Skills we don’t know we have

by Jini Stolk

I hadn’t thought about it in these terms until I read this brief post in Nonprofit Quarterly. Could it be that the success of many arts managers rests on an unrecognized skill – that of being dauntlessly determined to succeed no matter how difficult and terrifying the situation?

It sounds right to me and I could reel off the names of GMs I’ve known whose eyes lit up with excitement when faced with doing the impossible on no budget. No wonder companies find it difficult to replace these warrior managers when they leave.

Because it’s equally true that the stress of many arts managers rests on that same factor. Maytree’s Five Good Ideas recently featured Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO of the Wellesley Institute, talking about stress management and resiliency. He posted an illuminating link to “The Inverted-U model” which shows that peak performance is achieved when people experience a moderate level of pressure (not an endless series of days with nothing but.)

That’s why one of the findings in the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts’ (TAPA’s) recently released Stats Report Phase Four is so alarming for the future of our industry. Despite increasing numbers of productions and performances, TAPA members report a decline of more than 50% of full-time and part-time artistic and non-artistic staff in the past decade. If this is true, then managers’ ability to dance on the head of a pin is not sustainable.

What do you think, my friends? Is this an urgent enough reason to rally behind a full-out push for increased funding to the Ontario Arts Council?

Let’s also spend a moment on an equally interesting counterpart: skills we don’t know we don’t have.

Denny Young in Hilborn: Charity e-news says that “If we’re having trouble with our boards, tension, lack of trust, micro-managing or lack of engagement, it might be because we’re not managing our boards and their succession” well.

Ask yourself if these are among the skills you use in your leadership role as the manager of an arts organization:

  • Are you always recruiting new board prospects; watching for future leaders: identifying, cultivating and bringing forward new members? Do you have a succession process and system in place?
  • At board meetings do you bring reports that show your vision, leadership ability and competence?
  • Do you credit your board when they make important decisions that move the organization forward? Do you report back to them so they know the results of their actions?
  • Do you understand that in your day-to-day relationship with board members, information is power – especially when shared? Do you inform board members between meetings of what’s going on? Do you take the time to meet with them one on one on issues they’re most interested in?

Denny Young ends his post by asking “Is this a lot of work? Yup.  But isn’t managing interfering, mistrusting Boards harder?”

I would add one more skill to his list.

  • Do you share with your board members the context and endemic challenges of running professional arts organizations? Do you recruit them to be “creative champions”, speaking out on behalf of the arts to elected officials and other decision-makers?

Isn’t it harder to achieve positive change for the arts without involving all our most passionate supporters in the effort?





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