandizing language to talk about themselves, non-profits are going to be expected to mimic them to some degree to provide the appearance of competence and effectiveness. Most granting entities are either the non-profit arm of companies employing this blather or are foundations with boards comprised of people who work for these companies. For them, use of the latest corporate speak buzzwords are indications of organizational health.

It also occurred to me that the difficulty in attracting audiences from all strata of society might be rooted, in part, in the need to employ an esoteric vocabulary. The need to sound impressive for funders probably influences marketing text. .

But it doesn’t mean much to the audiences you wish would show up.

Certainly there are plenty of other factors which might inhibit a decision to attend an event. Programmings choices that don’t resonate with the interests of local audiences being one.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that new employees who understand how to communicate in a way that interests desired community demographics find themselves pressured either overtly or subliminally over time to use more “polished” language.

I’m afraid that just as like death and taxes, the influence of corporate speak is going to persist until we can actualize a paradigm shift by distilling our core identities into a bleeding edge proactive client centric modality.

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ArtWashing Sounded Reasonable When I Suggested It

Over the years I have written about the gentrification effect of artists in neighborhoods. While artists are often displaced as they make a neighborhood increasingly trendy, there have been cases where artists went into an area knowing their stay would likely be short term.

By and large, these voluntary arrangements sounded reasonable. Artists would occupy empty storefronts making them look less dismal, helping to lower crime rates and providing a little bit of revenue for landlords in spaces that would otherwise generate none. As long as no one was under the illusion that this arrangement would last long, everyone can be generally satisfied.

However, a recent story on The Atlantic’s CityLab labels the intentional use of artists by London developers to enhance property values as ArtWashing.

When a commercial project is subjected to artwashing, the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation. Just as greenwashing tries to humanize new buildings with superficial nods to green concerns (such as wind turbines that never turn), artwashing provides similar distraction. By highlighting the new creative uses for inner-city areas, it presents regeneration not through its long-term effects—the transfer of residency from poor to rich—but as a much shorter journey from neglect to creativity.

The author, Feargus O’Sullivan, discusses a number of cases in which artists were welcomed in wholeheartedly and then either forced out or subjected to unfriendly lease terms when their leases were up. He expresses some resentment for struggling artists being displaced by trust fund kids who like the lifestyle but don’t really need the space. Though he notes that even these people are, in turn, being nudged out in favor of the next higher grade of tenants.

He acknowledges that the situation is a little murky at times leaving some artists semi-complicit in the whole process due to the way they receive support. He cites a group that is producing a work with a critical tone that “art institutions sit comfy in the pockets of big corporations” in a space provided to them by a big developer who is eager to be associated with an artsy group.

O’Sullivan also asks us to consider that while artists may be subject to displacement as a result of their success, in some situations they may be displacers themselves. Although in most of the cases he cities, they were economic peers of those they lived among. (My emphasis.)

In celebrating their role, we are allowing the process of displacement to be mystified, and thus masked. An attitude has arisen which says, “Before, there was crime and emptiness; now we’ve got galleries and coffee. You’re telling me you actually preferred crack dens?” This shuts down debate by asserting that art and cafés for incomers were the only viable antidotes to lawlessness and poverty, when in fact they merely shunt them elsewhere. It erroneously suggests that creative uses of urban spaces are an end point, and reveals the ugly undertone beneath much talk of neighborhood change: That these inner city areas are just too good to be squandered on the low-income people being displaced from them.

So while artist inspired gentrification has long been recognized to be a mixed blessing for artists at best, it needs to be recognized that this gentrification isn’t actually solving the basic problem that existed. It is bringing much welcomed renewal to the physical elements of the area, but those in residence when the renewal begins don’t really experience much benefit at all.

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Best Leaders Are Internally Motivated

There was a post on the Harvard Business Review blog site about a recent leadership study – Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead.

According to the study, people with an internal motivation to lead are more effective than those with external motivations. More surprising, a person who has a mix of internal and external motivations, does very poorly.

“As one might predict, we found that those with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, instrumental rationales for their service — a common finding in studies of motivation. We were surprised to find, however, that those with both internal and external rationales proved to be worse investments as leaders than those with fewer, but predominantly internal, motivations. Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%. Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.

