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Latest News: ISPA Insider

Finding Value in the Inter-generational Workplace

Monday, March 12, 2018   (0 Comments)

This issue of The Insider focuses on the challenges and rewards of having an inter-generational workplace and how some of our members approach this challenge.

The inspiration for this issue springs from a short letter to her colleagues from ISPA Member Jackie Davis, Executive Director of the New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts, as she reflected on a long table session presented at the recent congress in January.

We asked Jackie to expand on her original text to include some specific strategies for creating a productive inter-generational environment.

Then we put this question to other members across the generational spectrum. This great cross-section of ISPA Members offered stories of their interactions with colleagues of different generations and philosophies on the value of inclusion.
 [Session Recording] SESSION 5 (a long table session)
Generational Divides: In Transition
New York 2018 ISPA Congress

Have your own story? Leave it in the comments below.

Finding Value in the Inter-generational Workplace 

Jacqueline Z. Davis

Barbara G. and Lawrence A. Fleischman Executive Director
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, USA

Generation: Baby Boomer

Number of years in “The Industry”: 35
Number of years in current position: 17

One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to take the time to attend the ISPA Congress where we see old friends, meet new ones and exchange ideas.

This year was no exception. The New York Congress sessions in January were filled with great and provocative expressions about our past, present, and future. I was especially struck by the roundtable discussion that gave us a chance to listen to perspectives presented by different generations about their approaches to life and work.

As a Baby Boomer with more than 35 years in the industry, I have been thinking about one of the ideas that was presented that gave me pause: that those arts professionals who have been working for more than 20 years should step aside and make way for the younger crowd. I would agree that anyone simply staying in their leadership position with no energy, leadership skills or vision should definitely bow out. I know that this is easier said than done.

I believe that those like the amazing Alberta Arthurs (age 83) who spoke so eloquently at the New York Congress reminded me of the need for our seasoned voices in our professional lives. Without them, where would we find our institutional histories? Where would we go to gather the wisdom from those who have lived through what we now need to experience? There are so many of us who take great pleasure in mentoring those who are coming into the field. We help direct each of them to realize their dreams of working in an arts organization. I spent 20 years at the University of Kansas Lied Center and am in my 17th year at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. My files are full of resumes from arts administration hopefuls who simply need to hear from someone who has gone through the process that the effort to find a position is well-worth the toil. The encouragement from those of us who have successfully followed our dreams has served as a testament for those much younger.

As a younger arts administrator, I frequently sought out my elders to learn from them. One can have an appropriate degree that gets you in the door of an organization but there is so much more that one does not learn in a classroom. For example, when dealing with an employee who is failing at their job, is it better to let them go or to assess their talents and find an appropriate area of the organization where they can grow? How does one determine the answer to that question? How does one meet the community of artists and arts administrators that will become part of one's work process? Where does one go for good advice? As someone who has sought this information from MY elders, I feel a genuine responsibility to give back- to my employees and to the larger community and I know that my seasoned colleagues feel the same. We all accept requests to do information interviews. We listen to the hopes of each aspiring arts administrator and send them on to several other "elders" who can give them more contacts and the experience of their years in service to the arts.

I submit that all the generations that sat at the table at the New York Congress this January are necessary to the implementation of the performing arts in our global community. I celebrate those who have gone before us and am grateful for the counsel of those who have had more experience than many of us in the field. We are stronger by working on behalf of the arts connected across generations."

Tina Diab

Director of Business Development and Touring
7 Fingers, Canada

Generation: Gen X

Number of years in current position: 16 years

I have been working in the company since its beginning 16 years ago. I was hired as a part-timer working on special events 3 days a week, and my workload immediately moved to 7 days a week and never stopped since then.

When I first started, most of us were from the same Generation X. Now the company has 200 employees ranging from baby boomers to the Millennial. I feel that all these generations together is vital to take the company to its next chapter, where innovation and diversity is the key to success. Cross polarization is the rule with experiences and energies flowing in all directions everyone learning from every other cross generations gender and origins.

The key to creating a harmonious workplace is effectively addressing (and taking advantage of) the differences between each generation.

Throughout my 16 years, I have always felt that my input is key to the very survival of the company. My colleagues never stopped reminding me of that anyway, instead of the regular good morning I will get: any new confirmed bookings today, Tina?

I have been appointed in my current position 7 years ago and lately my salary was increased to be equivalent to the founding members and CEO as a recognition of the role that I play in the organization.

I come from a culture where the elderly are highly respected and we are encouraged to learn from their experience and wisdom. It plays in the same way professionally hence showing civility but not servility.

