The Importance of Organizations Investing in their Emerging Leaders

Posted by Ms. Serena Johnson, Apr 25, 2016 3 comments

“You need to pay your dues.”

This statement has always hit a nerve with me. Not because I don’t believe there is some truth to it, but because I believe that it focuses on a problem and not a solution. This often means that the task of “paying one’s dues”, which can be defined as “you need more experience,” is forced upon the emerging leader with no assistance and no direction provided. Decision making is for those with experience, for valid reasons, but what I question is how organizations help provide that much-needed experience to their emerging leaders.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work for multiple organizations that have valued my professional development. I believe that it has had a profound effect on my career. I have been exposed to new people, new ideas, and new methods of arts leadership in environments that would not have been otherwise available to me. 

While our sector as a whole has started to provide emerging leaders the tools to help grow and strengthen their careers, professional development opportunities within organizations are still lacking. Board committee participation, conferences, think-tanks, and workshops, are usually reserved for upper-level management. The importance of investing in the careers of emerging leaders is crucial to the development and growth of organizations as well as the arts sector as a whole.

It is time for our thinking to evolve from “paying one’s dues” to creating a roadmap to build better leaders.

1.     Create opportunities for learning within the organization

Can your Development Assistant attend a planning meeting to understand how the organization creates fundraising initiatives? Do your entry-level employees know how a board meeting is run? Where can you start bringing emerging leaders to the table to watch and learn, or even better, begin to participate?

2.    Consider setting aside funds for professional development

If possible, set a small amount aside for a class, conference, or workshop that for your emerging leaders. If you don’t have the resources, then providing paid time off can be the greatest proof of your investment in their future. Requiring your staff to use vacation time for activities that make them more valuable to the organization could be a missed opportunity for an organization to show a staff member that their growth is a priority.

3.     Become a mentor

I am a huge fan of mentors. No one should have to navigate the non-profit waters alone. My mentor has been a source of guidance when I feel frustrated or lost, but has also consistently challenged me to think critically about my development and help focus my attention on areas where I can grow. Is there an emerging leader in your organization you can work with? What goals can be set? As managers, asking an emerging leader questions like, “What do you struggle with the most?” and “How do you feel you excel?” can give insight on how to help improve their day-to-day work. Where do they see themselves in five years and, more importantly, what opportunities can your organization provide to help them along the way?

So why does this matter?

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. If leading is a skill, why do we wait to invest in developing this skill for emerging leaders? Instead of asking people to wait until their “dues have been paid”, let’s start supporting their development at the beginning of their career. That way, when it’s time for emerging leaders to step into leadership roles, they are ready.  

This blog is part of the 2016 Emerging Arts Leader Blog Salon. We asked over a dozen emerging leaders to reflect and respond to this year’s Arts Leadership Preconference theme: “Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out”.

Serena Johnson is a member of Americans for the Arts. Learn more about membership.

3 responses for The Importance of Organizations Investing in their Emerging Leaders


April 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm

As someone who has "paid their dues," I agree with this post wholeheartedly--great job! I am proud that my organization offers professional development opportunities for not only staff, but emerging arts leaders throughout our state in a variety of ways.
Could you please clarify the statement, "Requiring your staff to use vacation time for activities that make them more valuable to the organization could be a missed opportunity...?"  I think the best thing we can do is make sure that staff has adequate vacation time to recharge and regroup and not think about work at all. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I'd never require staff to do ANYTHING on vacation except enjoy the time off.

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April 26, 2016 at 2:41 pm

I love the idea of opening doors to learning within an organization, and I think this is one of the most often overlooked forms of professional development. It's also the lowest-hanging fruit. Let's encourage those with the power to do so to open these doors, and for the people waiting outside to feel empowered to knock, to say "I'd like to listen and learn." There's a saying I heard many years ago that I always think about on this topic: "Send the elevator back down." Those of us who have been fortunate to rise in our organizations should remember there are still people waiting on the ground floor, and we can help them.

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Ms. Patricia Garza says
April 28, 2016 at 12:49 am

I think shared leadership is vital for us to survive! I would say even having some informal structure for peer to peer mentoring is equally as valuable as leadership-emerging mentorship. How can we put together structured programs for mentorship? How can we give space for affinity support groups? 
Also your post made me start thinking on all the ways professional development can look like. Yes there is the typical conference model but there are also small ways a company can do this such as having open lunches to ask questions, doing smaller moments where people can learn from one another, book clubs, etc. For me it's about the facilitation and stating that professional development is important to that organization. Or when we do send folks out to conferences how can we facilitate them sharing what they learned? 

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