Happy New Year

I have the sense of new beginnings twice a year: once in January and again at the beginning of September.  This is the time of year when the new arts seasons begin, when everyone offers their best back-to-school bargains, and many of us experience the overwhelming urge to sharpen pencils. As we begin our unofficial new year, some of us have had vacations away from work or, in other cases, a slower summer season.  We contemplate cleaning off our desks (in case we need a place for the newly sharpened pencils), working differently, signing up for a new class, or looking for a new job.  I’ve found these transitional moments to be the ideal times to work with a coach.  Whether you want to reexamine your professional strengths, consider a new career path, or strategize about new challenges – the right coach can make all the difference. However, I’ve discovered that folks often aren’t sure what to look for in a coach and how to choose the person who will be most helpful for them. Here are my suggestions for choosing a coach:

1. Decide whether you want coaching face-to-face or by phone.  The advantage to coaching by phone is that it’s usually easier to schedule and you can choose the coach that’s the best fit for you regardless of where either of you live.  The advantage of face-to-face coaching is that some people find they can understand each other more quickly and easily.  I prefer to do coaching by phone because I have found that it allows people to be less self-conscious and therefore more frank.

2. Make sure that you are compatible in terms of style. Most coaches offer a free get-to-know you session.  Ask them to talk about how they work.  Think about what you most need (gentle, firm, tough, etc.).  Be honest with yourself.  Trust your instincts.

3. Make sure that you are also comfortable with the coach.  You need to be able to communicate easily with them.  You will be wasting both your time and money with this person unless you are able to be open and honest with them.

4. If you don’t know them, check their references.  Ask to communicate with someone they have coached.

5. Consider their background.  In addition to their coaching skills, if you want a coach to help you improve your career or get a new job, ask them how well they know your field. I also think it’s important to ask them about the coaching they have received.  Coaches who have never been coached may be less able to understand both sides of the coaching relationship.

I hope that’s helpful.  However you decide to celebrate –  Happy New Year!

Mergers and Marriages

The economic, technological, and demographic changes that have happened over the past few years have led to several terrific collaborations, many thoughtful discussions, and some powerful partnerships within the nonprofit arts community. They have also led to some strange bedfellows. 

We have seen a higher-than-usual number of mergers among arts and cultural organizations over this time period.  Although I was not involved with them at the time of their mergers, I am now working with several of these organizations to help smooth staff, board, programming, and financial issues.  I’m also working to help them rebuild trust and regain their optimism.

I find myself comparing mergers to marriages. These organizations flirted with each other and then came together with a lusty attraction to something the other organization had that they wanted.  They may have been drawn to a more visible reputation.  They may have been assured of additional financial, real estate, or artistic assets.  Perhaps the attraction was to the other organization’s list of well-respected board members. 

Now, two or three years have passed since their merger, and reality has arrived in full force.  Plans and promises that were made during the soft light of courtship may not be going as expected, and ghosts from the past may be coming forward to haunt the newly merged entity. 

I believe that the root cause for many of these transition snags is a lack of absolute frankness and honesty between the arts organizations during their period of negotiation.

Flirting and casual dating are great fun, and all parties are on their best behavior.  But serious relationship building calls for transparency and truthfulness.   It also calls for a thoughtful examination of internal and external challenges. When an organization is frustrated with their leadership, decreases in audience numbers, or a shaky financial position, a shiny new collaboration or merger may not be the best solution for the long term.

Instead, start with a reexamination of your organizational mission.  Take slow steps.  Be honest, and demand the same from others.  Consciously make a commitment to let go of the “us vs. them” thinking.

And always get a prenup.

Challenge is Terrific; Toxic is Not

Most people choose to work in the nonprofit arts because of their passions and commitments.  Some assume that longer hours, greater stress, and smaller paychecks are part of that bargain.  Everyone has deadlines, financial pressures, and organizational challenges on top of board members, coworkers, and funders.    When you mix a group of passionate arts folks together with long hours and the stresses that come along with a nonprofit organization, the work environment can feel like the inside of a locked-down, sealed-tight, steamy pressure cooker.

Each of us has to decide for ourselves when our work is challenging and when it surpasses challenging and becomes toxic.  I recently had a conversation with the leader of a nonprofit arts organization.  As this person talked, I realized they felt undervalued and undermined by their board and staff. They faced most days with dread and heavy sighing.  Regardless of how advantageously their position may be viewed by others, it is poisonous for them to continue working in their current environment.

While we may feel an incredible sense of loyalty to our art form, our organizational mission, and our colleagues, we owe it to ourselves to also take responsibility for our emotional health and well-being.  Working in the nonprofit arts does not require that we spend our time in an unhealthy environment.  We would not continue working in a building if the air was known to be full of dangerous particulates or continue drinking water that we knew to be harmful, so why would we dismiss the toxic effects of an organization on our health?  None of us should accept ongoing disrespect because of our commitment to the arts or to an arts organization.

Learning to identify the differences between healthy challenges and toxic environments is critical. In the former, we learn and grow. In the latter, we are stifled and stagnate, Drawing the line does not mean that you are not committed to your organization or your mission; it can allow you to position yourself to find greater professional satisfaction and personal wellbeing.  And there are plenty of healthy arts organizations out there!  Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself.

Organizational Balance

When organizations go through transitions and changes, they often lose their organizational balance.  Whether the executive director has resigned or the term of a community-engaged Board Chairman has come to an end, the balance changes and an organization can find itself struggling for stability.  And it’s not just a leadership change that can cause this potential loss of steadiness.  This imbalance can also occur as the result of a public relations crisis, a dramatic financial change (either up or down), or the loss of a significant program, patron, or venue.

During my first year of college, several of my friends decided to help me recover from a breakup with my boyfriend.  To make a long story short – I drank way too much. They eventually took me to my room and put me down on my bed.   When they came back to check on me, I complained that the room was spinning and I couldn’t make it stop.  My friends explained to me that I had to put my foot on the floor in order to regain my equilibrium.

When an organization seeks to regain its equilibrium during times of change, transition, or crisis, all of the players need to put their feet down.  They need to find ways to be solidly grounded in the core mission.  Some organizations are best served by focusing internally and others succeed by going to their community and solidifying their role as part of that community.  Many organizations scale back and simplify their programming until they can stop the spinning and find their footing once again.

What’s your experience?  How does your organization maintain its balance?