There Must Be a Leader

In this difficult environment, many arts organizations are facing daunting problems. Reduced earned and contributed income has led to severe cash flow problems.

In many cases things have gotten so dire that boards and staff members are working on emergency efforts to meet cash flow demands and find some measure of stability. In many organizations special committees are established to deal with the emergency. These committees meet frequently, review major issues, seek solutions and encourage others to participate.

It always moves me when I see board and staff working together to save an organization. There is typically a deep dedication to mission mixed with a sense of obligation. It would be so easy for anyone, especially volunteer board members, to walk away from the mess and focus on other parts of their lives.

But these generous and dedicated people are not going to let 'their' organizations die. They will put in as much time and energy as it takes to ensure the success of the turnaround.

But as much as I admire these collective efforts, they also scare me.

In too many instances the emergency committee (which may or may not have an official name or status) works by consensus. Even if the committee has a chairman, and the organization has an executive director, every decision gets made only after a string of emails copied to numerous people are reviewed and responded to. The desire to build consensus overwhelms the need for speed and entrepreneurialism.

The truth is that the first rule of a turnaround is: There must be a leader.

Organizations in trouble simply do not have the time to wait for circular discussions to wind up (or down) with a decision. Decisions must be taken quickly and plans approved and implemented without delay. The leader of the turnaround must be given the freedom to negotiate deals, pursue fundraising and marketing ideas and move the organization ahead. Outreach to potential donors must be accomplished with alacrity and contracts signed expeditiously to speed the inflow of funds.

The ad hoc committee of concerned board and staff members must anoint someone to be the leader. Ideally this is the executive director who is ideally placed to run the turnaround. But it can be a board member if the staff leadership is not strong enough of an entrepreneur to change the fortunes of the organization.

Turnaround leaders must be open to the good ideas of others; they are not the only ones who can develop creative solutions. And they are not empowered to make radical changes without any consultation. Major strategy decisions must be approved in advance. But they must have the ability to get approval for a new approach quickly, not having to wait for a regularly scheduled meeting or for all members of a committee to develop their own approaches to the issue at hand. It is a tough balancing act.

But those organizations willing to empower one such collaborative, creative, entrepreneur to lead the turnaround are a giant step towards solving their problems.