Category Archives: Management

Lean In, Recline – next we’ll be encouraged to levitate

“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers.” – Sheryl Sandberg

“Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.” – Rosa Brooks

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published well over a year ago – and yet, there are still conversations reverberating around cyberspace among both rabid fans and angry detractors. I jumped in the fray myself when I shared a Washington Post article on Facebook called “Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg)”. I was particularly struck by this article because it was written by Rosa Brooks, the former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and who also served as a State Department senior adviser. This is a woman whose workplace pressures dramatically exceed my own and it was, frankly, such a relief to read Brooks’ exhortations to “fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”

In the nonprofit sector, there is a tired old axiom that we are in this only for the greater good, that our passions are enough to fuel our work, that the rewards for driving positive change are all we need.

Not true.

Yes, many of us feel inspired by our work, and passionate about our causes. But the fuel we need is the stuff that goes in our gas tank that gets us from home to work every day, and the rewards we need are the kind that put food on the table and diapers on the toddler. And though we are willing to do this work for paychecks much smaller than our corporate counterparts, it feels wholly unfair to expect and ask us to take on more, build our networks further, and be even more productive as we struggle to simply get through the day. It reminds me of what my mother always said when I was an impatient child, begging for more, more, more: “I’m dancing as fast as I can.”

However, Sandberg, in Lean In, has two important points that resonate with me: first, she asks women to not disqualify ourselves for leadership positions because we aren’t sure we can do them, or because we believe our experience might be perceived as inadequate. Second, she asks us not to refuse leadership positions because we want a family.

I have a dirty little secret: before I accepted my current job, I asked the recruiting consultant to find out if maternity coverage was included in the health care package. I wasn’t sure if this was an appropriate question, but I wasn’t afraid to ask it. My then-job did not cover maternity, and it was truly a deal-breaker. I wasn’t about to have yet another barrier in my way to starting a family.

But many women likely do not feel they can ask questions like that, because they are frightened of scaring off possible employers, and exposing themselves to scrutiny about their priorities. But shouldn’t this kind of information be readily available, without the question even being asked?

On a separate note, what do we do about that fact that so many women, according to Sandberg, undervalue themselves and question their abilities? Certainly many women I know feel like the only way to prove their worth is to work themselves to utter exhaustion. I remember that one of the only days I ever knocked off early at my former job was when I managed to raise $50K in an hour during a lunchtime presentation. That was big potatoes for me at that time, and I allowed myself to leave at 3 PM to celebrate. I’m embarrassed to say that I prided myself on the ridiculous hours I worked, typed away at to-do lists when on phone calls, and went back to work after dinner far more often than I really needed to.

Brooks, in her Washington Post article, has answers for both the undervaluing, and the family issues. She says that we need to “fight the culture of workplace ubiquity” – i.e. the expectation that we are at our computers 24/7 and working all hours of the day and night – and to work on the gender imbalance that still dominates the home life, in that women still do the disproportionate share of housework and parenting.

Good suggestions, certainly. But there is also a great deal of snark and hateful language in Brooks’ article, and Sandberg seems a convenient punching bag for the frustrations of the pressures put on all of us. Why does even this conversation have to be so combative?

Sandberg wants us women to step into more leadership positions, to stop undervaluing ourselves, and to embrace the fact that we can have a family and a meaningful career. She’s also a gagillionaire whose perspective can be a little hard to swallow. Brooks wants us to fight for gender equality, and to make time and space in our lives to allow for more breathing, resting, and reclining.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, well, yes. To all of this. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It’s the how. And the how rests with those of us who are in a position to actually do something about this. I have some positional power where I can create an environment that supports leadership, families, and self-care. And I can advocate that others in my field do the same.

Our workload isn’t going to go away. The number of people who need our services in the nonprofit sector is not likely to shrink dramatically anytime soon. And our paychecks are not going to double, either. So what can we do, to ease the burden, to relieve some pressure, and to invite staff members – particularly women – to achieve these ideals?

I have some ideas, many of which I’ve written about before: flexible hours, the expressing of gratitude, rewarding great work (with cash, not just words, if you can!), investing in the personal and professional growth of staff members, encouraging (and insisting, if need be) staff members to take paid days off if they’ve been at full burn.