In my organization, we encourage the younger generation to take more and more responsibility and making room for them to grow. We do so by constantly analyzing their weakness and their strengths as well as those of everyone. Always looking for synergy and complementarity. The name of the game is teamwork.

I have had the chance to grow in the same way and my responsibilities have grown organically. We are on the same boat after all."

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Gary Dunning

President & Executive Director
Celebrity Series of Boston, USA

Generation: Baby Boomer

Number of years in “The Industry”: 40
Number of years in current position: Seven years

I can say that I started in the business in a different era. Everyone will eventually be able to say that, but when that statement becomes true for you, it often arrives with an element of surprise. And for me, it also arrived with a deeper feeling of gratitude. I value the connections and the lineage that my career introduced me to. Box office treasurers, who could ‘read the racks’ as well as any computer algorithm, stagehands, managers, choreographers, or dancers whose own experience helped shape a sense of place in history for me and my colleagues.The point is that I learned a great deal in those encounters.

I felt valued by many of those predecessors because they, in time, trusted me, with history, knowledge and responsibility. That has led me to see trust as one of the essential elements of feeling valued. Being trusted to do your job without being second-guessed. Trusted to take responsible risks. Trusted to speak up. Trusting that you could do so safely without fear of retaliation. I think trust simultaneously validates and challenges people at any level in an organization.

I also believe that it is important to have clarity about what the organization or a particular job can offer and what it can’t. Even though I have worked for some fairly large organizations, the avenues for career growth within a single organization in the arts were limited. My own career took me to several different organizations in order to continue my professional and personal development. As I became a leader myself, I initially felt frustration that staffing was so fluid. I eventually learned to embrace the ebbs and flows, and even take pride in offering (hopefully) good training and a good work experience. To this day, I find great satisfaction in seeing staff colleagues who took opportunities in other organizations grow and develop within the industry. While I could offer more responsibility and more challenges to an extent, I recognize that real career advancement is often found outside the organization you work for. That may sound like an excuse for not providing new opportunities within my own organizations, but I think I, and my organizations, benefited from the ongoing stimuli of new voices and I firmly believe my past colleagues gained from their new experiences and responsibilities. Over the past few decades, this is how we built a sector and a profession and not just an isolated organization.

I now work in an organization where I have one staff person who has worked here as long as some other staff people have been alive. That may not be the most common situation, but it does highlight the reality that one can easily work in an organization with colleagues from three or four different generations. While I try hard to understand the motivations that my colleagues have about their work (their particular job) and the organization as a whole, I do need to remind myself fairly often that my experiences are not theirs, nor are my motivations. It’s like the old saw about fundraising: people give for their reasons, not necessarily yours. That’s one of the reasons I am such a big believer in investing in deep work around vision, mission and values. These are the things you ideally have in common with your colleagues (and your board, to add a whole additional dimension to the topic).Those shared values and goals are what get you through the tough times and allow the organization to excel."

Carl P. Giegold

FAIA, Partner
Threshold Acoustics, USA

Generation: Baby Boomer

Number of years in “The Industry”: 35
Number of years in current position: 23

I recently attended a memorial reception for one of my first employers, one who gave me opportunities that I would have been unlikely to find anywhere else. He placed a lot of faith in me when he was in his fifties and I was in my twenties. My premature autonomy occasionally led me into a conundrum, and I would then find myself in his office seeking wisdom. Sometimes, what he offered consisted, simply, of “I have every confidence in your ability to handle the situation.” He wasn’t being unkind – in those situations it was all he had to offer – but my response to his response was a not entirely productive mix of exhilaration and bewilderment all at the same time. I remain grateful for his generous advance of confidence, though learning based on proffered confidence alone turns out to be inconsistent, inelegant, and not particularly conducive to a full night’s sleep.

Encouragement is rarely all that the seasoned have to offer the young, but I have some sympathy for my employer’s occasional uncertainty.The current paradigm of generational knowledge transfer seems different from that of thirty years ago. Were it the same, it wouldn’t feel so much like a two-way street. None of us, advanced in our careers or not, would be where we are without each other – that’s not so different from a generation ago – but knowledge now seems to flow in many directions rather than downhill from the top.

For example, as digital modeling and immersive simulations become larger and larger portions of our design process, recent graduates with strong background in math and physics (usually coupled with music or theatre) have become essential to propelling our analytical processes forward. Their efforts are central to our practice and are pursued with obvious zeal and sense of accomplishment in developing sometimes entirely new approaches and tools upon which we thereafter rely for the practice of our art.This is very different from the rote production of stair and toilet room drawings that comprised so many of my early days as an architect. What the young members of our practice have accomplished in their early professional years is a whole lot more interesting.