Many believe that the best way to influence behavior is to incentivize it, and such external incentives certainly work with lab rats. In our study, however, adding external incentives clearly did not improve leader performance.”

and later

“If those we seek to develop as leaders adopt external justifications for leading well — such as an increase in shareholder value, better pay or perquisites, or increased profits — they are likely to be less successful as leaders in comparison to those who seek to lead for more internal, intrinsic reasons alone.”

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you probably can see where my mind is going here. These results made me wonder if non-profit leaders might not make the most effective leaders since internal motivation for doing the job is all but given.

Now remember, effective leader doesn’t necessarily equate to successful. This is a “if you are so smart, why ain’t you rich” situation. Non-profit organizations are notoriously underfunded and lack the resources to achieve the success they aspire to. Not to mention many are pursuing work which others won’t because there is no profit to be made.

Likewise non-profit leaders may make really stupid choices because there was never any time to properly develop and cultivate them throughout their careers. (Not that this type of grooming has kept their for-profit colleagues from making stupendous mistakes either.)

Yes, I am flirting with suggesting that for-profit corporations pull something akin to the movie Trading Places consider looking for effective leaders in non-profit organizations (sans the whole bet thing).

Yes, this regrettably will take talent out of the field, but it would put them in a place with greater resources to provide their leadership skills with more impact. Without maximizing shareholder value as a central goal, the general business environment may shift for the better. Though that might be as big a fantasy as the movie.

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The Arts Are Enough of a Gamble Without Casinos

When you do a S.W.O.T. analysis for your organization (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats), Opportunities and Threats were where you listed external situations that could help or hinder you.

When I worked at an arts center in southern New Jersey, one of the biggest threats was Atlantic City. While it might take you hours to get there in summer time traffic, Atlantic City was 45 miles away and therefore fell into the customary 50 mile exclusion zone that prevented performers from appearing within a certain time period before or after their event date. It frustrated the artistic director to no end because we would frequently be outbid and excluded by casinos in Atlantic City.

This is one of those situations where it is too simplistic to claim that arts organizations that can’t support themselves or serve their community ought to close. No one in the local community was going to Atlantic City to see these performers. There was sufficient community interest in seeing them, it was just that the organization was prevented from offering the shows which makes it difficult to generate revenue.

That is why I have been watching an effort by performing arts presenters in upstate NY to prevent the same thing from happening to them. Last October, a coalition of a dozen venues received “assurances from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration that potential private casinos in New York will be required to partner with local arts organizations rather than compete with them.”

Earlier this month, the coalition, Upstate Theaters for a Fair Game, came to an agreement with 10 of the 17 casino license applicants.

“While we were not able to reach agreement with a number (of casino applicants), the agreements we have reached are significant because they declare clearly the size and scope of casino entertainment plans, they have joint booking agreements that will guarantee access for the casinos and for Fair Game groups to touring performers, they support the Fair Game Fund for those same facilities and establish arts granting programs for smaller organizations in every region,” said Philip Morris, the CEO of Proctor’s in Schenectady and the chairman of Fair Game. “Finally, should the plans the casinos propose be significantly changed, each applicant has agreed to mitigate those impacts with additional support.”

According to another article, the state mandated that some sort of agreement be made. The agreements provide some funding for members of the performing arts coalition, keeping a fair bit of the money in the community.

Under the agreements, casinos will share gambling revenue with the coalition. Amounts will vary by casino and region. Of the distributed gambling revenue, 85 percent will remain in the region where the casino is located, with 15 percent going to the Fair Game coalition. Of the 85 percent that remains in our region, 70 percent will be split by the Bardavon and coalition member Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, on the Woodstock site in Sullivan County. Bethel Woods and the Bardavon will distribute the remaining 15 percent to local arts organizations.

But agreements haven’t been made with everyone, some like the Mohegan Sun have publicly stated they will refuse to do so.

As some members of the coalition say, the situation is still evolving. This situation will be a good case study for what to do if faced with casinos or some similar competitive threat in your area.

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