In July I joined participants at the annual Arts Fundraising University of Leeds Summer School to discuss what we really mean by a resilient arts organisation.
Resilience is the buzzword at the moment. As we strive to ensure that our arts organisations have a sustainable future, management teams up and down the country are focusing on income and diversifying business models as key drivers for resilience. But this session in Leeds reminded me that we often forget the softer areas that are really at the heart of creating great organisations – its commitment to vision and purpose, our ability to collaborate, the way we treat our people and overall the culture we create that are the hallmarks of the organisations with staying power.
Putting organisational culture at the heart of the resilience agenda, and of the training for our arts leaders therefore seems a no brainer. I can already feel people recoiling in horror at the thought of this, but if we look to some of the world’s fastest growing and sustainable organisations, what singles them out is their unrelenting focus on culture – and I mean unrelenting – it’s a daily focus on creating, reviewing and reflecting on culture.
For organisations such as Facebook and Amazon, when you get under the skin of their leadership agenda, the area that takes the most management time is the focus on creating culture – and by culture we mean skills, behaviours, how we treat people and how our audiences and partners experience our artistic offer.
Not just a tick box exercise
However, rather depressingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, within this group of participants at the Summer School, the majority didn’t feel that the leadership of their arts organisation gave time to create culture or to reflect on what was going right and what needed improving. Perhaps worse still, some felt that the leaders of their organisations did take time to ‘consult’ but as a mere tick box exercise and that often such sessions were used to push through change from the top despite feedback from staff.
But then it’s very easy to bash our Artistic Directors and CEOs. They already have an impossible role being chief artistic planner, fundraiser, operations director and strategist, with not enough hours in the day. In this economic environment those roles can be utterly thankless. And its also all too easy for junior members of staff to lay blame at management, to moan and to get into a ‘no before yes’ mindset which just exacerbates cultures that are less than ideal and protects the status quo.
"The key point for leaders to realize is that a culture exists in your workplace whether you like it or not. And that’s the point - to develop and co-create a culture you need to be ‘intentional’ about it".
If you don’t think about it, it’s going to emerge anyway, and in that scenario more often than not, you might not like what you find.
Time and investment
These more accidental cultures are determined by what employees do and how management react – they can be both fragile and fluid, and they certainly aren’t sustainable.
From my perspective, creating an effective and intentional culture requires one key ingredient – and that’s ‘time’. Our arts organisations have some of the most creative employees in the world, but ironically often we don’t take time to harness those skills. And whilst communication and vision are important, we can’t short cut the fact that creating culture takes both time and investment and you have to work at it every day. We also have to remember that existing cultures are very hard to break, that takes a massive amount of effort and energy.