Getting Real About Your People

Getting Real About Your People

David Seals
Director of Client Development

Every person on your team is growing daily in one of two directions: adding to or detracting from the work. As the chief executive, it’s illuminating to ask yourself two honest questions:

1. Visualize your star performer, the one you can count on when it matters. What characteristics define them? What affect do they have on the organization? On the people around them?

2. Visualize your lowest performing employee. What characteristics define them? What affect do they have on the organization? On the people around them?

Great chief executives not only ask these questions regularly, they do something with the answers. What to do is rarely simple and never easy, yet the cost of doing nothing (for both high and low-performing employees) is staggering. So how do you proceed?

Star Performers: Growth or Burnout?

Consider this: In 2011, I served on the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leader Council with 14 peers thought to represent the field’s future. Only eight of them still work in the arts. Fifty-seven percent.

That path is all too common. Energetic, excited employees join our marketing and fundraising teams, bringing with them new ideas, connections to new communities, and the latest thinking from their university experience or previous job. They work enthusiastically, driven by the mission and a desire to make an impact. After years of swimming over their head with no training or (worse) having their ideas drowned in a sea of We-Already-Tried-Thats, they give up and let the waters take them under. They strike out for another arts organization or leave the field entirely.

A word about salaries: you must consider opportunity cost. A quick internet search for “cost of employee turnover” reveals a plethora of calculators to help you quantify the cost of turnover. It’s staggering—and more so for high performing employees who exit. At the end of the day, would raising a star performer’s salary by the cost of replacing them be the smarter business choice?

Low Performers: Change or Status Quo? You’ve got them, and you know it. In fact, everyone else in the organization also knows it. You can cultivate them or you can let them go, but doing nothing breeds a culture of mediocrity and resentment that will poison your organization. Under-performing employees likely aren’t even happy themselves, let alone their effect on the coworkers who pick up the slack.

It Starts and Ends with You
I recently attended a session at the Theatre Communications Group conference on the ways in which bias creeps subtly into the workplace. It’s important for leaders to evaluate how their own bias might be affecting their definitions of employee success, as well as who they have promoted or entrusted with increasing responsibility. A leader’s preferred personal working style can’t be divorced from their own cultural background, and great leaders will evaluate this thoughtfully as they build their teams.

Your organizational culture is your own creation. Regardless of your predecessor, your organizational history or your board composition, you build the look and feel of your team by how you lead today. Your team wants clarity and leadership. If you commit to accountability and reward results, if you bolster your teams by investment in training, if you commit both to joy and to hard work, you’ll craft a culture of mutual respect and hard work that keeps employees for a long time.




For more on this topic, listen to Jill Robinson’s guest appearance on Capacity Interactive’s podcast, CI to Eye | Our People Crisis in the Arts,

Posted October 5, 2018

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