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Part 1: 4 things every arts organization should do to set up their new hire for success

"Scrabble - Now Hiring" by amtec_photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It's exciting to see arts organizations announcing seasons, reopening galleries, and ramping up operations! I've also seen many organizations hiring staff to fill posts that have been left vacant. All good signs of the industry moving back towards full momentum.

Over the years, I have witnessed an all-too-often unspoken challenge that many organizations face. This challenge leaves the new hire hamstrung and organizational leadership scratching their heads and wondering what they could have done differently. The all-too-often scenario looks something like this:

After an organization advertises and fills a vacant position, the new hire is set up with a start date. The new hire got an "orientation" on their first day, which consisted of HR paperwork, receiving a copy of the employee handbook, and a tour of the office. Sometimes the new hire was taken to lunch by their colleagues. The rest of their first week included meeting individually with other staff and constituents to learn more about the organization and its history.

At the beginning of their second week, the new hire was expected to get to work and be fully up to speed. A weekly meeting (usually for 30-60 minutes) with the executive was scheduled to ask questions and share their plans. With sincerity, the executive offers to be available as much as the new hire needed but finding time in the executive's schedule ends up being tricky. Because of an overburdening schedule, the executive ends up defaulting to their colleagues to answer questions, who only explain what the last person did. This leaves the new hire unsure of expectations from leadership, to potentially repeat ineffective processes, and miss critical information.

Sound familiar? I’ve hired dozens of staff over my career as a chief executive and know the relief of putting out one fire (filling the job), so I could move on to the other fires requiring my attention. I truly understand the juggling act involved from a leadership perspective. Even with the best of intentions, the reality is that this all-too-common scenario does not set the new hire, executive, or the organization up for success.

There are generally three types of new hires:

1. Someone with experience at an arts organization in their area of responsibility

2. Someone with experience outside of the arts in their area of responsibility

3. Someone without experience but has studied their area of responsibility

The first type of new hire is one we all aspire to recruit, and they are the ones who come with the highest price tag. These are typically individuals looking to progress in their career by moving either to a similar job at a larger organization or to a job with greater responsibilities. They come to your organization with a knowledge of practices that have and have not worked. They have a breadth of understanding of the job and don't require a lot of direction.

Before the pandemic, experienced candidates were difficult to come by if you were a small or mid-size arts organization. After the pandemic, the abundance of arts job openings makes hiring experienced staff even more difficult.

If you can't find (or afford) an experienced arts professional, most managers look for experienced candidates outside of the arts field. This can have several benefits: 1) it expands the pool of local candidates; 2) it brings a different perspective to your organization and 3) it can reduce the amount of time to fill the position.

While the new hire knows your community and their responsibilities in general, they may not begin with a long-term view for approaching their work. Their focus may be on immediate goals without understanding how decisions made today will impact future results. It takes many months to realize the relationship between short-term decisions and long-term results.

Another approach, especially for smaller budget organizations, is to look for a candidate that may not have experience but shows great potential. These candidates usually have the lowest price tag, making them an attractive option. They often start bright-eyed with lots of energy and passion for their work. All admirable qualities!

The hurdle with these candidates, of course, is the lack of hands-on experience. While there is an enthusiasm to learn and try new things, they have not yet had the opportunity to approach their work strategically. The executive is more than capable of coaching them on best practices and provide the individual encouragement and coaching they need to succeed, but capacity with any leader is a reality that should not be overlooked.

When Part 2 is published next week, I'll share the four things every arts organization should do to set up their new staff for success regardless of the type of candidate you hire.


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