Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Year 1

Celebrating one year as Executive Director of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington has me naturally reflecting on the past 12 months. Below are just a couple observations and lessons I've learned in my first year with one of the largest community choruses in the country.

Rule #1: Give Yourself a Break

You don't know everything, and that's okay. As you move into a new role or organization (or both like me), then you're going to face a lot of firsts.
With the knowledge that you are new to an organization and the organization is new to you, don't forget to give yourself a break. Usually we are our own worst critics, but it's okay to say to yourself "I'm still learning. I'm not supposed to know this yet. Next year will be better."

Rule #2: Eyes on the Prize

You will face a lot of distractions along the way. By distractions I mean activities, people, or ideas that take you off course from achieving the organizational goals. Chances are those activities/people/ideas are wonderful and could be useful down the road. But if they are not going to help move the organization toward its current strategic goals, then they're not helpful right now.

In particular, you will get a lot of advice if you are in a leadership role (see Rule #4). Listen to all the feedback you receive, utilize that which is helpful and put aside that which will take you off course. Always thank everyone who gives you advice (see Rule #7), and remember that you know your organization better than most because you work in it every day (and many nights). No one likes to say it, but it's okay to say "thank you" and then take no action. It's your job to decide what is important and what is not, so stick to your guns and stay focused on the goals of the organization.

Rule #3: Don't Press Send

Chances are you will need to have a tough conversation at some point. Don't do this over email. No matter how many nice words you use, the reader of that email can interpret your tone and intention in any number of ways. In addition to risking miscommunication, you risk disrespecting the recipient by not taking the time to show them they are worth a phone call. If you find yourself wordsmithing an email, it's because you're using the wrong medium.

One last point - emails can be saved and forwarded to anyone, so if you decide to write then assume the audience is everyone.

Rule #4: Ask for Help

A frequently cited fundraising idiom is "the best way to get money is to ask for advice, and the best way to get advice is to ask for money." It's true, and we should all be doing both of those things. When you ask people for help you are telling them that you trust them and want them to influence your life/work. This is how you build relationships, and most of your job as a leader is dependent upon relationships. Keep asking for help from those you trust (also, keep asking for money because your organization needs it).

Rule #5: Balance

If you are in a leadership position, it's because you are driven. But don't drive yourself into the ground. You need balance in your life between work, play, family, love, etc. I have been told over and over that the organization's health is dependent on the health of its staff. I have also found that I am more productive at work when other interests in my life are allowed to flourish.

"Date Night With Myself" and "Do Not Schedule Anything" should be frequent occurrences in your calendar. In this spirit of setting aside your own time, don't respond to every email the minute you receive it. For instance, if you read a work email on a Sunday, then you might wait until Monday morning to respond (unless it's urgent).

Rule #6: Encourage Intelligent Risks

Steve Jobs took risks, huge ones. It's easy to be so focused on perfection that we are afraid of failure. And if we live in fear, then we stop being creative. If we stop being creative then we start being boring. And frankly, there is no place for "boring" in the arts. This doesn't mean that every idea under the sun is a good one, but every idea should be thoughtfully considered. And a few risky ideas should be deployed (with reasonable checks in place to avoid catastrophe). To learn and grow, an organization must take risks and occasionally make a mistake. Managed mistakes are okay, and managed risks are a must for all artists and arts organizations.

Rule #7: Thank You Notes

If you need an explanation about this one, I'll put you in touch with my mother.

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