Engaging Your Staff
Today’s blog post is written by Kevin Patterson, Senior Account Executive, PatronManager.
Unless you have been living completely off the grid in some remote part of the world, you have no doubt heard all of the conversation and debate about the staff comings and goings-on at the White House. The current count, which is somewhere north of 40 staff firings, resignations or departures, are the most in modern U.S. Presidential history. Without taking a political side on whether all those changes were warranted or not, the whole situation has me thinking about how arts organizations and their employees engage in their work environment; and what prompts them to either stay engaged or leave.
Over the course of my career in the arts, both as an employee of an organization and as an executive, I’ve seen my fair share of staff changes. I’ve changed organizations myself. In a talk I heard years ago at a conference, it was suggested that there were three main reasons why good staff leave organizations. They leave the leader. They leave the mission. They leave the culture. Let’s take a closer look at each of these:
Leaving the Leader
When staff leaves a leader, it often boils down to two main reasons. They either don’t identify with the vision that the leader is espousing for the organization or they have outgrown that vision and find it limiting. For leaders then, it is important to become attuned to how your vision is being received by your staff. If you feel like there is misunderstanding or pushback, seek to understand why through engaging in questions that help tease out apprehensions. It could be that there is nothing wrong with the vision at its core. It may be that the way the vision is being communicated is off the mark. Or if upon further examination the vision does need to be altered in some way, having the staff involved in the process will only result in greater ownership by all.
For example, having opportunities for open discussion like setting office hours or holding an organizational townhall can be great opportunities to build consensus. For this type of open forum, I would recommend developing ground rules for the conversation to prevent the discussion from becoming an airing of grievances. One of my former bosses had a rule that if you had a problem with the organization, you had to be prepared to state the problem as you viewed it and also suggest at least one potential solution. This was a very effective way to empower staff to brainstorm solutions and take greater ownership of the outcomes.
Leaving the Mission
Sometimes good staff just outgrow the mission of an organization. This can be especially true if there is little opportunity for professional learning and advancement. People like to be challenged professionally. As a leader, it is your job to give people a chance to learn and grow. Sometimes that growth leads to success in a new role or position in your organization. Other times, it might lead to missteps or failure, but those lessons are just as important, so long as they are imparted in a conscientious and learning manner.
If professional advancement proves to be difficult, then when a staff member does decide to pursue other opportunities outside of your organization, make sure that as a leader you support them in their professional growth. A staff member who has had an exceptional experience and is supported during a transition is often the first person to go the extra mile in volunteering to assist in the search and training of their replacement.
On top of that, and this is purely an opinion, but I strongly feel that an employee who has worked for an organization and did their best to help it grow deserves a level of loyalty and professional support from both the leader and the organization as they launch into a role with a new organization. Throughout my career, I have worked with colleagues who have departed one organization that I was leading only to work for me in another organization years later. On one occasion, we even changed roles and the other person was the boss!
Leaving the Culture
While many organizations will claim to have an excellent culture, the reality doesn’t always live up to the claim. If your organization claims to support a work-life balance, then it is disingenuous to hold people to working hours beyond their normal day on a consistent basis or not offering things like parental leave. You can’t claim to support professional development if your staff doesn’t have the time or resources to go to conferences, engage in learning opportunities, or learn new skills on the job.
Those organizations that are self-aware of their culture and how it affects their staff will benefit from always working to improve. So as a leader you should question the status quo, organizational culture is never set in stone; it is constantly evolving. In one organization I used to work for, a task force made up of employees at all levels was created for this very purpose. Their stated goal was to address quality of life issues that employees were facing in the workplace and propose solutions to the leadership team and board of directors. If you don’t feel a task force is necessary, surveying your employees is always a good way to take the temperature of how they’re feeling about your organizational culture.
Now all this said, there are times when a staff member just doesn’t fit an organizational culture. And that’s okay! Great care should be taken to respect that staff member if that situation arises. I once had a colleague who was hired for a new position only to be let go five days into the job. When asked what went wrong, they were told that it was an “at will” employment state and that they didn’t fit the culture. This was a terrible way to handle the situation and, if indeed it was a poor cultural fit, greater care needed to be taken to support the employee by helping them secure another position in the organization, referring them to another organization where they might be a better fit, or giving them time to transition out of the organization.
In this time of uncertainty and change, it is more important than ever to focus on your staff. After all, they are the link to your patrons. Without them, there is no possibility of success. Start this new year by taking stock of what is happening with the staff at your organization, and as a leader resolve to enable, empower, and engage with them to make your organization stronger than ever.