But I think it’s also important to be honest and vulnerable about our own struggles. I suppose that’s why, even with the snark, I appreciated Brooks’ article. Even though she is certainly a woman of much greater means and responsibility than me, she still seems grounded in the same challenges I face every day. And to have someone like her cry “UNCLE!” and say she can’t take it any more makes me feel relieved about hollering about it, too.

I’m bleeding money every month to cover the cost of daycare for two small children. I’ll miss seeing my family this holiday season because we cannot begin to afford the trip to New York. My three-month emergency savings that I built up as a single person has all but evaporated since my second child came along. I feel intense pressure around money on top of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to truly show up for my work and my family.

Comparatively, I’m incredibly fortunate. I make a decent salary, I’ve got a very flexible and supportive workplace, I’ve got a truly wonderful and brilliant husband, and I love my job and my colleagues. And yet, sometimes I feel I’ll collapse under the weight of the pressure not only to do more, but to also do better.

I have to wonder where this pressure comes from – this sick feeling that I’m always falling short. Do men experience this? Do dads spend many hours a day feeling torn in half between work and kids? Do they constantly battle feelings of inadequacy? Maybe, but in my experience, not nearly as much as women do.

I cannot begin to imagine what these work and family pressures must feel like for people in more difficult circumstances – whose salaries are terribly low, who are single parenting, who hate their jobs, who aren’t supported in their workplaces. I think it’s all well and good to invite each other to recline OR lean in but the invitation isn’t enough. Those of us with the capacity to create change in our organizations need to build in systems and cultures that allow people to work the way they want and need to while still ensuring productivity and encouraging passion. And we need to figure out why it’s so difficult for many women to enjoy an ongoing feeling of accomplishment and peace. As a very smart friend said to me recently, “Nobody needs to hold us back or do violence to us if we’ve internalized it.”

I’m on a path to try to figure this out, and to do something about it. If you have any brilliant ideas, I’m listening.

 

 

 

 

Accommodations

“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” – George Bernard Shaw

Two Fridays ago, I spent the morning with prison inmates, and the afternoon at a community celebration for breastfeeding.

One of the things I love about my job is that every day is different. There’s never a day when I’m working on the same thing for hours on end, and never a week that looks anything like the weeks preceding it. But that Friday was particularly charged, and frankly, challenging, as I spent the morning reeling with awe and gratitude, and the afternoon feeling both honored and frustrated.

My day began at the Rountree Medium Facility Jail in Watsonville. I was there because the Arts Council gave a grant to the incredible William James Association. The Association, through their Prison Arts Project, hired artist Arturo Thomae to work with the inmates to create a beautiful mural in the jail’s cafeteria. Ten of the inmates who worked on the mural spoke about the experience, and to a man, each expressed immense gratitude. “It took going to jail for me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time,” one of them told me. “It’s not going to be the last.” Another spoke about what it meant to have the opportunity to be transported, at least figuratively, from the jail, during the hours he got to paint. “It’s the only time I’ve not had to look at these four walls, and gotten to think about something other than what it’s like to be here.”

I admit that I went to this event with some apprehension, about what it would like to be there, and what it might be like to talk to incarcerated men. And I left humbled and floored and utterly grateful for the life I have – one of such privilege, which largely protected me from forces that could have landed me or my loved ones in a similar situation. These men may have done things that led to their incarceration. But they also chose to participate in a project to create beauty that they hope will last for decades. And they also – like everyone – need a creative outlet, maybe even one to inspire them toward building a different kind of life.

After leaving the jail, I rushed to pick up my boys and drove them to downtown Watsonville where the local chapter of Women, Infants & Children and many other partner organizations had organized the annual Breastfeeding Awareness March & Celebration. I was there to accept an award that is near and dear to my heart: the Family Friendly Workplace Award, with Breastfeeding Emphasis.

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This award, spearheaded by United Way Santa Cruz County, recognizes businesses that support their employees in their roles as parents. Sally Green, the Arts Council’s Development & Communications Director, and mother of one-year-old Sadie, nominated us.


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I’m thrilled we received this recognition, not because what we are doing is extraordinary, but because I hope the very existence of this award helps to move the needle to encourage workplaces to take better care of their employees.

