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Latest News: ISPA Insider

What Leadership Transitions Look Like: Founder’s Goodbye, Retirement, Converted Independent Producer

Tuesday, October 17, 2017   (0 Comments)

Leadership transition is an inevitable part of any professional industry. In recent years there seems to be a sea change across the global cultural industry as a natural result of generational shifts.

Some ISPA members are among those who have seen leadership change as several high profile venues including Royal Albert Hall, National Theater of Korea, Lincoln Center have had shifts in leadership – many because long-time directors are retiring.

But retirement isn’t always the impetus for change; opportunity and environmental factors are often cited as reasons to move on or try something new. As the theme of our upcoming congress Balancing Acts: Art, Community, and Leadership indicates, the effects of these shifts in leadership on organizations and communities can result in new opportunities and perspectives.

To help us explore the nature of transition, we asked five ISPA members who have recently been involved in leadership change to detail their experiences and offer insights into the decision-making process.

We hope you'll join us at the New York 2018 ISPA Congress when we take a deep dive into the challenges and opportunities presented for the next generation of leadership.

Leadership Transitions of ISPA Members

Alison M. Friedman

Transitioning FROM

Executive and Creative Director / Founder
Ping Pong Productions

Transitioning TO

Artistic Director
Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District

A decision to transition actually is made up of two sub-decisions: the choice to go towards something new, and the choice to depart where you were. These decisions are not always equally balanced.

It was not a difficult decision to accept the offer of Artistic Director at Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District. The District is poised to be a leading creative force in Asia and the world. Its all-star team, led by Executive Director Louis Yu, already is running exciting programs in Experimental Chinese Opera, free outdoor events, community outreach programs, Asia-Europe theatre collaborations, and more. The opportunity to contribute my experience working across government, corporate, education and artistic sectors to this ambitious project drew me in without hesitation.

But making the leap towards this new opportunity meant departing an organization I founded and have led for the past seven years. I built Ping Pong Productions from a one-woman organization to a thriving non-profit with offices in Beijing and New York City, performance projects in more than 60 countries on five continents, education programs in more than 20 cities across China and a new one recently launched in the U.S. Ping Pong is a living organism that supports a staff, a network of artists and projects, and has responsibilities to our board, our funding sources, and the artists we support. 

I had many long conversations with Ping Pong’s board and advisors to explore options – doing an external search for my replacement, promoting internally, or looking at different possible “sunset” plans to responsibly close the organization. My first choice was to promote internally, but that decision couldn’t rest entirely in my hands. What if Ping Pong’s Associate Director Mengtong Guan didn’t accept the offer? It is a big leap to go from employee to international business owner.

I am thrilled that Mengtong chose to take over Ping Pong Productions as the new Executive and Creative Director. Together, we launched a detailed, multi-month transition process to transfer all of the legal, financial, personnel, and project materials to her and others on the team. We attended meetings together to inform our artistic and government partners about the transition, ensuring they would continue their partnerships with her as the new leader. 

One of my favorite quotes from all of the business books I’ve read is, “Sometimes, the best thing a founder can do for their organization is to leave.” Throughout the transition process, Mengtong surprised and impressed me with her ideas, strategies and decisions, some different than I would have made, taking Ping Pong into a brand new chapter of growth and evolution.

Knowing that my “baby” is in brilliant hands, I can let go completely, and with full enthusiasm and commitment dive into my future at West Kowloon. Onward!"

Annette Corbett

Transitioning FROM

Head of Development
Tomorrow's Warriors

Transitioning TO

Independent Producer
Rough Information

When I arrived in Montreal for ISPA’s Anthony Field Academy, I didn’t imagine that a couple of days later I would be announcing to a room of fellow delegates that I planned to quit my job when I got back to London. I certainly didn’t expect that announcement to be greeted by a warm and enthusiastic round of applause. Sure enough, after two days back in the office, I handed in my notice and started my journey as a freelancer.

I have always been drawn to different art forms and ideas, which made working in any one particular role a little frustrating at times. I would often find myself ‘peering over the fence’ at what other departments were up to, and wishing I could get involved. I have a habit of being very easily enthused by other people’s ideas and wanting to find ways to bring them to fruition, so as a natural facilitator, with a wide range of skills and experience, moving into producing seemed the obvious choice.  

It has initially been quite a culture shock adapting to working independently after so long as an ‘employee’. Finding myself in the position of developing my own business, defining my own schedule, and setting my own priorities, has been challenging but exciting. I’ve only been working as an independent producer, fundraiser and arts manager for a matter of months, but the transition has happened quickly and I’m already very busy. I’ve conducted cultural policy research for Goldsmiths College, have a couple of fundraising consultancy opportunities on the go, and have just joined promenade theatre specialists Teatro Vivo as Assistant Producer on their new show Twistov, inspired by Dickens’ Oliver Twist and real-life experiences of migration in the UK in the 21st century. 

