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Don’t Forget Leadership and Teamwork

I was helping out a local high school by conducting mock interviews with their students today. I enjoy doing this because the school does a great job preparing the students for the experience. I often don’t realize just how nervous the students are until the sweaty palm handshake as they depart. The last student I spoke to was applying for a position as a nurses aide and I was pleased to hear him talk about how his experience as the section leader in his band conferred leadership and conflict management skills. I made sure I complimented him on mentioning that and coached him about mentioning it in future interviews. (My interview partner who was not an arts person did so as well.)

It occurred to me that when I have read about the benefits of the arts recently, leadership and teamwork didn’t seem to figure largely in the lists. Given the recent push that education make someone employable, it is probably important that it be emphasized more.

I did a quick and, by no means exhaustive, survey of articles listing the benefits of arts education and found that my suspicion was generally true. Many talked about the cultivation of very desirable traits like intellectual and emotional development, flexibility of worldview, judgement, problem solving, expressiveness and ability to anticipate consequences.

In our desire to justify ourselves by identifying some distinctive advantages conferred only by the arts and creative expression, we seem to have forgotten some basic benefits a high school kid can cite. Speaking of which, while we are touting these benefits, it probably behooves us long term to make sure high school kids who are having these experiences can cite the benefits.

The intellectual and emotional development advantages frequently referenced are often individual achievements. Leadership and team work are assets in the social sphere and warrant inclusion. It may seem of little consequence now, but I suspect there is a fair chance that in the next 10 years technologically induced anti-social/introspective tendencies may be be deemed a crisis and these qualities will be highly prized.

This all being said, there are a lot of benefits to arts education and it is tough to list them all. If you are looking for a list to keep handy, here are some great ones. (A couple which list leadership and teamwork). Again, these are some I personally find helpful rather than an exhaustive list.

Americans for the Arts
National Assembly of State Arts Agencies
Artsblog post by Kristen Engebretsen

Feel free to add a few of your favs in the comments section.

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Arts And The Four Year Career

An article recently posted on the Fast Company website talks about how transitory people’s jobs, and increasingly, career paths, are.

“According to recent statistics, the median number of years a U.S. worker has been in his or her current job is just 4.4, down sharply since the 1970s…Statistically, the shortening of the job cycle has been driven by two factors. The first is a marked decline in the “long job”–that is, the traditional 20-year capstone to a career. Simultaneously, there’s been an increase in “churning”– workers well into their thirties who have been at their current job for less than a year. “For some reason I don’t understand, employers seem to value having long-term employees less than they used to,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton”

Given the idea that arts organizations need to be more nimble in the current fast changing environment and that corporate CEOs value creativity in leadership, it made me wonder if arts organizations might not be able to take advantage of this trend by creating mutually beneficial employment situations.

Essentially, if there is going to be a lot of employment churn, the arts might be able to benefit in both the short and long term by making sure a jaunt in the arts is included in a person’s itinerant career path.

Arts organizations experience a fair bit of turn over in their employees. (In fact, I will bet that is what you thought the title of the entry referenced.) It may be worthwhile to hire people without backgrounds specifically in the arts into positions. Since you are probably just as likely to have to replace a person with arts background as someone who doesn’t, you aren’t overly wasting time and resources by hiring and training someone without industry experience.

The potential benefit to the arts organization is introducing some new ideas and practices to the organization. The employee gets a broader experience to add to their hodgepodge resume which may make them more marketable. (Needless to say, the work environment must be such that it accepts the former and confers the latter.)

Of course, as the article mentions, the trick is to separate those who are really driven in their pursuits from the dilettantes. Arts organizations in general aren’t particularly well skilled in those type of human resource practices. It would be worthwhile to have someone on the board with the ability to provide those services in some form, even if you have no intention of ever hiring a person without an arts background.

In the long term it could be helpful if businesses started to identify arts organizations as a good training ground for the skills they seek in employees to the point where it was as de rigueur on a resume as extra curricular activities are on a college application. It also wouldn’t hurt if the experience engendered an appreciation in the arts in the transitory employee that they will carry on to positions creating business or government policy.

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Organizational Culture–It’s People!!!!

Rosetta Thurman recently relinked back to an entry she did last year about organizational culture and the importance of not feeling like you are helpless in the face of it. Her basic premise is that organizational culture emerges from the practice of people and not from immutable laws written into the founding documents and the actions. (Though certainly, the initial culture establishes the precedent from which the organization develops.)

Her assertion that individuals in the organization are responsible for whether the culture changes or not struck a chord with me. I have been frustrated with organizational inertia both as a supervisor and subordinate in many places I have worked. While you can feel constrained by the (in)actions of your supervisor, the situation flows both ways. The entrenched reluctance of those you are trying to lead can cause just as much apathy as when the same characteristic is exhibited by one’s leaders.

I generally experience an optimism about a new hire starting work  similar to what I feel when I start a new job myself. I am eager to see what opportunities may be available by virtue of the skills and knowledge the new person brings. Given that most people in the non-profit field are overqualified for the job they are doing, each new person represents a great deal of potential.

People look at taking a new job as an opportunity for a new start. Employers should approach the arrival of a new hire in a like manner. Admittedly, most of the time in the non-profit world a new hire represents the opportunity to clear the backlog of work piling up on your desk. But if you view a new person as a replacement cog, chances are that is how you are viewed as well, perhaps even by yourself. The arrival of a new person is a good time to work on changing that aspect of the corporate culture for everyone’s benefit.

I just hired a new assistant theatre manager in September so these dynamics are at the forefront of my mind. Those who previously held the position provided different benefits to the theatre. The current person is in the position to either maintain or improve upon the gains of her predecessors. Having been in the job for about 45 days, she has enough understanding of the organization to start making suggested improvements.

I will confess that I reflexively feel a twinge of resistance when she starts a sentence with something like “I think that we should think about changing…” How could a new person dare to judge what we do! It is with some relief and then joy that I find that significant elements of her suggestions align with goals I am hoping to accomplish.

Granted, if you have done a good job during the interview process, this should be the result. However, I work for a state institution and the process seems oriented more toward CYA than hiring the best candidate. It is pleasing to realize you did hire the right person in spite of the process.

In any case, the most important factor in creating an environment where new endeavors are either encouraged or inhibited is the participation, or lack thereof, people.

But, of course, people have always been the most valuable ingredient.

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Leadership By Eyebrow

Apropos my Inside the Arts co-denizen Bill Eddins post about what it takes to be a good conductor, is the TED video with Itay Talgam talking about the conducting styles of six great 20th century conductors.

Talgam approaches the leadership styles of different conductors from the apparently stifling style of Riccardo Muti to the comparatively free flowing style of Herbert von Karajan. According to Talgam, Muti was asked to resign from his position at La Scala because he wasn’t allowing the musicians any room in the performance. Karajan was apparently quoted as saying the worst thing he can do is give his musicians specific direction. Both approaches put a lot of pressure on the musicians to perform well.

Talgam contrasts that with the way Carlos Kleiber (in some very humorous clips) and Leonard Bernstein (conducting only with his head) balance exerting control with loosing the reins and giving the musicians their head, providing only minimal feedback.

Obviously, there is a lesson in all this about balance in organizational leadership. It would be the great arts administrator indeed who could run his/her organization just by wiggling their eyebrows like Bernstein.

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