Strategies for Change Leaders
Change is challenging. Even if you’re like me and think the newness of change is exciting, the several stages of transition can be difficult to manage. However, my experience using Community Arts principles and administering Utah’s Change Leader program has provided me with a framework on how to lead change in my arts administration workplace.
I moved to Sacramento for a new position in January. New jobs, I find, are the best time to exercise my Community Arts practice. I need to thoroughly understand my new constituency, their values, and their needs. Getting out and conducting fieldwork or informal ethnographic research (read: talking to people and going to events) is how I generally get oriented. This approach can also be applied to the workplace, as a self-contained community. It is important to take the time do this as a newbie, because no one likes a newcomer—in any level of leadership—to start making radical changes without getting to know some background information.
While at my previous post at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, I had the distinct pleasure of administering the Change Leader program—a three-day institute that aims to help those working in the arts and cultural sector to lead positive change in their communities. Some of the concepts in this program (one of which I will mention later) have added to my Community Arts practice in terms of leading change.
Whether you’re leading change in an old or new environment, here are some elements I suggest considering:
Challenge the status quo: Being new to a workplace or community is a great opportunity to engage this tactic. See something strange about a process in your workflow? Ask why it’s like that. Is it because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”? That’s your cue to propose something new. Remember: this works in two directions. Be open if someone challenges your processes—you might learn something new.
Bend the rules: Most of my arts administration career has been within large bureaucracies—universities and government. These entities have a bazillion policies, statutes, and ordinances to follow, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative within these boundaries. Be a student of your institution’s policies—what do they not say? This is your opening. Be sure to know the difference between bending and breaking. (Don’t do anything illegal.)
Be transparent (and create buy-in): You will not create systemic change working in a vacuum. When you want to create change in your workplace, make sure people know what you’d like to change. By building trust through transparency over time, you can begin to create buy-in from others. Your relationships and buy-in from others will prove invaluable if you’re planning on rallying the troops to make bigger changes down the road.
Use your agency: In alignment with transparency is using your agency. If you have purview over a certain task or decision, don’t be afraid to make a change that could make a difference. And don’t ask for permission unnecessarily. Do you need to ask your boss if you can use photos to represent more than one specific demographic on a brochure that you’re updating? Do you need to get approval to make sure your website images include alt text? Use your best judgment. Small changes add up.
Be powerful: One of the main concepts discussed in the Change Leader program is a very specific definition of power. The program defines power as the ability to get all of what you want from the environment, given what’s available. I believe one of the most important elements in creating change for yourself as an arts professional is the second part of this definition—given what’s available. Sometimes when you need growth, a more emotionally stable environment, or an entirely different set of responsibilities, if it’s not available where you are, consider moving on. There have been several Change Leader program participants who subsequently quit their jobs and started their own organizations or businesses. Some even ran for public office (two became mayors!) after realizing the change they wanted to create was not available within their current positions.
Whether you’re trying to lead change where you are, or exploring the possibility of a change of environment, using some of these tactics when entering a new situation can be helpful. Listen. Be patient. Be open to criticism. Take time to get to know your community and workplace culture before making changes to your environment. (Side note: this takes longer than you think.) Make sure you meet people where they are, and realize everyone has a different comfort level with change.
Sometimes I feel like I’m not making a difference as an arts administrator because I’m not actually creating art. Making change, however, is my time to get creative at work. It’s exciting to examine procedures from a new perspective, find ways to push limits with policy, create sincere relationships with my coworkers, be confident in my administrative choices, and feel like an agent of change in my work. Change isn’t easy, but these strategies can be.