What Many Of Us Have Learned

Awhile back Barry Hessenius asked me to write a “What I Have Learned” essay for his blog. He noted that in the past he often featured similar pieces written by people who were approaching the end of their career. This time around he wanted to feature the voices of people who were on the upward arc of their careers.

This past Sunday he posted the collection of essays. I should warn you, the post is L-O-O-O-N-N-G. I wasn’t given a word limit and I would guess none of the other 17 people whose contributions appear were either.

True to Barry’s purpose of providing a forum to some lesser known people, there were names a recognized but many I didn’t and ended up Googling. I had originally intended to provide a list of the contributors with links to bios or websites as a reference, but after opening 10 tabs in my web browers, I realized my entire post was going to end up being a list of names.

So read the post and if you see someone you like, Google them to learn more.

There is a lot to read but there is a lot worth reading. Over a couple days I made note of the next person on the list and performed a Find on the page when I came back to continue reading.

To give a small sample of what people submitted, I was really struck by this advice from EMC Arts’ Karina Mangu-Ward:

Accept offers of support, even if it makes you feel vulnerable:  Early in my work at EmcArts, a more experienced colleague of mine approached me and said that if I was ever interested in developing my practice as a facilitator he’d be willing to mentor me.  I brushed it off at the time, unsure of how to accept the support.  But I kept in the back of my mind.  Four years I later, when I was in a difficult moment of growth, I called him up and asked him if he’d be willing to to set aside two hours a month to talk with me about the big questions I was wrestling with.  Now, he’s one of the most important people in my professional life.

A few contributors mentioned issues of Power, but Ian David Moss from Factured Atlas & Createquity made it his central topic. After a lengthy admonition about abuse of power which included the first sentence below, he suggests people are often unaware of the power they possess and the effective, if seemingly mundane ways, in which it can be exercised.

Power is like a precious, poisonous metal: it requires care and professionalism in handling or people are going to get hurt.


Know that speaking up is always, always an exercise of power – no matter who you are. Know that asking uncomfortable questions is a way to change the course of a meeting, a policy discussion, a decision. Know that sharing your experience in a forum where it will be heard is an exercise of power. Know that doing so again and again is more powerful than doing so once, as tedious as that may seem to you.

Know that doing your job well, maybe even better than anyone else, is an exercise of power. Know that understanding what you’re good at is an exercise of power. Know that vacuums of leadership mean more power for you. You never need to let your title and salary have the final say on what you’re capable of.


Know that charging yourself to gain more knowledge, particularly knowledge that most people around you don’t have, is one of the most valuable and impressive forms of power you can exercise. And absolutely no one is stopping you from exercising that particular power starting right now.

Taken out of context, any one paragraph might come off as advice for ruthless ambition, but he figuratively starts and literally ends his contribution with the reminder that “…with power comes responsibility.”

Each of the contributors comes from a different place with their “lessons learned” essay, but generally offer insight of a similarly high quality. Bookmark it and allow yourself to read through it over time.

Is Anyone Really Reading This? Three Foundations Want To Know

A guest post today. Barry Hessenius asked if I would spread the word about study being conducted by the Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and WESTAF who are looking into the ways in which the non-profit arts field communicates.

They are seeking answers to many of the basic questions we all ask like, “Is anyone really reading any of this and is it useful to them?”

Those who complete the survey will be entered into a drawing for an Apple Watch and a separate drawing for a $500 cash award to your organization. Read on to learn more.

The Knight Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and WESTAF are sponsoring a preliminary study on Communications within the nonprofit arts field, and have invited our members to join them by taking a brief national survey.

They want to make absolutely sure that the grantmaking community within our field is adequately represented in this survey.

This study seeks to gain valuable information on:

• How we communicate internally with each other
• How we communicate externally within the sector
• How we manage the growth in all communications
• What the impact is on our organizations of that growth in communications.

No one disputes that communication is at the core of every business, including the arts nonprofit sector. If we don’t communicate effectively success is problematic.

Oddly enough there has never been any comprehensive survey of how we in the nonprofit arts field communicate – internally or externally.

As a field, we have virtually no data at all as to:

• which means and methods we prefer to use to communicate,
• whether or not the means we do choose are effective,
• how we manage our communications
• where we get our information from, and
• which sources we trust.

Moreover, we have no information as to how we are coping with the dramatically increased information that flows from, and to, us on a daily basis.

Do you know if people read the reports, studies, and just general information you send them? Do they scan it or read it all, or do they ignore it if you are not one of their trusted sources?

Do you know if your staff considers the onslaught of information a positive or a negative in doing their jobs?

Do you know how many emails your staff deals with each day and how many hours a week they spend on different types of communications?

They have designed a basic, simple online survey that will give us all some base information on our communications behaviors, habits and perceptions.

The survey is 100% check off answers, with no open ended, narrative responses required or asked for.

It is completely anonymous and designed to take less than 20 minutes to complete.

While they cannot pay a fee nor provide a premium to every person / organization that takes the survey, they will, at the request of each survey responder, enter their name into a random drawing for an Apple Watch. We will also enter the name of the responder’s organization into a separate random drawing for a $500 cash award payable to that organization.

The survey seeks to establish a base line of data and information about communications within our sector, on which can be built further research. The aim is to
gain knowledge that will help us all to communicate more effectively, more efficiently and with a greater awareness of the issues and challenges inherent in all our communications decisions.

To that end they will disseminate as widely as possible the analysis of the results of the survey.
Here is the link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Knight-Hewlett-Survey

The survey is open from September 28th to October 16th.

