(The first in what I plan to be a series of articles on arts administration and volunteer board development.)
Many arts organizations begin their existence with a single artist–an Artistic Director/Founder supported by a volunteer board and perhaps some paid staff members in administrative support roles. Some arts organizations begin and end with this configuration, not living past the lifespan of their founding artist.
Others through growth or succession-planning begin to contemplate hiring their first General Manager or Executive Director . If your organization is at this point then this article is for you.
It’s natural that in the selection process that Boards focus on finding the best candidate for their position and articulating the new role of General Manager or Executive Director in their organization. Most do this well and there is a lot written about finding the right candidate.
However, what most organizations in this position don’t think about doing–and where there is little guidance available–is to take the time to consider how the Artistic Director’s role is going to change, how the Board’s role is going to have to change to accommodate the new manager, and how the day to day life of the organization will change.
Without prior organizational planning and consultation about what responsibilities and authority the Artistic Director wants to surrender or is willing to surrender, the new General Manager or ED is going to be launched on a collision course and the organization will have a rough adjustment process. It will be very difficult for the new manager to be the change-management facilitator. Failure rates for first managers are high.
You know you want your manager’s job description to complement the role of the AD, but, do you really know what your founding Artistic Director does in the organization or are you basing this on assumptions? Don’t just ask him/her. You need to actually observe how time is spent. It may prove to be a different picture than the Board imagined. This observation can be accomplished best by job shadowing on a few days scattered through as long a period as possible. At the very least, much less reliably, ask your AD to keep a time chart for a week to indicate how time is spent.
What excites your Artistic Director? What part of the job do they really love and will they find hard to share or relinquish? Again, don’t just ask them, but observe and reflect on past experience. They may believe that they love artistic planning but if planning is always late and haphazard but grant applications are always masterful and ontime, then the assertion that artistic planning is top priority might be suspect. Our actual priorities are not always the same as what we believe our priorities should be. Ignore this and you may hire an excellent grant writer as a manager but your AD, who it turns out loves the “thrill of the hunt” that grant applications entail, may refuse to surrender the grantwriting. Meanwhile your artistic and production planning may continue to be late and haphazard because no one in the organization is priorizing that work. If you have an AD who is best at some of the administrative roles associated with a manager, maybe you need a different configuration to complement that business savey. Perhaps you need an Artistic Administrator or Producer role.
Once you have done your homework on the strengths, weaknesses and interests of the AD, you are ready to construct a job description for your new manager that complements your Artistic Director. Be aware of clusters of responsibilities so as not to create fragmented roles that are unworkable.
Next consider the authority that must match the responsibilities that you have given each role. Imagine and forsee likely scenarios. For example, if you have given the Artistic Director full power over artistic planning and the new manager the responsibility for maintaining the organization’s positive bottom line, what happens when the Artistic Director proposes a project that is not in the budget? Can the manager veto the project? Does the Board need to amend the AD’s job description to require him/her to seek budget approval? This is a central issue that is the downfall of many AD/ED relationships. It needs to be understood by all members of the Board that vetoing a project because it is too costly or too late in the planning cycle for successful integration in the season, is not artistic interference. If the authority is not given to the manager in this instance then what will the process be? Will the Finance Committee of the Board make the decision?
Who ultimately is in charge? This may seem like a simple question but I have experienced an organization where the Board President on hiring the new manager believed that new role was one of sole organizational leadership, the new manager believed their role was one of joint leadership and the AD believed that he continued to be the overall organizational leader. Spell this out and make sure everyone is on the same page. Does your organizational chart reflect the correct structure? Have you changed the organizational constitution and bylaws if needed to reflect the new management role? Is your salary structure consistent with the organizational chart? For example, do you have someone paid as an outside consultant who is shown as an employee or manager on your org. chart? It is always dangerous and unethical to misrepresent an employee as a contractor but it is particularly inappropriate to have an outside contractor making day to day financial decisions and signing contracts for your company on a permanent basis. Yet some arts organizations don’t consider the implications of having staff report to a contractor. Some board members may be unaware that their ED or AD is paid through a private service contract.
Who supervises junior staff? If you assume it will be the new manager, does your AD appreciate that he/she can no longer ask the nearest person to research something for him/her? Be realistic. There may be need to assign some staff support to the AD but that should be spelled out. What happens when this step is neglected? In all likelihood, the AD will continue to function as they have in the past, directing junior staff as they see fit. Junior staff will have two bosses with conflicting assignments. Good staff will suffer while opportunistic staff will manipulate in various ways. Your new manager will have their authority compromised in a way that will be hard for them to recover from.
Consider the planning/activity cycle for your organization in light of the job description you are giving your new manager and consider where you may need to finetune other job descriptions. If you have asked the new manager to provide a budget by April of Year One for the Year Two starting August 1, then when does your Artistic Director have to provide a completed program? A deadline for artistic planning must be set a month or more before the budget deadline. If you have set a deadline for the development of a season brochure or catalogue then artist decisions and contracting must be completed well before this deadline. Failure to consider these relationships in the planning cycle will leave your organization in the dark as to why things are delayed.
If information is power, what about corporate communications? Is your AD willing to keep a manager in the loop on program planning? Or will the new manager learn first about projects by seeing work junior staff has been asked to perform? The communications requirements that you set in place at the outset will determine the directional flow of communications.
Is your Board ready and able to support the new manager’s role? Do you have a management committee in place? Is your Board stacked with personal friends of the AD, making it difficult for impartiality should conflicts arise? If so, you might want to consider expanding the Board with some new members. It’s great to share t
he AD’s vision as a Board, but you are also going to have to support your new manager. Lastly are there management roles that the board has taken on that now have to be signed over to the new manager. Often finance committee and marketing committee roles become less “hands on” with a new manager and this adjustment has to be foreseen and planned for.
Once you have considered all these questions, you should be in good shape to find a good manager for your organization and not lose time spinning your wheels in change mangement.