Leadership Transition

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 1 (Spring 2008), 2007 Conference Proceedings

MK Wegmann
Are we helping nonprofits prepare themselves for the challenges of future leadership transition?

Jennifer Hill, Ruth Mott Foundation (moderator); Lauren Renee Hayes, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Lisa Mount, Alternate ROOTS (interlocutors).

Concerns about leadership succession and leadership development loom large today, particularly among arts organizations founded in the last thirty years. Artistic succession issues are especially acute for organizations led by founders, by individuals approaching retirement, or by those who decide to take another direction in their work. Compounding the problem is the large number of MFAs pouring into the field annually — more than 400,000 according to a recent report.

In this roundtable session on leadership transition, the topic was framed by Jennifer Hill from the Ruth Mott Foundation. Discussion began with comments from Lisa Mount, who has recently worked with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Cornerstone Theater to document their respective approaches to artistic director succession, and Renée Hayes, associate director of Grants for the Arts, a San Francisco city agency that provides operating support to arts organizations to promote their stability. The conversation was wide-ranging.

Perhaps the most significant decision facing organizations experiencing artistic leader succession is whether the organization should continue to exist when that visionary leader leaves. This quandary about survival is going to differ depending on the type of organization. The greatest struggles arise when the entire artistic corpus stemmed — or seems to have stemmed — from one individual. To succeed, new artistic leaders must be given room to develop their own vision, and not be expected to be clones of their predecessor. Yet board, constituents, and staff may be so tied to the past, the organization can't move on and change. In other cases, original leaders may not have built a stable organization around themselves, so there is no infrastructure to support or sustain a new leader.

Then there are generational tensions, an aspect of the topic that provoked much discussion. On the one hand, a younger generation of aspiring leaders with freshly minted degrees and burning ambition may confront a seemingly entrenched generation of founders whose entrepreneurial zeal and learning-on-the-job created a successful organization; founders who are perceived to be unwilling to move aside. On the other hand, leaders approaching retirement age who have invested everything in their organizations and nothing in their personal futures may feel unable to retire or plan for succession, having seen literally hundreds of potential successors cycle through their organizations without being able to hold on to them. This facet of leadership transition relates directly to organizational stability. It begs the question of the competency of recent graduates to take over organizations, and it starts to clarify the kinds of support organizations need as they move through the stages of growth. Though not every organization deserves to go on forever, needlessly losing valuable bodies of work harms the field and should not be tolerated.

This led the conversation to the appropriate role of grantmakers in intervening when they perceive an organization's personnel faltering in their leadership responsibilities. This part of the discussion generated many questions and few answers. Should grantmakers notify boards when they see staff are overburdened? Should grantmakers withhold future funding when they perceive that human resources are inadequately deployed, whether or not a project was carried out successfully? What should grantmakers do when funding is given to create a staff position and an organization cannot sustain that position beyond the special funding, or when the hire is wrong and the funder sees it but the board or organization does not? The tension between a grantmaker's responsibility to spend resources wisely and an organization's right to self-determination is long-standing and complex. How are organizations of color holding up in this changing landscape? Should they be given different considerations?

The end of the session left us with even more questions. How do organizations plan for succession? Can the field create a body of knowledge through case studies and exemplars to help others? What kinds of funding strategies — mentorship programs, for example — are needed? Are there ways to redress historical inequities and provide for retirement funds? What programs exist that tackle leadership transition, and how much interest is there among funders for this? Do young people entering the arts field see a future for themselves in it? How can founders and leaders reap the rewards of their years of hard work and retire with dignity when they are ready to do so? What are the lessons for organizations being formed today?

The number of questions is evidence of the importance of leadership transition to arts organizations and grantmakers alike. While no one strategy or approach will work for everyone facing transition, disseminating lessons learned is an essential part of the process.