I’ve heard so many horror stories – and been in the thick of them myself – about how workplaces seem to have been intentionally set up for people to fail, and I promise you that there are fewer people more vulnerable than new parents. I don’t think what we do at the Arts Council is revolutionary. At least, it shouldn’t be. But we do everything in our power to set everyone (parents, grandparents, younger employees, more seasoned staffers) up to be as successful as possible.

This is what Sally wrote in her nomination:

“Arts Council Santa Cruz County is a family friendly/family supportive workplace in so many ways – from flexible schedules, Family Leave and accommodation for breastfeeding/pumping to a spirit of welcome for children at events for both staff and the community. Executive Director Michelle Williams worked with the board to create a Family Leave policy that supports mothers and fathers, whether birth or adoptive parents. Staff with grandchildren is also afforded the flexibility to spend time with them to support their children, extending the family friendly and supportive atmosphere to the community. We are invited to bring our selves fully to our work, including our roles as parents and grandparents. “

I’m so delighted that Sally feels so supported. But I am deeply frustrated that what we do is not the norm.

If you are in a position of leadership at your organization, and you think that you could improve conditions for parents, grandparents, and caregivers, but for any reason you are hesitant to do so, I invite you to get in touch with me. If you fear that schedule flexibility will create laziness or a lack of engagement, I’ll quickly dispel that myth. If you think you can’t afford a leave policy, I’ll work with you to figure it out, and show you how employee retention is a LOT less expensive than recruitment. Are you an employee and want to create a campaign for a more family-friendly workplace? I’m your gal. I’ll help you all I can.

Think about this: what’s the quickest way to get a stranger to warm up to you? Ask them about their kids or their grandkids. What’s the quickest way to alienate a stranger (or even an old friend)? Insult their kids or grandkids. It’s the same deal in a workplace. The fastest way to make an employee feel welcomed or valued is to show them that you welcome and value their whole person – including the munchkins they may have at home.

I’m here at the Arts Council for the long haul. Why? Because I love my job, I admire and adore my colleagues, I have a super smart and engaged board of directors – but mostly, more than anything – they all let me be a mom.

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What can you do to make your workplace one that, even more, values the whole person? Join us in this movement. Let me know how I can help.

 

 

 

Practice

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham

In one day, I talked to 250 people, discovered the breadth of my personal biases, witnessed great work by dozens of researchers, administrators, and artists from around the world, and ate five mangoes. Where does such a thing happen? Museum Camp, at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.

Before, during, and after, I’ve been hard-pressed to describe what Museum Camp is. Part conference, part social experiment, part sleep-away camp, part Burning Man for research geeks, this 3 ½ day event brought together 100 people from around the world to “measure the immeasurable” – namely, “social impact assessment” – measuring the effects of a program in a community. We worked in small teams to choose research locations and then developed hypotheses that we then set out to prove, or disprove, in less than 48 hours. We had great coaches, a number of evaluation tools, and total freedom to create methods to engage or observe people and programs in action.

My team – the First Friday Brigade – was tasked with measuring the effects of First Friday on downtown Santa Cruz. We hypothesized that First Friday fuels a positive perception of downtown. We sort of proved our hypothesis was true – but more than that, I think we proved that the way things are measured have far too much influence on the results. That may seem obvious, but I think that realization was far more intense than anything else I learned over those several days.

We asked people to – in a word – describe First Friday. And this word cloud summarizes their responses. The words were about 98% positive – but this was likely dictated by two things. First, we had a huge hand-lettered colorful sign to draw people over, and we were dressed in capes and sparkles. I’m confident that people who responded to our survey self-selected based on our positive and colorful presentation. I think only people who love downtown and First Friday wanted to talk to us.

Second, I was a “barker” for the project, meaning I hollered and cajoled and bounced around trying to get folks to participate. And about fifteen minutes in, I realized that I was only targeting people whom I thought – for whatever reason, based on their appearance – would be willing to participate. As soon as I realized this, I gave myself a metaphorical slap in the face and worked on inviting every last person to participate. I got a lot more negative responses, but from there on out at least I felt I was doing my best to get a more random sampling.

This got me thinking about social bridging versus social bonding in my own life. Bridging and bonding are two things integral to the philosophy behind the Museum’s events. Bonding is what happens when preexisting social groups are brought together; bridging happens between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.

