Learning from my work – how not to manage change

I’ve been working in my current job for just over 6 months.  I agonised about taking it, I’m not really supposed to work when doing a PhD and the money (hello the arts) isn’t a great incentive.  But I pitched myself forward and really warmed to those who interviewed me.  I got excited. When I got the job I had a few tell me that the organisation was a bit difficult and, given my previous experience, this set of some alarm bells. But my gut feel was positive so I dived in.

Like any job there’s some adjustment.  The team, small yet very flexible and agile (really, not cliché), was close-knit and there’s a lot of ‘this is the way we do things’.  But the way they do things is steeped in history and love for the community in which they work.  It took time, as it always does, for me to find a place where I fit in this group.  How I could contribute without stepping on toes. After a few months I felt a shift.  We found our rhythm. I loved going to the office. Not just to avoid writing, but because these crazy-funny, passionate people were doing great things under stressful professional (and sometimes personal) circumstances.

In my research I’m not really interested in the hierarchical leadership or governance that comes from a board.  Professionally most boards I’ve dealt with have been abstract concepts. A bit scary to present to, but relatively benign.  Not so here.

From early on I saw how the board was combative, difficult, interventionist. It caused the loss of one great staff member and was clearly a thorn in the side of the AD/CEO.

But this was just the start.

A few weeks the board decided to push a massive organisational change. Restructuring the CEO/AD’s role and suggestive a large organisational strategy shift.  I say suggesting as there really has been no evidence of strategy formation or documentation.  The CEO/AD did the only thing she could in choosing to resign on her own terms.

Now the chaos.

Taking a step back, I’m not unfamiliar with organisational change, restructures and the like. 10 years as an HR person, including a heavy period during the GFC, gave me experience in the management of change projects and downsizing.  I understand how these things personally impact individuals, and have been made redundant myself.

Within the arts world it is even harder.  While I was never personally passionate about credit cards, I and my colleagues are very emotionally connected to what we do.  Most people I work with are artists, craftspeople, writers, curators and makers.  We work in this sector for love.  This organisation, more than any I’ve worked for, has given me entry into a true community. It’s been a great insight for how communities of practice evolve and sustain learning, feeding into both my thesis and my plans for a post PhD career.

After the initial shock of the resignation, we had a flurry of board members coming in to ‘talk us through’ what was happening.  But that was all they did.  Talk. Implying all the while that they were struggling with the shock of the resignation, as it was completely surprising to them.  Let’s not forget they engineered the whole process.  Here’s a few other things that did and did not happen:

  1. An interim CEO was appointed within 10 days with no advertisement or call out.
  2. There has been no written communication to staff about what it occurring, why the CEO/AD role was split in two or what the organisational strategy is moving forward.  Instead in meetings we hear words like “synergy” and “innovation” without any real content.  Apparently retail and exhibition space will double and resources be greater, but there is no plan on how this will occur.
  3. All this happened in the month following the confirmation of state and federal government funding, which is contingent on agreed business plans.  Yet suddenly the business plans have changed.
  4. It’s also the biggest month of the year for the organisation, as we run a month-long festival and two large-scale events. Timing is everything.
  5. No communications plan or FAQs have been created or given to either the comms manager or staff.  Despite the fact we are getting bombarded with questions from the community, consequently the narrative of this change is a mess.
  6. Five staff have chosen to resign or not renew their contracts (me included) because of the actions of the board over the past three months.  This is within a core team of under 15.
  7. The board have made it clear that there should be more full-time employees, fundamentally misunderstanding how flexibility of work is the number one selling point for arts workers and the fact that it brings incredible value to the organisation.
  8. Staff who remain have no idea who they will be working for, how their roles will be impacted and are left with a feeling that what they have achieved in the past three years (which is amazing) has not been recognized by the board.
  9. The board say there is a ‘lack of membership engagement’.  Yet in my 7 months I have a) never met a board member or b) never had one come to one of my events.  On Monday we held the largest event of our year, a conference with over 200 people involved.  Not one board member attended or even sent a message of luck to the team.

This last point has me particularly mad, as this is an incredibly engaged community. More so than any arts organisation I’ve been part of.

So what now?  For me I have four more days of work and a heavy heart.  For my friends and colleagues the future is uncertain. And for the community there could be the potential loss of a great institution, with nearly 50 years of history and a passionate voice. This is a lesson for us all.



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