If you’re considering taking the leap, here are my three top tips: 

  • Do your maths – How will you pay the bills while you develop an income stream? Do you have any savings you could dip into? What’s your ‘survival’ budget (the bare minimum you need to pay your way, even if it means putting up with living like a student) and your ‘thrival’ budget (how much you need to live comfortably, eat well, and enjoy a few luxuries).
  • Invest in yourself – It might seem like a bad time to be spending money on training, but keep learning. The more skilled you are, the more you have to offer potential clients, and the more opportunities you have to pick up varied and interesting work.
  • Look after yourself – It might take some time to develop your practice. In the meantime, you’re likely to want to say yes to everything, which means you’re going to be very busy.  Even learning to adapt to your own timetable and having to make lots of decisions can be quite mentally taxing. Make time to eat well, exercise, rest, and allow yourself the occasional treat. After all, you won’t be able to work at all if you’re ill.

My absolute top tip would be to keep asking for help from those around you. Make the most of your networks – former managers, colleagues, people you meet at networking events and conferences. It’s a rare person who will turn down the offer of coffee and a chat, and my experience has been that the vast majority of people are incredibly generous with their time and advice. This might seem surprising for a sector where people are so often under-resourced and under pressure; but on the other hand, it feels perfectly natural when so much of what we do as artists, producers, and cultural leaders is founded on collaboration and partnership. 

Making the decision to become an independent arts professional has been an incredibly positive move for me, and I’m very excited about the future. It’s not necessarily a career path that suits everyone, but I would urge anyone considering it to give it a try if they can. You certainly won’t get bored!"

Max Wagner

Transitioning FROM

Managing Director
Gärtnerplatz Opera Munich

Transitioning TO

Managing Director
Gasteig Muenchen GmbH

I think transition in leadership can bring a lot to both the outgoing leader and the successor, but there are also some pitfalls. In general it can be a very wise move if the board agrees to invest resources into this time of handing over knowledge and authority.

I have been on both sides and also in the situation of taking over without any preparation. 

In my opinion the most important advantages of a period of transition for the outgoing leader is that she or he can explain to the successor why things are done in a certain manner and can so contribute to continuing her or his legacy. At the same time, it gives her or him the opportunity to say good-bye, let go and prepare for the next step in life.

For the successor, the period provides some precious time to be just an observer without having to act. This possibility to look with some distance at the institution can bring important insights for the first steps to take. By observing the outgoing leader, the successor can understand the way the organization was led in the past and thereby gain an understanding of the culture. It is a way to get a feel for what to keep and what to change.

In my position at Gasteig, I had an overlap with my predecessor. The fact that I didn’t have the full responsibility in the beginning gave me the time and energy to speak to every one of the 150 employees at Gasteig – with most of them in one-to-one meetings, and some in group meetings. This helped people to get an idea who I was as their new boss and what I wanted to achieve. Through the exercise I got a valuable first impression of the people I would work with in the future, and the direct communication laid the foundation for a trustful relationship. People felt that I was really interested in what they did and how they did it.

In the end, this time together also helps to find a way to pass the power from the predecessor to the successor, perhaps in the form of a ritual that can serve as an image of continuity for all stakeholders involved.

The biggest challenge is that this time is difficult for both leaders. The outgoing leader is used to taking all the decisions alone, and can feel being observed and judged, and could therefore get into a mode of justification. The idea that you don’t own what you did and that you have to accept that other people do it differently and also succeed has to be incorporated.

The successor has to have a lot of patience and has to sometimes hold back new ideas that would put the actions of the other one in question. It can sort of feel like driving with breaks on. A good idea is to share responsibility so that the successor is responsible for certain areas from the beginning, for example in areas that have an impact on the future.

Another important question is the duration of the transition. It depends on different factors, like the size of the institution, special situations like a big renovation, and the time the outgoing leader was working there. In general, I think one to three months are a good period that both sides and the organization can benefit from.

But most importantly, I think it is crucial for a fruitful transition of leadership that the roles during this period are clearly agreed upon and that the result is also communicated to the press in order to avoid misunderstandings. And because this situation has a high potential for conflict, this agreement should also include that any friction be addressed right away and in a respectful manner. Only then can this valuable time benefit the organization."

Susan Stockton

Retired FROM

President and CEO
Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

When is it time to make a change?  It is a process that is very different for everyone.  The key determinant for my decision to retire from a full-time job in arts administration came when my list of ‘I want to’ got very long and accomplishing anything on that list seemed remote and more impossible with each passing day.  I knew I did not want to spend my final chapter doing what I already knew how to do.

I wanted my legacy to be a successful one ensuring the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center would thrive under a leadership change and happen at a time that was right for the organization.  With the assistance of our board of directors we mapped out a mid-term strategy that would provide the Center with a solid long term operating plan.  