When I was “barking” to folks who looked like they might be happy to talk with me, I was attempting to “bond”. When I sought out folks who didn’t look like they might, say, belong to one of my mommy groups, I was seeking to “bridge”. That simple shift in behavior is so critical to building a stronger community, and yet it can be really difficult to tackle.

In the last few months, bridging has been at the top of my mind. It’s so easy for me to connect with people whose worlds I’m familiar with. Give me an audience of arts administrators and I’m perfectly comfortable speaking in our shared language. Stand me next in line at the grocery store with a woman with young children and I’ll likely have a new friend and a playdate scheduled for the next week. But change that dynamic in the least – if the kids are teenagers or the audience is, for example, construction workers (and yes, this happens in my line of work) and my latent introversion rears its ugly head and I have a terrible time finding a clear line to connect.

So, I’ve started a practice of bridging. I often talk to my husband about the practice of our daily lives – are we in a practice of grace and patience with our kids? Am I in a practice of integrity or just trying to squeak by? – and I find that I can only bridge when I am being keenly intentional about it, and practicing it regularly.

Our research project at Museum Camp was a great practice space. First of all, there were a hundred brilliant campers milling about the museum. Though we all were there for a common purpose, there was enough diversity in passions and backgrounds in that room to allow for intense bridging. And testing my own ability to bridge, over and over, in public (and in a cape) was a terrific and somewhat terrifying practice, too.

I’m grateful to have put myself in that uncomfortable space. I’m grateful that I was matched with some whip-smart people who allowed me to admit my biases and who were committed to our flawed but fun project.

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More than anything, I’m grateful that for 3 ½ days I was forced to hit a “reset” button in my life. I always want conferences to jar me a bit, to mix up my schedule dramatically, and to make me think differently, but they rarely deliver. Museum Camp delivered, with great conversation, truly interesting people, compelling research projects, fantastic coaches, and a very large box of mangoes to fuel our creative fires. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for next year’s Camp.

 

 

Sideways

“I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” – Kurt Vonnegut

 “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” – George Jessel

Most people want to belong to a peer group of like-minded others more than they want to accept facts.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. People need to feel a sense of belonging to such an extent that they will disbelieve irrefutable facts if those facts will separate them from their peer group. Fascinating, no? For instance, let’s say you are a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and you want to convince a group of Democrats that, say, requiring permits does not reduce violent crime. The worst thing you can do is tell this group of Democrats that 86.4% of Democrats believe that police permits should be required for gun ownership, even if your next statistic is one that indisputably demonstrates that permits do more harm than good in our legal system. (Obviously, I’m completely making that up.)

The Democrats – even after hearing your fantastic statistic – will only believe more strongly that the permits should be required, because unconsciously, their highest need is a sense of belonging to their peer group. By citing what that group believes, even though you follow it up with a statistic that refutes that belief, you’ve reaffirmed what they already believed rather than shifted their thinking. Changing their belief would mean separating themselves from like-minded people, and that is against our basic human hard-wiring.

So what do we do with this information?

I’ve just finished the second week of the Spitfire Strategies training and my head is spinning, even faster than it was last time. We learned about the “facts vs. peer group” phenomenon at the last session, but we’ve built upon it the last few days, and this idea – of cognitive dissonance – is making me rethink the fundamentals of our communications.

One afternoon during the training, we were treated to a precious hour with Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s science correspondent, who talked about unconscious biases and what really drives decision-making. The thrust of his talk was that in this country – unlike many others, particularly in Europe – we Americans are almost entirely motivated by independent motives rather than interdependent motives. Meaning, if we think something will better our own lives, we will be more motivated than if we think it will benefit the greater community more. For example, I will, with this logic, care more about the drinking water where my kid goes to school than I will about the health of the water in the greater Monterey Bay.

There are examples around this in both the left and right. “Gun rights” activists are more successful than gun control advocates because they make their case around personal liberty and safety and the right for individuals to bear arms. But pro-choice advocates are currently more successful than anti-choice advocates because the issue is such a personal, singular one about each woman having control over her own body.

