Bad Habits of Arts Organizations (First in a Series)
May 18th, 2015
I read an article by Lolly Daskal from Inc. a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Daskal generally writes about leadership topics, but this post, “8 Deadly Ways to Kill Employee Motivation,” focused more on the organization, rather than the individual.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Daskal’s observations and my own experiences, particularly when working with small and mid-sized arts organizations. I’ve borrowed her wisdom – I hope she won’t mind – and placed it in the context of concerns I often hear from arts organizations. Except instead of “deadly ways” to hurt an organization, I’ve termed these bad habits. They are breakable, but perhaps not without a fight.
Bad Habit #1: Failure to apportion limited resources creatively in line with strategic priorities.
Arts organizations are hurting for money. I get it. I live it in my role as a faculty member at an art school, in my flat-fee arrangements with clients, and in my full inbox of worthy requests for support.
But luckily, no one is better at working creatively than those that run arts organizations.
And when they take the time to think about strategic priorities, arts organizations excel at finding creative ways to accomplish those priorities by spending in creative ways.
To borrow the proverb, a successful arts organization puts its money where its mouth is. It remains focused on its mission, and ways to grow deliberately in line with its priorities. Successful arts organizations rarely look for quick ways to find resources, whether those “quick” ways are streams of earned revenue that aren’t quite connected to the mission or a new exciting funding opportunity that creates more new excitement rather than long-term success.
But there is a related corollary: Successful arts organizations recognize the assets within their people… And invest in them accordingly.
Daskal includes a lack of professional development and a lack of appreciation as two deadly ways of killing employee motivation. Both require limited resources… But not always money. Professional development “enables learning and growing among people” she argues, and ensures employees are valued for where they want to be… Not simply where they are. Professional development creates value for the employee and value for the organization. But such development takes time and a bit of intention. And occasionally money.
Gone are the days where employees attend boondoggle conferences that are a complete waste of time. (Mostly.) In my experience, employees will tell you exactly what they want to learn and grow, how they want to learn it, and why it is relevant to them (which may or may not be closely related to the organization). But the organization – with a little management – can help the employee relate his or her experience to the organization. If he enrolls in a MOOC, he can present his learning to his peers. If she attends a conference, you can ask her for a report of her learning and a list of three new contacts. She can even start a networking group after the conference for those she met.
By challenging the employee to generate specific goals following the learning and share the learning with the organization, the organization maximizes both time and money.
And the employee has a much greater incentive to prioritize professional development that matters to him or her.
But professional development doesn’t have to be a formal course, workshop, or conference. I love having a professional development book fund. (In fact, I love it so much, I have to increase the budget for this item annually.) Establishing a book fund, or even a resource library for employees to borrow books creates a sense of community and a very low-cost opportunity for learning.
Organizations occasionally assume that employees are primarily motivated by money; actually appreciation can come from a variety of sources in a variety of ways. Opportunities for valuable professional development can replace an annual bonus. Flexibility and autonomy or even a change in titles or an opportunity to lead a new initiative can take the place of salary increases.
I’m not saying underpay your employees. Pay them a fair wage: one that is in line with your priorities and growth as an arts organization. But if that still isn’t high enough, don’t forget about the non-financial appreciation you can share with your employees.
They’ll appreciate it. And so might you.
Stay tuned for our next post on this subject: Bad Habit #2: Inability to Corral Toxic People (or Those with Excessive Enthusiasm).