James Abruzzo
serves as Executive Vice President and Managing Director, Nonprofit Practice, at DHR International. He has over 25 years of experience as a consultant to nonprofit organizations. Mr. Abruzzo is also Co-Director and Co-Founder of The Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leadership at Rutgers Business School. He lectures frequently at major business schools in the U.S. and abroad.
Cultural leadership

Creating the company culture

A healthy culture aligned with ethical values is what distinguishes the great arts institutions. But what does the sustainability of an arts organization depend on? In which way are different stakeholders affected and what does the leaders role look like?
When Dominic Barton assumed the position of managing director at McKinsey, the global management consultant firm, he identified his biggest challenge as fixing the culture. A prior managing director had been convicted of insider trading and another director was indicted on similar charges. Mr. Bartons job was not just tightening the rules, but also changing the culture so that McKinseys ethical standards of behavior were understood, followed, self-monitored and reinforced among its almost 20,000 partners and employees globally.

Corporate culture (Unternehmenskultur) is a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop. Research demonstrates that ethical companies, with a culture and mission aligned with its values are, in the long run, the most successful. The same holds true for arts organizations (Kulturorganisationen): a healthy culture aligned with ethical values is what distinguishes the great arts institutions.

The sustainability of an arts organization, and its greatness, depend on an interconnected group of diverse stakeholders: the government, the public, ticket buyers, donors, sponsors, critics, union stage hands, management and support staff and the artists who choose to perform with the organization. And each of these stakeholders is affected, in some way, by the companys culture. The leaders role is to create a culture where each link in the chain remains strong.

What are some of the other characteristics of an organization with strong culture and ethical values: openness and transparency where employees who come forward with great ideas are encouraged and those reporting problems are not discouraged; respect and appreciation for the art the leaders role is to insure that employees are reminded why they are working there; and for arts institutions, particularly, an atmosphere where measured risk taking and creativity is encouraged - where artists are free to experiment and at times, even fail.

Company culture goes to the heart of the difference between the manager and the leader. The arts managers job is one of control; employee attendance, work rules, pay grades, benefits, union negotiations and artist contracts. The leaders role is to inspire employees, articulate the organizations values, and create the culture that supports the art.

So what can the arts leader do to create a healthy organizational culture: insure that the values align with the mission; insure that employees are selected, evaluated, praised, promoted and recognized based on those values; maintain an atmosphere of very low tolerance for breaches of those values; mythologize employees whose extraordinary actions are the best examples of the culture; and, most importantly, lead by example, insuring that his/her personal actions are consistent with company values.

Arts organizations with healthy cultures are also the most desirable places to work. But how can you know if the organization shares your values and has a healthy culture? Since culture is created at the top, learn about the leader. Perhaps a job interview is not the place for a junior employee to determine that, but there are anecdotal accounts, conversations with former employees and your personal experience of the organization as a visitor or audience member. Things as simple as the friendliness of the ticket taker or the attitude of the telephone receptionist are good indicators of what it is like to work at the organization. The best leaders insure that the culture of the organization is consistent and apparent on all levels.

As the President of one performing arts center stated, we hire people who share our values: respect for each other, for the artists and the audience, and for the mission and goals of our company. The best artists have a choice of whether to perform at our theater, therefore if the dressing room is dirty, or our security treats them poorly or they are uncomfortable in any way, we are liable to not only lose them for future performances but to lose all the other artists of the same agency. Our reputation is formed through our culture. And I cant be there for every interaction. What insures that all these pieces are working together is the culture I create; how I select people, the way in which I reinforce those messages, the way I treat people and the way I reward them.
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