Now while this priortization of individual good over collective good might be both disturbing and debatable, it is prevalent. And yet, the majority of our messaging at the Arts Council is centered around collective good. By our very nature, we connect people, we create gathering places, we inspire common dialogue, we strengthen schools, we reduce crime, we spark economic activity. These are the stories we tell. Less often do we talk about what it means to be personally engaged in the making of or enjoying the arts.

And yet, when we immerse ourselves in the arts, we are most fully present. When we are captivated by live theater, when we are dancing in a club or in our living room, when we are spending a solid hour mixing blue and white paint to perfectly capture the shade of a midday sky (and yes, I did that, once), both our hearts and our minds are completely engaged. And that is what it means to be truly present. It’s difficult to achieve that state outside of the arts, and yet we spend very little time making the case that the arts can actually make you feel better, make you happier. I can’t imagine a more personal, self-serving (in a positive way) motive.

But back to the facts.  And back to the fact that facts don’t matter. Perception is reality, and more than anything, people need to feel like they belong. So what do we do with this information?

The best part of this training has been learning all of the science around how our brains work, and what really drives our decision-making. And what we learned is that most people will simply never change their minds. And the more we throw facts at them to try to get them to change their minds, the more they will believe what they believed in the first place. There are people who will never think the arts are important. There are people who will continue to think being gay is a choice, or a sin. There are people who will deny climate change to their grave.

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“Follow the leaders”, or “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” – Isaac Cordal, Berlin, Germany, April 2011

So, what does all the science say to do with these folks?

Nothing.

There’s nothing to be done. Lock a progressive in a room with ten channels turned on Fox News and 24 hours later they’ll only be more of a lefty. The same would happen to a die-hard conservative locked up with MSNBC – they will emerge even more convinced of their original beliefs. What we need to do, instead of trying to change the minds of the masses, is energize our base. Fire up our most evangelistic supporters. Get them to influence that wee 15% or so of undecided folks in our community. Don’t soften our messages in hopes of gently winning the opposition. It won’t work, and it will cause defection in our ranks. Instead, message with hope, with passion, and with conviction, believing that we are on the winning team (even if it doesn’t feel like it) and if the opposition hates our message it means we hit the mark.

What if our opposition is loud, and maybe even wrong in their (to borrow from Steven Colbert) truthiness? That will only serve to energize our base, and throwing facts or statistics back at them is a waste of breath.

I find all of this a great relief. Yes, there are times when we need to change the minds of people who hold great influence over policy or funding or PR that dramatically affect our work. To these folks we cannot turn a deaf ear. But if we can energize our base, spark a movement, turn some of the undecideds into our evangelists, and put great social pressure on those decision makers, we will have created a peer group that the person of influence will, hopefully, want to join.

Sometimes the way in is sideways.

I’ve got much more to digest, but as I barrel through the sky at 35,000 feet, finally returning home to my sweet little boys, I’m thinking about how all of this applies to us in Santa Cruz. My friends and colleagues are all engaged in hard work to make Santa Cruz the most terrific and enlightened place on earth to live, work, and play. How can we use this information to better make our case, and change our world?

 

 

Involve Me and I Learn

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I’m told that babies and young children often have major developmental leaps after traveling. There is something about being in a new environment that inspires the brain to do something differently, or that triggers a new understanding. My three-year-old Andrew took his first two steps in the airport on Kauai, at the tail end of a two-week vacation in Hawaii. My one-year-old first figured out that softly cooing “mama, mama, mama” (as opposed to just nondescript moaning) was a very effective way of getting my attention in the middle of the night when we were staying in a hotel in Tahoe. These may have been coincidences. But I know that the only way I can inspire change in my tired, comparatively old brain is by getting out of Dodge and going somewhere that is completely “other”, and taking real time to think differently.

Day 3 of Spitfire was the perfect cap to this experience. Andy Goodman came back and showed us that if we could change the story, we could change the world. Meaning, if we can effectively communicate the problems we are tackling and the solutions our organizations provide, we can build the resources we need to better our communities. And in the afternoon, Lizz Winstead (co-creator of the Daily Show, comedian, and activist) talked to us about how humor is a fantastic tool for activism. She’s hilarious, and, more important, she’s fearless. And thoughtful.  And that is a powerful combination.