Hey Did You Hear About…

I was really surprised to find my name tucked at the bottom of Barry Hessenius’ 2014’s Top 50 Most Powerful and Influential People in the Nonprofit Arts (USA) In fact, since I read his blog via Feedly and had caught up with my subscriptions on Saturday, I might not have read the post for another week if it weren’t for someone tweeting that Robert Bush from Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council made the list.

It’s not that I don’t think what I produce is worthwhile, it is just that I don’t perceive the old blog here as having that high a profile.

Now, of course, there is pressure to meet the standard set by the company I am listed in.

But Barry’s list dovetails nicely with the subject I intended to address today: cooperation and competition in the arts. Last month, Seth Godin observed that authors don’t compete with each other.

Yet, not only do authors get along, they spend time and energy blurbing each other’s books. Authors don’t try to eliminate others from the shelf, in fact, they seek out the most crowded shelves they can find to place their books. They eagerly pay to read what everyone else is writing…

Can you imagine Tim Cook at Apple giving a generous, positive blurb to an Android phone?

And yet authors do it all the time.

It’s one of the things I’ve always liked best about being a professional writer. The universal recognition that there’s plenty of room for more authors, and that more reading is better than less reading, even if what’s getting read isn’t ours.

It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s an infinite game, one where we each seek to help ideas spread and lives change.

Even though the limits of funding, revenue generation opportunities and audience free time make existence as an arts organization or artist seem like a zero sum game, my experience starting about 15 years or so has been that arts people are generally pretty supportive of the work of colleagues in both word and action. They will tell their friends about interesting events and invite them along when they attend.

That hasn’t always been my experience. About 20 years ago, I feel like there was a lot more “us vs. them, we do the real art in this town” attitude. It has seemed over time the people I have worked with have espoused this view less and less.

Which isn’t to say that people aren’t envious of other organizations’ funding base; think other organization’s programming needs to be more diverse; think the annual awards ceremony for their community is all political; and aren’t befuddled by the more abstract and conceptual extremes of artistic expression.

Godin cites the intense rivalry of Pepsi and Coke as the antithesis of the relationship authors share. I mean, be honest. Haven’t you held your breath a moment when pouring Coke into a cup printed with a Pepsi logo, imagining the cup will melt? Have you ever mixed Pepsi and Coke together, standing at arm’s length expecting a reaction similar to dropping Mentos into a bottle of diet Coke, if not an explosion? That is how apparent the rivalry of the two companies is to the general public.

It would be hard to imagine Pepsi or Coke tweeting about members of other companies showing up on a list of the most influential and powerful people in the beverage industry.

But watch who calls attention to Barry Hessenius’ list over the next couple days. I bet you will find that the majority of those who do, don’t work for the same companies and organizations as those named. There may even be former employers and co-workers celebrating the attention someone has received. As Godin noted, there is a recognition that the success of one enhances the prestige and fortunes of the many.

Hey did you hear that Nina Simon, Laura Zabel and Donna Collins made the list?

I’m My Own Idea Czar

La Piana Consulting blog had a post a few weeks ago about how the dynamics of non-profits can crush new ideas and creative approaches to problems.

Their last suggested solution to avoid this is to appoint an “Idea Czar”:

“Appoint an “Idea Czar” from outside the senior management ranks. This person becomes a human suggestion box, an ombudsman for creativity. Anyone with a novel idea that might answer a current challenge is invited to share it with the Idea Czar, who periodically reports on what he or she has learned at management team or board meetings. Then use those reports to dive deeply into a specific question that piques the particular group’s interest or that the CEO would really like the board’s or management team’s best thinking on.”

I walked around most of today pondering whether this could actually work. I mean, it would require someone with enough seniority and experience to be taken seriously by management, but who also hasn’t been around so long that they are cynical about the viability of ideas. Even if the didn’t discount them immediately, they would need to be idealistic and energetic enough to effectively advocate for the idea in the face of a resistant board and senior management.

I recognized fairly early on that in my venue the idea czar would be our assistant theatre manager. (I am fairly idealistic, but she tops me.) This made me realize that it isn’t enough to appoint someone on staff into the position, if you really want to break out of a status quo, the hiring process has to involve actively recruiting people who possess idealism and strength of character to advocate in the face of a tendency to say No.

Apropos of this, Barry Hessenius posted this week about how one can be their own best/worst gatekeepers in terms of openness to “good ideas, new thinking and ways to actually be better managers, administrators and leaders; opportunities for new projects, collaborations and ways of seeing our world.”

Just as this problem of gatekeeping can manifest on both a personal and organizational level, the solution can probably be implemented on a personal and organizational level.

It probably isn’t enough to appoint a person to be the company idea czar if the board and administration are going to perpetuate an environment that is hostile to new ideas. Management and leadership should practice self-advocacy by setting aside time each week to entertain new ideas in the same way 3M, Google and Hewlett-Packard give employees time each week to develop new ideas and products.

Management and leadership might use this time to read websites they bookmarked, jot down what interesting ideas they have and then go back to ideas they jotted down in previous sessions. I think this last step is important because realizing you had forgotten some of the great ideas you had had weeks before serves to reinforce that fact you have the capacity to have good ideas.

Even if none of those ideas ever travel from the idea journal into practice within the company, the very act of engaging with new ideas, looking at them, turning them over a little, before putting them away, helps the mind practice accepting and handling new ideas rather than simply rejecting them.

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