We set a target end date for my retirement and worked backward from there.  Quickly we ascertained we could hire from within and thus began a two-year competency development plan with interested senior staff to build their leadership skills with a target to identify the incumbent at the end of this process.  A key challenge to each participating member of the senior team was their goal to make each of the other candidates successful in their bid for the position.  During this time, we also had pro bono guidance from an organizational development consultant enabling us to stay focused and receive some third-party insight for this process.

Once the incumbent was chosen, we embarked upon a three-year competency development plan; each year contained milestone markers to achieve and occasionally a curve ball was thrown in test our progress—for example I would call to say I would not be attending the board meeting that morning and the incumbent was to deliver my report, did panic or opportunity infused enthusiasm take over in these situations?

This five-year plan was the right amount of time as it allowed for a leader to be born and groomed, rather than shot out of a cannon.  My role in all of this was to identify the milestones and provide the resources necessary for her to thrive.  Most importantly, I needed to get out of the spotlight and allow her to take over many of my most cherished obligations so she would be viewed as the leader from her first day as President and CEO.  It took a lot of consideration, compassion, and respect from both of us to make this work and I could not be more pleased with the results.

As each day now passes more swiftly than it did when I was working my only regret is in not having made the change sooner.  In our field we looked at five and ten-year plans, in retirement you can map out that far but as you are getting older all your parts may not be cooperating to support your plans!  

Here is a picture of me on the verge of opening ‘the Alice in Wonderland door’ in the courtyard of the Cathedral Garden in Christ Church, Oxford University…my annual summer studies there do check-off the boxes on my ‘I want to’ list but have also made it much longer!"

Simeon Moran

Transitioning FROM

Executive Producer and co-CEO
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company

Transitioning TO ...

I am the outgoing Executive Producer and co-CEO of ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, a leading Australian First Nations theatre company based in Melbourne. It has always been somewhat problematic that I was a non-indigenous person in a leadership position in an Indigenous organisation. My white privilege has made my career path fairly smooth sailing all things considered, and here I was occupying a space that should have been someone else’s. I was a whitefulla taking up co-CEO space in an blackfulla company, and despite all the best intentions in the world, my very presence as a co-CEO undermined Indigenous control and self-determination of this arts organisation that is vitally important in the Australian cultural landscape.  

When I took the job I made it a condition of my employment that I needed to be gone in three to five years and replaced by a First Nations person in the role. Once settled in and working in such a fantastic organisation with an awesome team and the ever-inspiring Rachael Maza as Artistic Director and co-CEO, it would have been very easy to stay on indefinitely in a position that was highly rewarding, both personally and professionally. Which is why I realised that I had to draw a line in the sand – for both myself and our Board – to prevent our collective complacency when things were all going so well for the company.

On a rare family weekend away with visiting overseas relatives, my partner and I had the realisation that we both worked too much and rarely prioritised family time off together (another chronic condition of the independent arts sector). A crazy exit plan was hatched – after nearly 10 years of running arts organisations I needed to prioritise my family, put work on hold, and in the context of ILBIJERRI, I needed to stop occupying a cultural leadership space that wasn't mine. So in late 2016 I gave Rachael and the Board 14 months’ notice that I would be leaving at the end of 2017. I then sold the family station wagon and bought a 4WD ute so we could camp our way around remote Australia for 12 months and share the family experience of a lifetime. There was no turning back now! We were just going to have to make it work.

Initially it was a shock to everyone, myself included, but the long lead-time notice has allowed for organisational adjustment and a strategic approach to planning for leadership transition. It has allowed our whole team to feed into this planning and given us the time to adequately resource the transition process, providing for a staff retreat with incoming and outgoing EP’s, allowing for an almost two month overlap and handover between EP’s and to shape and resource a professional development strategy with industry mentors to support the incoming leader’s specific strengths and identified areas for development.

We have just announced the incredible Lydia Fairhall as ILBIJERRI’s next Executive Producer. Lydia is an experienced Arts Manager, Programmer, Producer and Artist in her own right, and a proud Worimi woman from the north coast of New South Wales. It is a hugely exciting time for ILBIJERRI as the company continues to grow to meet the demand for its work, consolidate its community foundations, and drive important cultural change in Australia - now with 100% Black leadership!

My departure is bittersweet - it is with both sadness and excitement that I’m moving on. It is very sad to finish up working with such a remarkable team doing such incredible work.  However, in January I’m off camping around Australia with my family for 12 months which is gonna be pretty bloody AWESOME! 

If anyone is looking for an experienced Arts Manager and Producer in early 2019 – I’ll be at a loose end – drop me a line!"

ISPA Insider is a quarterly newsletter that explores timely topics of interest to the global performing arts community featuring the voices of our members.