I learned a lot over these three days. I had a bunch of “aha” moments, and many more moments of great satisfaction as common sense, best practices, and my own passion for my work at the Arts Council all came together to illuminate great possibilities for my organization. And I realize that if we don’t integrate some of this learning, we’ll – in some ways – just spin our wheels and never fully realize the Arts Council’s full potential, and fall short of the additional tremendous impact we could have in this community.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing. It’s true that integrating what I learned into the Council’s work will take time and energy. But what would be worse: business as usual, or a little more work on our plates that will inspire the next era of Arts Council awesomeness?

The point is this: we all need opportunities to think differently. We all – as individuals and organizations – need great trainings, taught by wildly skilled instructors and attended by passionate, smart executors, so we can learn to, say, move in a different way (like a toddler’s first steps) or communicate in a different way (like a baby figuring out a deeply instinctive motivator for his mama).

In the nonprofit sector, when money gets tight, we generally cite “marketing” as the first thing to get slashed from a budget, and we bemoan the loss. I’m willing to bet, however, that professional development gets cut long before marketing.

My advice: DON’T DO IT. Don’t cut it. Fund it. Over-fund it. Got a professional development budget? Double it. Talk about it at every staff meeting. Champion it to your board. If you are a funder, be very, very smart like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation (oh, and wait, also like Arts Council Santa Cruz County) and invest in it for your grantees. If you are a staff member, and you find a training opportunity, and your organization can afford it, and the people who are running it look smart and savvy? Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. (Don’t even let your sweet little new baby hold you back from going – trust me on this, you’ll love the sleep.) Just do it.

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Some of the faces, and smiles, of folks working to better themselves so they can better the world

We’re all too busy, we’re all overcommitted, and I’m realizing that even as I tell that story about my own work life, I also find my “busyness” really boring. Enough already. Let’s all make a commitment to expand our minds, our social networks, our skills, and our lives by investing in the professional development of ourselves and our colleagues.

Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.

Proud Sponsors

“All truths are easy once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” – Galileo Galilei

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

I have a BFA in Musical Theater. It’s the kind of college degree that brings a smirk to many a face, as people assume I spent four years tap dancing and walking around in clown shoes. I did do both, at times, but I actually spent five years taking between 20-24 units a semester learning a deep curriculum in music, dance, and theater. Oh, and taking all of the “core” subjects required for a liberal arts college degree. Scoff if you will, but I learned how to put in the hours to get the job done, and my late-night cramming was often in the ballet studio as well as the library.

One of the most eye-opening courses I took was Directing 101. All actors need to try their hands as directors when learning the craft, and I found directing to be challenging on so many levels. Running a casting call, finding a set designer and light designer, working around numerous schedules, looking for both talent and “fit”, getting the group as a whole to deliver both professionally and artistically – it was tough work (and, years later, so very familiar).

The most enlightening element of the process was being on the other end during an audition. You quickly learn that the audition begins the moment the actor walks into the room – not the moment she begins her monologue or song. How she walks, how she interacts with the accompanist, how she introduces herself – all of it matters almost as much as her ability act or sing. Actually, the audition begins even before that – it begins when I read her resume. There I learn not just about her professional past, but how she presents herself, her writing ability, her professionalism, her artistry as expressed through simple things such as font, brevity, and design.

Being on both ends of the creative spectrum was helpful then, as it is now.

I’m back in a dual role, as the director of an arts council that is also a funder. The Arts Council is both a grantee and a grantor, at all times. We spend a great deal of time on fund development but even more time figuring out how to responsibly disperse much of those funds so they can have a profound impact on our community. I’m also aware that this dynamic may color some of my relationships with both those who fund us, and those we fund. I wish I could remove that weird power dynamic altogether, as it just feels like an impediment to real relationships with people I really enjoy. But it’s there, and all I can do is show up in an authentic way when I’m interacting with my friends and colleagues.

Sometimes, though, being in this position allows us to imagine, design, and implement a change that we think is really cool. We know what it is like to spend dozens of hours on grant applications that may or may not get funded, or may have a pathetically small return on investment. We know the frustration of wishing we could be working to meet our mission, rather than working to raise the funds we need to do our work.