It’s a lot of fun to be around all of that positive energy, but there is something much more going on than youthful enthusiasm. They are cut from different cloth, and it’s a pretty strong weave. Many graduate with a reserve of expertise already developed, of a type that the senior staff cannot fully teach. We rely on them for their knowledge as we teach them what we know of the world from our own experience and different educational backgrounds. The dynamic respects individual expertise but also relies upon each of us to be honest with ourselves about what we know, what we don’t know, and when it’s time to broaden the conversation. The perspectives we offer each other on a daily basis bring each one of us forward in one way or another, and we all move ahead collectively. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And it turns out that I have every confidence in their ability to handle the situation."

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Jenny Jamison

General Manager
Scottish Ensemble, UK

Generation: Gen Y/Millennial

Number of years in "The Industry": 8
Number of years in current position: 3

I have been fortunate to spend the first part of my career in an organisation which works hard to maximise the potential of its team. Each individual is motivated by a clear sense that there is always scope to implement new ideas and take on new responsibilities, regardless of their current role (or age).

My career path reflects this ethos; over the course of the seven years I have spent at Scottish Ensemble, I have moved gradually from Administrator to General Manager (all before I turn 30).That transition was possible due to respect and encouragement from those in senior positions – from those older than me.

I should say that in my organisation the administration team are currently all under 35; they are, by some margin, the youngest group when we compare administration, performers and board. This is partly because the busy touring nature of our organisation is suited to people in flexible stages of their lives, but it is also because many of our staff began in more junior positions, and have quickly moved into senior roles. Previous leaders who moved on made careful succession plans, which enabled younger team members to step up in a measured, supported way: when I took up my current role it was a co-appointment with another member of the team who stepped into the Chief Executive role, spreading the pressure of new responsibilities.

I was struck by the long-table discussion on intergenerational change at the stimulating ISPA conference in New York this January. There seemed to be a dominant discourse within my generational peers that it was time for the younger generation to take the lead and for those more senior leaders to step aside. I found this inspiring – as it indicated a great degree of confidence – but it also caused me to reflect that this somewhat simplified a complex inter-generational question.

I hope that, at every stage in my career, I will value and seek out advice and expertise from those who have been working in our industry for longer than I have. Personally, I would be a much weaker leader without access to the knowledge and experience of those older than me (who have most likely faced comparable challenges before me) and the clarity and open-mindedness of those younger than me (who bring a fresh insight, arguably freer from cynicism).

Productive workplaces are surely those where respect and inspiration flow both up and down the generations, and where:

  • brainstorming and big picture thinking is open and encourages multiple viewpoints
  • experience and youth are equally valued
  • leaders create space for change and retain a high level of self-awareness

Ultimately, I think the perfect balance comes when individuals across all generations believe that their perspective could be the most effective, and have the confidence to articulate this, while at the same time remaining inquisitive and open to the likelihood that their approach will be stronger when it takes heed of other viewpoints.

My generation is deemed more likely to job-hop, hold multiple jobs, and expect a better work-life balance (or ‘work-life integration’) than older generations. A lack of respect for establishment is another general accusation. It is likely, then, that many of us will find ourselves in the situation of being the ‘newbie’ at multiple stages of our careers, as we seek new experiences and challenges and move away from the more institutional career-model of our parents. Will we find new ways to harness learning gathered over multiple jobs and roles and use this to become better leaders? I certainly thought that the room of ISPA Fellows in New York would indicate that’s a likely and positive future."

Santiago Martinez Gonzalez

Student and ISPA Congress Volunteer
Carnegie Mellon University, Master of Arts Management, USA

Generation: Millennial

Graduation date: 2019

The last day of the conference I had the chance to talk to Mr. Marc Blondeau, CEO of the Société de la Place des Arts de Montréal. We talked about how I as a young member of the ISPA perceived the industry. I started talking about the responsibility of the arts to be the voice for the community in difficult times, and we both agreed on that. After, I shared my constant question about how to measure the response of the community to a program, or how are we creating methods to capture the intrinsic impact of the organizations. We both agreed that those measures are necessary, but as art experiences are intangible and subjective measuring them is complex. By the end of our conversation, Mr. Blondeau said that my ideas and questions were also of his interest and that I have left him with some questions to himself.

