The Pipeline is Leaking, and it’s Clogged Too

Posted by Marc Vogl, Apr 09, 2010 0 comments

When someone leaves an organization one has to ask: did they jump or were they pushed?

The ‘arts leaders of tomorrow’ are leaping, and getting shoved out of the arts non profits all the time – and it’s one of the biggest problems those of us who want to see dynamic arts organizations contribute to a vital society must solve.  (By the way I know everyone is sick of debating what ‘emerging’ means in the leadership discussion but can we get a cool acronym or something to shorthand the group of people in the early part of their careers in the arts?).

The problem is not just that the pipeline for developing, nurturing and promoting talent is leaking and causing many folks to bail when they make it to the other side of 30 (as Edward notes in his comment); it’s that many of those folks who do the time and who pay their dues hit their head on their career path ceiling and realize that they’re going to have hang out on the rung halfway up the ladder for a long long time.

Ok, so now I am mixing metaphors (pipelines? ladders?) but as I read other posts I can see this theme being called out.  Shannon points to the “ED shuffle,”  - the phenomena of executive directors (usually Boomers) moving from ED position to ED position, never leaving an opening for a younger leader to step up.” Clay comments that “emerging leaders feel stymied by a lack of movement at the top — current leaders can’t or won’t retire.” There are good and bad reasons for managers and executives to stay in place for decades*, but the fact remains: working for years without opportunities for advancement is demoralizing.  And when the pipeline is clogged those stuck in it look for a way out.

As a funder working for a program whose mission is to support an arts ecosystem, and not specific arts organizations, the salient unit of analysis for me is the sector. My problem is not whether the E.D. at Organization X has been in charge for 25 years, the next two senior managers have been there 15 years and the other 2-10 people on staff are in their 20s and turnover every 1-2 years; my problem is that when those 2-10 other people on staff leave Organization X they may not go to Organization Y and, instead, leave the arts field altogether. And when they go they are taking with them whatever investment Organization X made in their professional development, their accrued experience, and the professional networks they’ve cultivated and their own creativity and passion for the arts to deploy somewhere else.

Again, as I mentioned in my earlier post, exiting the system might be the right decision for the individual – and as many others have described in their posts, working in the arts in the 21st century is not synonymous with working for a 501c3s arts organization - but if all the under 35 bloggers participating in this salon, for example, left the non profit arts sector that would probably be pretty bad for the arts, right?  And if every tuned-in person under 35 reading these posts split….well, I think a certain Dr. Egon Spengler said something  about what happens when you cross the streams that sums up how bad that would be.**

Is ‘unclogging’ the pipeline a simple thing to do? Of course not.

Is the answer, to paraphrase the Boomer radical Jerry Rubin, for a board not to trust or renew the contract for any manager over 30? That would be pretty dopey too.

However, organizations that are not attentive to the career goals of their younger staff and capable of making space for the bright lights they have on board to matriculate into positions where they not only have responsibility but real authority, will continue to struggle to hang on to those talents.

*From the perspective of what makes an organization successful I actually have a hard time thinking of ‘good reasons’ for one person to stay in the same executive leadership position for decades. The conventional answer is that experienced and stable management and governance structures strengthens an organization, but I think - and it may be that I am unduly influenced by working at a foundation that limits program officers to 8 year terms – new voices and fresh blood does a body good too.

**This Ghostbusters reference is for all the Gen Xers reading along. In the interests of intergenerational inclusion...

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