To that end, the Arts Council has made some major changes to our grants program. We opened up the cycle so funding for arts projects is available year round; we simplified who is eligible for general support grants versus project grants; we reworked our grants panel so truly qualified folks in each discipline will be reviewing applications; we’re offering professional development grants to both artists and arts organizations; and we moved to a much better online system for our grantmaking. But the change I’m most excited about is our new Sponsor Grant category.

The Arts Council has been funding the arts in Santa Cruz since 1979. And there are organizations in this county that we’ve been funding for all of those 34 years, whose longevity rivals our own. There are other organizations that may not have been around as long, but which have consistently provided excellent programming for the community and maintained strong management practices.

Every year, these organizations jump through our grantmaking hoops to be considered for funding. Every year, we see their strong balance sheets, high-quality programing, dedicated and talented staff, and devoted audiences. And every year, we award them funds. Which begged the question: why are we making them jump through hoops?

Enter the Sponsor Grants. These grants are ongoing, annual funding for the strongest and most impactful arts organizations in the county, based on the following criteria:

–          Ten years of producing programming in Santa Cruz County

–          Been funded by the Arts Council for five consecutive years

–          Provide leadership in their art discipline and/or in the Santa Cruz community

–          Have strong and consistent management and board leadership

–          Have a stable or growing budget

–          Have stable or growing audiences

–          Significant cash reserves

These organizations do not have to submit a grant application; instead, Arts Council staff does a site visit with both board and staff members, and at the end of the fiscal year, the funded organization will send a basic report that speaks to the criteria above. Unless these organizations experience dramatic and negative changes, we will continue to fund them year after year. All of the hours that would have been spent on a grant application will now be spent meeting their mission and creating fantastic programming for this community. We, too will save time, not having to collect, read, and score those grant applications, so we too can spend more time focused on our mission. In return for this funding, the Arts Council is given a sponsorship package commensurate with any other donor of the same level. This way, we promote the Arts Council’s own work in the community, ultimately building our capacity to provide even greater support to the organizations we serve.

One particularly exciting element of this category is that it’s not just about budget size. Some of the organizations in the cohort are major institutions – the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Museum of Art & History – but others are much smaller, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and Pajaro Valley Arts CouncilKuumbwa Jazz, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, and Tandy Beal round out the group, representing a broad range of artistic disciplines. These organizations also serve communities from the border region near Monterey to the far north county.

There are many other wonderful organizations in this community, of course, and some are close to qualifying for this grant. We hope to help elevate these organizations so they too can join the Sponsor category. Indeed, we are creating another new exciting grant category designed to help a cohort of organizations take the next step in their development. But that’s news for another day.

The Sponsor Grant category – and indeed, all of the major changes in the program – is the brainchild of our Grants & Technical Assistance Manager, Jim Brown. I can only take credit for being smart and lucky enough to talk him into joining our team just over a year ago. A former Executive Director of both the Diversity Center and 418 Project in Santa Cruz, with a background in in the tech world, Jim hadn’t had direct experience as a grants manager. But he did have experience as a grantseeker, and as a natural innovator and great thinker, he was able to completely re-think how we can make an impact with our funds. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.

culture shock

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” – Peter Drucker

“Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” – Thomas Carlyle

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.” – Charles Lamb

I was just having lunch with a friend, who halfway through her veggie burger got a panicked look on her face and started wrapping up her sandwich. “I’m scared of my boss,” she said frankly, “and I better get back to work.” This woman is a 30-something-year-old creative professional, extremely talented, with children, who works in an environment where she is as likely to get a verbal flogging as she is to get flowers from her boss. “It’s like an abusive marriage”, she said. One day her boss is hollering at her for a misstep she couldn’t have possibly avoided, and the next day he calls the full staff together to tell them all what a great job she is doing.

This makes me see red.

There are so many ways to be a great manager, and so many ways to be a terrible one. I strive every day to not be included in the latter category, and though I don’t always succeed with flying colors, there are some things about management I absolutely believe to be true: great management requires a certain skill set that can be learned, but it also requires some incredibly important assets, such as humility, respect, gratitude, willingness to take responsibility when things go poorly, and an ability to give credit to others when things are going wonderfully well.