It is always fascinating being able to listen to people’s ideas about how art can transform the society and how its impact goes far beyond the economic metrics. Listening to Jude Kelly's experience and how she overcame the difficulties in her field, followed by a description of how Germany or Australia are innovating their approach to redefine community engagement, left me full of ideas and questions.Especially, Basma's life testimony; it was an eye-opening call for the duty of arts in this particular moment."

Helen Mechitova

Helen Mechitova

Art Bridge, Georgia

Generation: Millennial (by American definition)

Number of years in "The Industry": 13
Number of years in current position: 8

I would say we have a different experience of generation division. For example we have Soviet and Post-soviet generation, 90s GEN, etc. Considering the generation chart I am millennial, but having different environment and experience I have my own generational experience, which can differ from American Millennial.

My career started with the support of older generation. My peers were not as motivated as me, and I was close to stop dreaming. Later I approached experienced professionals asking for suggestions and felt that they see the value of my project. They validated, advised and made decision to finance my first project. With their help and support I am where I am now.

I want everyone feel comfortable, free and important. Usually I worked with the same age group, but in the last years I started to recruit younger generation. And I can feel the difference, which is vital to stay on the surface. Their perception and vision is important to me and I often give them a chance to be critical, but same time to offer me their vision of finding solutions. I don’t have elders in my team, and having a board is not a common thing for Georgia, but we have a group of older people who are much more experienced, and always have their opinion on what we do. I pay attention to their opinion and it is always interesting to look at your projects, from their point of view. We know that we can’t satisfy everyone, but taking all suggestions in consideration can lead to a more sustainable success in the future.

I am coming from the region where elders are highly respected on every level. This is in our culture and traditions. I would say sometimes blind over-respect can cause wrong decision making, and ideas or approaches of younger generations can be underestimated."

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Ariadna Reyes

Lado Be, Mexico/Spain

Generation: "Xennials" ("a crossover generation between Gen X and Millennial")

Number of years in "The Industry": 14
Number of years in current position: A few months

I was born in 1981 in Mexico City and I think I’m in between the Gen X and the Millenial generation. Xennials are a crossover generation, I grew up in an analog environment and my adulthood became digital. I used a landline to call my friends, but also the first mobile phones. I usually tend to meet the people at least once in the real life before adding them on Facebook. Whatsapp sometimes is overwhelming but I love Dropbox. I think I have certain resistance - a short one - when it comes to new technologies, but I adapt fast when I decide to go for it.

I started to work in the industry in 2004 at the record label responsible for introducing the Buena Vista Social Club to Mexico. I’ve been devoted to music and other performing arts for almost 14 years and in different areas.

Currently, I’m an external consultant for Lado Be, a private agency based in Mexico City. My last daily-basis position in that agency (2014-2017) I called it myself as “Concert and Tour Manager”, but in this industry, you know we tend to do a lot of duties, because apart of producing all the concerts and tours, I wrote press releases if needed, did artistic research if we required to propose a program for a festival, went to a sponsor follow-up meeting if my boss couldn’t make it and even supervising social media content along with the team in charge of it. With the aim of being less ignorant, by the end of 2017 I moved to Barcelona to pursue a Master’s Degree in Music as an Interdisciplinary Art.

I can remember different situations where I felt validated (I’ve been lucky), but the most important happened during my second year of professional experience after college. I was at the National Fund for Culture and the Arts (FONCA) as an assistant to Cristina King, Head of the Development Department. In general terms and in a very short time, she trusted me with sensitive information about the department but also about the performing arts market: Mexico Gateway to the Americas, where she was in charge of proposing potential international programmers’ profiles to participate in this congress organized by FONCA itself. She recommended to her superiors that I continue with that research as she was quitting the institution to move into a new job. At the end, they didn’t give me that opportunity but my work spoke and I stayed in the institution, assisting in the congress’ market, focusing on the exhibitors mainly from abroad.

Later, by the same time, and as a freelance job, Cristina recommended that I be part of the coordination of an international event held in Mexico City: the Regional Meeting of the Res Artis organization, which was aiming to meet with Mexican professionals involved with artist residencies. I remember that even in her way to speak about me with the rest of the team, she validated me, as instead of assistant I was the “Associate Coordinator”. That was the first time that I worked with an international organization and I felt important. To me, Cristina King was a mentor in the beginning of my professional career, and I think, mentoring has to be in the set of skills of any leader. Mentoring is taking the risk but at the same time being committed to stand very close in the process, with loving patience, supervising carefully but giving confidence to the apprentice. Now, that I reflect on this, I think I’ve tried to mentor in that way in my own practice, but as I write this down, I’m thinking that we always need to remind ourselves that we were once in those very first steps in our careers.

