Touchstone for Turbulent Times
Not long ago, a modern dance company came perilously close to giving its last performance. At fault was neither a sudden exodus of talent nor a financial crisis. The problem lay in its strategic plan – a plan that, ironically, had succeeded beyond every hope and expectation.
This plan marked a departure for the company, whose sole mission was centered on the work of its founder. Although she had always created the choreography, music, lighting, and costumes herself, she enthusiastically endorsed the plan, which for the first time called for collaborations with other artists. Collaborations, it was believed, would generate more touring dates and, thus, increase funding and exposure for the dancers.
It worked. The company secured more touring dates – and more funding – than ever before. The plan seems to be a resounding success. Yet by the tour’s conclusion, the company was on the verge of disbanding. Why?
More than a New Leader
The CEO is under siege. Restive shareholders have grown impatient with quarter after quarter of flagging financial results. Customers are confused by the company’s seemingly rudderless direction. Dispirited employees perceive, understandably, a leadership vacuum.
Finally, in a closed-door denouement, the CEO is unceremoniously ousted by the board of directors like the hapless coach of a third-rate football team. The call goes forth for a new chief executive, a visionary with the proven ability to generate and manage change.
The characters and their industries may differ, but the essential elements of this drama are being played out in more and more corporate boardrooms across America. Why?
Beyond the Looking Glass
From childhood, it seems, we learn to appreciate that among all the various ways of maintaining good health, one practice stands out: the regular checkup.
It’s easy to see why. A checkup provides an objective rundown of your present condition. It can identify a potentially serious problem long before you’re conscious of it. Often, it spots trends that tell you it’s time to shed a few pounds, set aside the salt shaker or pull out the jogging togs. At the very least, it can confirm what most people wish to be true – they’re just fine, thank you.
Checkups are common in the business world, too, where quarterly and annual reports and financial audits are a way of life. And in the classroom, report cards give students (and their parents) a regular progress update.
Despite these practical benefits to individuals and organization alike, this idea of periodic assessment, of taking a hard look in the mirror, is neither widely nor regularly practiced within the nation’s cultural community. We think it should be. In this paper we make a case for the “checkup” or, as we formally refer to it, the organizational analysis. Why?
“The best way to predict the future is to plan for it.”
- Peter Drucker
When it comes to successfully predicting the future, some might question the value of actually trying to do so. And, it’s true: the future can be forecast with neither surety nor precision. Yet those who make little or no attempt to chart their future will find themselves in the unenviable position of merely reacting to the ongoing, often fast-paced, and sometimes brutal changes in the competitive environment.
In that regard the famous management guru quoted above is giving sage advice. After all, if you do not know where you are heading, how can you plan to get there? And if you do not do some careful reflection upon the changing environment in which you operate, how can you design the best heading?
A difficult environment may discourage some from engaging in strategic planning – after all, why plan when so much can change so quickly? Yet it is precisely during turbulent times that a clear, firmly-grounded sense of direction is most valuable.
A Challenge to Serve
How does a board of trustees best serve a cultural institution? There are hundreds of how-to books that tell boards everything they need to do to run their institutions more effectively. These books give detailed prescriptions for effective fundraising, hiring and monitoring the executive, financial oversight, risk management and policy oversight – the traditional purview of the board. These books also deal with the make-up of the board – how many members, how many of those members should be lawyers, and on and on. With all of these books and all of their advice, you’d think that by now few boards would need organizational help. But in our work – and we’ve worked with hundreds of boards over the years – we continue to find organizations that have serious, ongoing problems. The traditional advice and how-tos haven’t worked.
The Key to the Future
Are leaders born or made? It’s an age-old question, but one that is exceedingly pertinent to today’s cultural community. The answer, at the risk of sounding too clever, is yes: some leaders are born and some are made. We’ve all seen born leaders – those firebrands who spring fully formed onto the scene, inspiring the devotion of staff and patrons alike, whose every step is absolutely, magically right. We’ve also seen leaders who are made, often, self-made; they start out as ordinary mortals in love with their particular disciplines and develop into courageous, inspiring leaders by virtue of hard work and close attention to what they are doing. It is this latter group and those who aspire to it that we have in mind as we write this essay. We believe that, yes, leaders can be made; whether they come to work in shirt sleeves, three-piece suits or leotards, executives can become better and more effective at their jobs by consciously cultivating the qualities of outstanding leadership.
More Than Just A Title
Perhaps one of the most undervalued, yet one of the most critical, posts in today’s cultural organization is the Chair of the Board of Trustees1. The Chair2, selected from among his or her fellow trustees, must find effective ways to ensure that the board provides the proper balance of authority and responsibility for the governance of the organization, while sustaining what can sometimes be a precarious partnership between trustees and the organization’s CEO3.
A Chair who does a good job is often invisible; artistic and cultural pursuits take center stage and the organization thrives. Invisible, however, does not mean absent or inactive. On the contrary, at Management Consultants for the Arts, Inc., we have worked with cultural organizations of all kinds, and over the years we have found that among the most successful are those whose Chair is the facilitator of a strong partnership between the trustees and the institution’s CEO. This partnership is so vital to the organization that we see the selection of the Chair as being nearly equal in importance to that of the CEO.