Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder

photo: inspiredhomefitness via flickr

photo: inspiredhomefitness via flickr

Many great thinkers in our field have discussed the complexity of talent development and succession planning in the cultural sector. Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

I’ve seen this happen in my own community. Through my role on the steering committee of Emerging Arts Leaders DC, I talk to a lot of people who have five or fewer years of experience in the field. Many of them express a love for their organizations, but a frustration at the lack of upward mobility in the structure. So, like any good employee would, these arts managers become experts at their daily job responsibilities. However, perfecting current tasks – for example, data entry – doesn’t necessarily give you the skills required for the next step in your career. It’s often people-management or leading a team that hiring managers are looking for at that next level. If those tasks are absent from your job description, how can you gain the abilities necessary for moving up the ladder?

I understand what it’s like to have your eye on the proverbial corner office but your nose stuck in a filing cabinet. Although I admit that situation is not ideal, it’s not my style to list complaints without offering some possible solutions. I argue that arts administrators can turn the situation around by becoming their own advocates and convincing others that they deserve opportunities to go beyond perfunctory tasks and tackle bigger projects.

Considering your goals and articulating where you want to be in five or ten years is a good place to start. What qualities and abilities must you test out in order to get there? To answer this question, I connected with Sally Sterling, an NAS board member and partner with Spencer Stuart, where she works to match the best talent in the cultural field with top institutions. According to Sterling, employees in junior positions should actually look to develop skills outside of their core area. “If you are looking to become a CEO someday, what you really want to do is develop cross-functional skills. So, if you work in programs, you may need to develop a skillset in the areas of development or operations,” Sterling advises. Just as cross-training with different sports helps an athlete strengthen multiple muscle groups and improve overall performance, becoming proficient in the many different aspects of running your business will boost your overall effectiveness as a leader.

But determining what you need to learn is only part of the task. If you want the opportunity to develop these skills within your organization, you will need to convey your goals to your manager and discuss the possibility of taking on some projects outside the scope of your regular responsibilities. “A good time to bring this up is during a performance review, by saying that you’d like to take on some special projects. You could give the example of a peer who did this in his/her organization,” suggests Sterling. In my experience, most bosses really do want you to succeed and will do what they can to propel you into an awesome career. Furthermore, as Sterling points out, if you’ve proven that you are a terrific employee they may be willing to negotiate the opportunity to take on expanded responsibilities so that you remain a satisfied member of their staff.

Of course, there could be some tricky internal politics that preclude your boss from giving you this kind of opportunity. In that case (or if, for whatever reason, having this kind of conversation with your supervisor is impossible), try looking outside your organization for leadership opportunities. Serving on a special committee or board of another organization is a great opportunity to both develop new skills and increase your understanding of the CEO/board relationship. My colleague Alorie Clark has some great suggestions on how to begin the search for non-profit governance opportunities in this post.

Whether you are asking for more responsibilities inside or outside your organization, be sure to consider the time commitment required. Your first and foremost priority should be carrying out the duties in your job description exceptionally well. Biting off more than you can chew can not only add stress, but also could potentially result in poor performance and a damaged reputation – not something you want when trying to climb the ladder.

Whether you are a reading this as a junior-level employee or a CEO, you are invested in the health of the cultural field. In order for this industry to truly flourish, we need to start thinking about developing future leaders at every stage in their career. The lack of opportunities to tackle new challenges at work is causing great thinkers to jump to different fields before they’ve had the chance to contribute all the great things they are capable of doing to our sector.

My advice to early-career arts managers is not to get stuck waiting around for someone to pass you an opportunity, but to go right out and ask for it. Have you ever felt stuck at a certain point on the ladder? What helped you advance to the next level?


  1. Helen Tuckey says

    Most symphony Boards in Australia have relatively few arts or musicians on them. I wonder how many musicians are on the Boards of Australian mining companies?

  2. Diane Ragsdale says

    Sunny, great post. Definitely a problem in the arts and other industries with a similar structure.

    There is also the strategy of leaving your stuck-in-the-middle post (especially if conversations with your boss are not turning into opportunities for you to develop new skills) and taking over a smaller organization. I had the chance to run a small ($1M), struggling organization just as I was turning 30 and I took it. It was a gamble for me as I didn’t have experience in many facets of the organization (and the org had $14.00 in the checking account and a crippling amount of debt) but I wanted to run something and the trustees were willing to take a gamble with me (probably because there was no one else willing to do the job). It was the best decision of my life. It was a baptism by fire but also gave me the chance to stretch and learn things I never would have learned had I stayed at my prior job as a marketing and pr director.

    You don’t have to start with an organization. Just as the best way to learn how to be a director is to direct a show – I think the best way to learn how to be a leader is to oversee something. What prompted me to want to run an organization was that six months earlier I produced a small theater piece that was successful. The show got good reviews, we sold out every performance, and made a profit. It gave me the courage and desire to go for something larger. It could have been folly (it probably was) but by doing that project, on my own, outside of any institutional structure, I could demonstrate to myself and others that I could produce something (small, sure … but you have to start somewhere). So if the opportunities are not within your organization, I say try to start by producing something on your own. Most people working in arts admin know independent artists that are looking to get a show or exhibition together. Find a project you believe in and produce it. Doing that will teach you a lot.

  3. Sunny WidmannSunny Widmann says

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Diane. I love your suggestion of producing a show or an event. Your comment also reminded me that it’s not just skills that one needs to obtain in order to lead effectively, but also confidence. Sometimes after doing the same tasks that we’ve mastered long ago, we forget that we’re capable of tackling much greater challenges. It sounds like your experience producing the theater piece really boosted your faith in your own abilities. Great suggestions here.

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