In Mexico, I was taught to “respect my elders”, but I think I took that too seriously and sometimes I’ve double sized the authority, restraining myself in giving my opinion. I feel that the generation after me is less afraid of speaking up more freely and I like that.

Finally, these thoughts make me conclude that we need to be grateful with the ones that have believed in us, never forget them, but also being attentive observers to the youngest, and that means, being humble and open. That’s also inclusion."

Millie Tsai

Head of International Programs
Contemporary Legend Theatre, Taiwan

Generation: Generation X

Number of years in the industry: 20+
Number of years in current position: Less than a year

Many moons ago, when I was straight out of university, one of the first artists I worked with was Tatiana Nikolayeva, an incredible Russian pianist who mastered Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues beautifully. She was in her 60s at the time. Despite possessing extraordinary musical intelligence, she insisted on practicing for hours before the concerts to ensure audiences would see her in best form. I was struck by her incredible energy and her devotion to achieving excellence in arts. That experience with her pretty much set the tone for my work ethic throughout my career.

Years later, when I was the general manager of Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Center, I found myself inspired by the same work ethic and drive, except this time it was demonstrated by amateur children as they rehearsed and performed with West End artists through our Spotlight Academy program. Working with all these people has taught me one thing: It is the passion and devotion to further the arts that bonds us together –it doesn’t matter what generation you belong to.

At my current workplace, Contemporary Legend Theatre in Taiwan, we have people of different generations in the company and the general consensus is that everyone can bring something to the table.

It is accepted that older colleagues are usually a stable force – they can offer good advice and their suggestions or recommendations are based on experience. On the other hand, younger colleagues are usually more adaptable in their thinking and in the use of tools such as social media – so they have many suggestions about how to engage the more youthful audiences we want to attract. One topic, however, is often at the center of our conversations – that of ‘respecting your elders’. I’m of the opinion that everyone should be afforded respect; ‘respect your elders’ should never mean that other people don’t deserve respect just because they haven’t ‘earned it’ by existing for less time.

Contemporary Legend Theatre is built around Peking Opera which, as a traditional art, is tied closely to traditional thinking. Years of training are required – and so in many theatre companies there may be an unspoken understanding that older people have ‘paid their dues’. When seniority is based largely on experience a natural corollary is a ‘pecking order’; a vertical structure that’s very different to most theatre companies, particularly those in the West. So – and especially because we’re trying to bring this art form to new, younger audiences – we have to work hard to ensure that everyone can work together and benefit from each other’s strengths and energy, not just their experience. It can be tempting for the older generation to play the role of an authoritative figure, giving instructions or orders. That’s when others can feel that their opinions are not valued, so they stop giving them and quickly get de-motivated.

It is vital for leaders to make it clear that everyone’s contribution is valid, no matter what their age. The leader also needs to create an atmosphere of mutual respect, where people listen to each other and together find the best way forward. If we look at the respective strengths of different generations, they complement each other very well. I also think a good leader should be able to identify with people of different generations, and act as a mediator. After all, I think the older we get, the less empathetic we can become, forgetting what it was like for us when we were younger. And a good leader should also empower people – that’s especially important for younger people, who want to be given responsibility, to take ownership and to solve problems.

There’s no disadvantage to working together, yet in too many places people can be unwilling to accept new ideas or advice often because the former is presented as a way of ‘brushing aside the old’, and the latter is presented in the form of  ‘that’s how we have always done it’. Open communication and discussion are vital – they make it easier to see other points of view, solve problems and resolve conflicts.

Communication can be difficult across generations, especially as they use different tools, such as WhatsApp or LINE instead of emails or phone calls. Each needs to recognize that the different methods have advantages and disadvantages and aren’t simply ‘the way other generations do it’. One example: we were extremely grateful to have ‘old-fashioned’ physical copies of some scripts recently when we were applying for government funding and found all the soft copies that were supposed to be stored on the computer hard drives from years ago had disappeared!

Wu Hsing-kuo, our Artistic Director and founder once said to me, “If you’re not open, you’re closed.” And that’s vital when you’re working in a theatre company with a mission to bring innovative thinking and new audiences to a traditional art form. I’ve worked in several different parts of the world, and I think that the challenge of getting different generations to work and create together is similar to that of getting people from different cultural backgrounds together – in fact, inter-generational collaboration is a form of intercultural collaboration; it’s about appreciating that we can all contribute and bring fresh ways of thinking to achieve more."

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