The problem is, people with these skills aren’t always the ones in charge. Often it’s the people with the deepest pockets, or with the best political connections, or who have been there the longest, or who are best at working the system. This is true in organizations and companies small and large, and in my mind, explains why there is so much dysfunction and mismanagement in the workplace. If you polled all of your friends, how many of them would say they loved going to work? Felt absolutely valued? Felt inspired and supported?  Felt like they are making a visible contribution that was acknowledged and rewarded?

Even more than that, how often do people even consider that where they work could be a source of joy? That it could be different? That it could be shaped by all of the people involved? Obviously many people do love their workplaces, but the majority of folks I know describe their work lives to be somewhere in a range from “tolerable” to “soul-sucking”. I can’t see any reason for this.

But, of course, I’ve been there. I worked at the huge company where we signed in for the day using our thumbprint on a computer that rarely worked, with all of us squirming in line as we desperately tried to clock in during our allowed six-minute window. I worked in the department where I routinely got in trouble for coming in to work too early. I worked at the restaurant where a good Saturday night was when I didn’t come home crying after being berated by the owner. I worked for the manager who took credit for every great thing others accomplished. I worked for the CEO who, upon hearing about a fantastic new opportunity I had, so belittled and undermined me that I spent weeks wondering if I was indeed good enough to jump to the next level in my career.

I can look back now with a lot more sympathy and understanding for these managers than I had at the time. Many of them were insecure themselves, or frustrated, or in over their heads. Or simply didn’t have the skills they needed to manage people. Which begs the question: why they heck were they in charge?

CEOs, directors and mangers have the opportunity – in fact, the responsibility, to make work a place where people want to be. Office culture needs to be intentional, not happenstance, and like any important relationship, it takes work.

We talk about culture all the time here at the Arts Council. Indeed, it’s a major element of our strategic plan. This is still a work in progress, and the learning curve stretches ever upward, but we’ve found some practices that work for us. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments, we share the burden when we screw up, we take the time to acknowledge each other for great work or for being helpful, and we challenge each other to both stretch our goals and to take significant time away from work. For my part, I don’t care exactly what time people show up or when they leave: I just care about the quality of what they get done while they are here, and how they treat each other and every person with whom they interact while “on the clock”.

I’m 100% clear that every single one of our accomplishments has been a result of incredible team effort. And when I screw up, or when I’m feeling unsure about a choice, my staff is second only to my husband in my list of go-to people for advice or soul-searching. Because they are as smart and talented and trustworthy a group as I’ve ever known.

It’s not a perfect working situation, but we work very hard to make sure it’s damn close.

What is this to do with the arts, you might ask? And I say: everything. The arts are about connection, about self-expression, about humanity, beauty, rigor, questioning, inspiration, common dialogue, communication, heartbreak, joy. The arts are a major way we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. Here at the Arts Council, we work to connect families with children, artists with resources, organizations with the community. And if we tried to do this work in an environment of fear, of clock-watching, of shame, then the work itself would be inauthentic and our impact would be minimal. If we believe in the power of the arts to connect community, and we don’t start that connection right here at the office, then our work will not ring true.

I’m confident that everyone who works here at the Arts Council loves their work (at least most of the time!), and enjoys how we work. I see them wrapped up in their passions, knee-deep in the thick of their chosen focus, and I hear them laughing and genuinely enjoying one another. The only credit I take or deserve for this is having the ability to attract truly wonderful and talented people to this organization, and to retain equally excellent long-timers who are still completely engaged and excited about their daily grind. And then engaging all of them in a process to co-create an atmosphere where we are all inspired by the work and excited to do it together.

None of this is by chance. All of this is intentional. I want to love my work, and love the people I get to do it with. And I do. But it takes focus, determination, and energy. And it takes the understanding that the culture at work is as important and deserves the same kind of attention as the work itself.

More on this in the weeks ahead. And I’m curious: what practices are in place at your organization that help you enjoy your work? And, if you can share, what practices are in place that don’t work for you? Of all of the conferences and workshops and professional development opportunities that filter through my inbox, I see so many focused on “leadership”, but so few, if any, dedicated to office culture. So perhaps we can start that conversation, and that learning, right here.

the best policy

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  – Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?

One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner.  This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.

In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.

I find all of this deeply frustrating.

When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.

Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”

I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?

I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.

But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.

It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.

My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.

As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.