Client Engagement Officer
“We invest in Barter and our employees. They grow as we grow. We plan for our staff to blossom.”
Richard Rose, Barter Theatre
Data and analytics are important, but they don’t make the work happen. It is the staff who implement plans, build relationships, and deliver results. All too often, our industry finds it difficult to invest in the personal and professional development of staff. This has led to the common wisdom that “to grow, I’ve got to go” in order to gain more responsibility and salary. This lack of corporate ladder has huge ramifications. Staff turnover is expensive.
Luckily there are leaders in our industry who are investing in growing loyalty and engagement for both patrons and staff. I am thrilled to write this inaugural column, which will appear in each Arts Leadership Review, profiling an innovative leader in our field. For this issue, I had the pleasure of talking with Producing Artistic Director of Barter Theatre in Virginia, Richard Rose.
Richard, who has led Barter for more than 26 years, has created a special place where staff members are engaged and empowered. He has applied a unique organizational structure that fosters creative risk-taking resulting in a thriving arts organization including employee growth.
When asked how he does it, Richard said, “It all starts with listening. We listen to our employees about their dreams, thoughts, and visions.”
To create this environment Richard uses an organizational structure called The Spiderweb. It was invented for organizations that need to function in a world of consistent and rapid change; much like the way arts organizations experience each season due to the variety of programming.The Spiderweb was purposely designed to get rid of the bureaucratic layers that slow people down and kill creativity. A spiderweb, by design, relies on multiple lines in multiple directions to create support. Barter’s spiderweb works in a similar way. Employees are given easy pathways for collaboration and the ability to pull in the needed resources. This creates a productive and satisfied staff.
When describing his role in Barter’s spiderweb, Richard explained, “My job is to monitor communication and make sure people are collaborating. I care for the web and repair it when needed.” He continued, “Organizational structures matter. Our spiderweb is the reason why people stay here for a long time. They can get things done and they can get satisfaction.”
Richard also reinforced the need for clarity within the structure saying, “I make sure the vision is understood and everyone knows the goals.”
Richard does acknowledge that the structure can be a tough sell, especially to someone who is risk adverse and interested in controlling power: “Young people get it immediately. It makes complete sense to them. Whenever I show it to a business person or new Board Member, they look at me like I am from another planet. But soon they experience how effective it is and embrace it.”
And, it delivers results. The structure trains the staff to be entrepreneurial. At Barter, audiences, staff, and programming have grown. “We have one of the largest Actors’ Equity Association work weeks within Actors’ Equity and League of Resident Theatres (LORT). For a theater that is a LORT D theater in coal country of rural Virginia (and Appalachia) – that is amazing. We have also grown while most theaters have fallen back. We are always trying things. We believe at Barter that you have to fail in order to succeed. You have to learn from what doesn’t work,” Richard went on to say.
When Richard tells people about Barter’s spiderweb, they often say, “I want your structure.” He acknowledges some leaders are afraid to implement it: “You have to be confident in yourself that you have the power whenever you need it. But you don’t want to exercise that unless it is absolutely necessary.”
“The key is that you want to guide, coach, and build consensus. You want to get everybody moving in the same direction. It’s no different than directing a show. And, that is a vulnerable position. Most people in leadership are unwilling to be vulnerable. They are afraid they will get overthrown, dethroned and afraid they will make mistakes. What stops it, is old-school thinking,” explained Richard.
THE BARTER FOUNDATION, INCORPORATED
The Spiderweb for Barter Theatre was purposely designed to get rid of bureaucratic layers that slow people down and kill creativity. A spiderweb, by design, relies on multiple lines in multiple directions to create support. This simplified version of Barter’s Spiderweb subtly acknowledges more overt and direct connections between areas of the organization through the heavier yellow lines while also indicating the equally important, yet less overt and indirect, connections through the black lines. Employees are given easy pathways for collaboration and the ability to pull in the needed resources.
Though it is not a magic bullet. Richard agreed that our industry’s challenge with providing a robust staff ladder to climb is a real concern. “It’s a valid issue and one that cannot always be solved. At Barter we think long-term when we hire someone. We often create positions for them as they grow. We have purposely grown our organization, so we can invest in our employees. We take a long view when we hire someone.
We keep in mind the position they will move into one day. That way they get training and exposure along the way to set them up for that long view position,” described Richard. He reiterated how much Barter’s values its staff, saying “People are important. How you treat them is important. Nothing is better than your people. If you don’t have people, you have nothing.”
Richard further described how invested in people Barter is: “We may be the only theater that has 401K and full paid, 100%, healthcare for our full-time employees. We provide healthcare to our part-time employees as well. We pay the corresponding percentage of their part-time towards healthcare. If they work 20 hours a week, we will pay 50% of their healthcare.”
He continued, “People realize when you care for them. We also have a Silver Lining Fund where employees can contribute. Any employee can request Silver Lining Funds when they have a difficult situation for which they need financial assistance.”
Richard summed it all up by saying, “To really change your culture, you need to change your structure. And, lead by your own example. You must continually work at it. It’s like working on a good marriage. Yes, you are going to have dysfunctionality, but you need to keep the communication lines open.
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