Thursday, June 27, 2013

Finding Equilibrium

I'M A LONG-TIME CULTURAL ORGANIZATION DIRECTOR, several decades down the road from my first job.  I've been fortunate to have worked for boards that were mostly active and engaged with the work of the organization.  As my experience has grown and my abilities have been honed, I've found also that the boards I've chosen to work for have relied on me for direction as well as expertise.  No longer.

Last year I made a conscious decision to switch it up.  I moved to an allied profession, but one I have no formal training in, no name recognition, and little, if any, professional capital to spend.  I'm an unknown quantity in need of proving myself in order to gain the trust of others.  I joined an organization as executive director that is just ten years old -- for all intents and purposes a start-up -- with a very active board that is fully engaged in setting direction, pursuing funding, and undertaking the work.  There's been more than one restless night wondering what they need me for.

For six months now I've been thrown back to the days when I was a wide-eyed young director, who relied on her board for constant guidance and a certain amount of 'parental oversight'.  Was that what it really felt like?  I am reminded of the advice one of my first board members gave me, 'a director's job is to direct.'  Almost too simple to take seriously, but those words have floated back to me time and again over the years and have done so with frequency since the beginning of this year.

I'm nearing the end of my first six months.  I'm feeling more competent as I learn the organizational culture, the personalities, and the landscape of a different profession.  An understanding of what I could do for this organization is beginning to emerge and I am looking forward talking with my board about it when we meet face-to-face later this summer.

Career disruption is a good thing.  It's hard, it can hurt like hell, but most of all it's taking a chance on yourself, your vision and your talents with the expectation that you'll be (somehow) better, more focused, more energized, as if all of your senses have gotten the cobwebs batted out of them.  Yes, that's what it feels like...right now...six months in.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Back in the Saddle

MY LAST POST WAS NOVEMBER 2012, A LIGHT YEAR AWAY it seems, that marked the beginning of a long push toward completing a manuscript on history museum leadership with my co-author, Joan Baldwin.  We finally submitted 350+ pages to our editor at Rowman & Littlefield this week.  If all goes well, we expect the book to be available in early 2014.  It's taken us two years to get to this point, so six more months or so of revision and production don't seem too long to wait until we can hold the final product in our hands (and you can, too!).

The project put a lot of things on hold, including this blog.  I'm glad to be back writing about intentional leadership -- leading by design -- for nonprofit boards and staffs.  Certainly, my thoughts are now informed by the forthcoming book, in which Joan and I posit that nonprofits need to focus resources on leadership, not just management.  Most cultural nonprofits are at a crossroad, as is the sector in general, where nothing is quite the same except the need (and even needs are greater, deeper, more serious).  This is a time not just for sound management, but for exceptional, forward-leaning leadership.

Leadership is nurtured in organizations that are continually open to learning -- learning through self-assessment, trial and error, and adapting across industries.  The common argument cautions that because our margins are too tight, our staffs spread too thin, it's impossible, even wasteful, to purposely pursue ideas and actions that weren't absolute sure things.  Does that really get us anywhere?

This is a time to hone our pursuit of the calculated risk and the educated guess to support visions and missions that truly make a difference to the audiences and communities we serve.  And that can't be done by hiding behind hidebound traditions, dated stereotypes, and some notion that it's okay to just muddle through.