Leadership transitions are important for arts and culture organizations. We have featured a number of articles on the topic, covering both planning philosophy and actual practical examples. But since the Covid pandemic, it is increasingly important to think about transitions both in terms of establishing plans in case a crisis should arise, but also in terms of what you may want from entities who may be assisting you with a leadership search.
Recently, Seema Sueko, wrote a piece on the subject for American Theatre, addressing some misconceptions she had about the search process when she was asked to serve as field advisor for the search firm, Management Consultants for the Arts (MCA).
So I had assumed that part of what a search firm was hired to do was to help the board understand the field locally and nationally, explore how the arts ecosystem had evolved since their last leadership transition, learn about the major conversations and concerns in the field, look internally at its existing systems, and ask tough questions about what’s working, what’s not, what the organization’s purpose currently is, and how effective it has been at achieving that purpose.
I quickly learned that was not always how it worked. The leadership of MCA gently shared with me that our charge was much more focused: simply to help the organization find their next leader, not to help them get better as an organization.
After working with MCA for nearly two years, she contacted five other companies that specialize in executive searches for arts and culture with a series of questions. On the whole she found that they also saw their role as identifying qualified leaders to pick up where the last person left off rather than lead a board and staff to examine what sort of leader the times require to make the organization better.
This is not to say that the firms don’t spend time investigating and analyzing the organization seeking to hire a new leader. Sueko shared a response from one firm who said there had been instances where they advised organizations they needed to address deficiencies before they would be ready to initiate a search. In some cases, the firm broke off their relationship when the organization was unwilling to effect those changes.
Sueko provides a well-considered list of steps that could be part of the process, including a third-party facilitated examination of external trends on a local and national level; internal factors like staff morale, diversity and inclusion, financial status; alternative business and leadership models.
Perhaps most important are her thoughts on the candidate experience including how they are treated, what information is shared and how. The subtext is that the search committee should be investing as much attention as the candidates are, and engage in many of the same preparations, including having an interview with a mock candidate and receiving feedback about how well they perform as a committee.
Arguably her best idea is to have the committee create an introductory video for candidates:
I recommend that the search firm record a Zoom meeting with the search committee where each committee member introduces themselves, followed by a facilitated conversation about the job opportunity. This video could be shared with all the candidates to level the playing field and capture some of the culture which can’t be conveyed through a written document. Such a video would also have the added benefit of demystifying and humanizing the search committee, which, I propose, will lead to more substantial interviews with candidates.
If you are in an organization that is resolved to change the way you operate, are looking for new leadership, want to be pro-active transition planning, or want to bolster the leadership of the team you already have, it is worth reading and considering Sueko’s piece.