Wow, what a year! There was unprecedented uncertainty in the last 15 months – organizations made endless contingency plans, managers and boards making difficult decisions, and our realities were shifting every few weeks (or days). But one thing did become crystal clear: we were all going to be facing lots of changes.
I’m no exception to that unprecedented uncertainty. I had no idea that Nave Strategies was just weeks away from becoming a reality at the beginning of April 2020. When faced with my new reality, I had a lot of difficult decisions to make. There was one unwavering constant, however. I couldn’t envision working outside of the arts. I suspect many of you feel the same.
Because I hadn’t planned to start my own business, I’ve spent the past year listening to what arts organizations and managers need and how I could step up to meet those needs. As I reach the one-year anniversary of Nave Strategies, it seems a good time to share what I’ve observed and what led to how Nave Strategies has taken shape.
Observation #1: Talking through strategy with someone who has also sat in “the big chair” has substantial benefits.
The arts are not typically known for investing in its people, so I was intrigued to have a first-time executive ask me to be their thought partner and mentor. Parts of their new job were familiar and comfortable to them. Other aspects, not so much.
One example is how to work with the board and board leadership. I shared my own experiences (positive and negative) and how they may want to structure communications between meetings. We talked about what should be communicated to the entire board, how to balance asking permission versus doing, and the importance of keeping the board chair from being surprised.
Another example is structuring a formal evaluation of the executive. The evaluation draft shared with me had LOTS of detail and was nearly all quantitative. Our discussion led me to meet with the Governance Committee to explore what they wanted to achieve with the evaluation.
You may have heard the phrase “teaching to the test.” Getting so specific in the evaluation could focus the executive’s attention only on those items to the exclusion of unforeseen opportunities. While specific goals are appropriate and necessary, there should also be an element of qualitative evaluation to provide feedback on the executive’s judgment and vision.
While it’s difficult to put a specific dollar amount on the impact of this work (although we can to some extent), the board and the executive agreed the outcome was well worth the investment.
Observation #2: The longer you operate in austerity, the more difficult it becomes to be an effective leader.
I’ve had conversations with experienced managers leading organizations under tight financial restraints even before the pandemic. Think about printing internal documents on the blank side of previously used copy paper. The pandemic just added more pressure to the situation.
The first thing we talk about is work-life balance. I can sense some of you rolling your eyes right now. This is not about how to work a 40-hour week and turn it off until the next day. That’s unlikely even in good times. It’s about prioritizing work, changes to work habits, and learning how to say “no” or “not right now.”
Another way to think about this is how my spouse approached his job as a paramedic. We were watching TV one night and there was a scene with paramedics sprinting to a patient. I asked if any of that was remotely realistic. He said, “No way! I’ve never sprinted to a patient in the field.” That answer surprised me, so I asked why. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I moved quickly. But no matter how critical the patient, I can’t help if I hurt myself tripping on something while carrying all that equipment. You’ve got to take care of yourself so that you can help others.”
Observation #3: Thinking about the future can breathe new life into an otherwise tired organization.
How to combat burnout as the end of the pandemic restrictions are in sight is an increasingly popular topic (I wrote about how to address burnout in November 2020). While most of the attention is on combating individual burnout, I’ve observed that organizations can also become fatigued.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a manager and Executive Committee about what they want for their organization in the next five years. We started with a traditional SWOT analysis, and the results weren’t surprising to them. I decided to set that aside and ask about their hopes and dreams for the organization. It started with things like “increase donations” and “have sold out houses.”
I asked them to think about the “why” behind those goals. Then I asked them to think about the “why” behind their “why.” As we worked through this exercise, I could see their enthusiasm increase. They had spent the last year focused on the details and addressing the most urgent challenges. The conversation shifted from “what” to” why.” The “why” refocused their energy and provided the group with a newfound inspiration.
Change can either be a propelling or stifling force. Regardless of whenever that time comes, moving forward is positive momentum for solving challenges and pursuing opportunities. I have discovered over the last year that realizing a team’s true potential is that positive momentum forward for Nave Strategies and the focus of my work.