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How to be a boss about being a boss

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Emma Clark Gratton

Whether you have a team of reports or a single offsider, learning to manage people is an essential career skill.
How to be a boss about being a boss

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So, you’ve been working with your arts organisation for a while, on the bottom few rungs of the ladder. You finally get a promotion to a position where you are responsible for a few people, and realise that not only do you have to get your own work done, but you have to make sure that your team is happy, productive and efficient.

Being a leader does not come naturally to many people, so instead of channelling David Brent or Gordon Gecko, try to use your own strengths so you feel confident managing in a way which suits you. If you are an introvert, don't feel like you need to have group meetings; instead, catch up with your team members one-on-one. And remember that you have been hired for a reason, so trust that you do know what to do. And make sure you ask for help!

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Finding a mentor is important, said Ann Tonks, a cultural manager with over 30 years’ experience, 18 of them running the Melbourne Theatre Company. ‘It’s scary managing people for the first time and it’s great to have someone you can talk to about the challenges you’ll face.’

A mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone older and wiser, but it helps if they have more experience managing people and are sympathetic to your concerns.  ‘That person should be someone you well comfortable with and trust because you’re going to want to be able to talk to them freely and get good advice from them,’ said Tonks.

Asking for help is not weakness, said Tonks. ‘You don’t – and shouldn’t be expected - to know it all.’

Don’t walk into your first management role and start making huge changes immediately. Get the lay of the land first, have one-on-one meetings with all your direct reports, and get feedback on what is and isn’t working.

Many new managers are not brave enough to try new approaches, said Tonks, but that doesn’t mean you should insist on change for change’s sake. ‘You’ve probably got the job because of the good ideas you proposed at the interview but you need to check the validity of the ideas with the people around you – staff and other managers.’

Managing is about relationships

Read: What an arts career really looks like

If you’re received a promotion within your current company, don’t expect to join in any after-work vent sessions. ‘Your relationship with people who were previously your peers will change. You can’t be the best friend of someone who works for you,’ said Tonks.

That said, it can help to have a select few people who you can ask for advice and let your guard down with. ‘Find your peers and don’t be afraid to ask for advice – I‘m trying to do more of this,’ said Katherine Hoepper, general manager at La Boite Theatre Company in Brisbane.

‘It’s a bit like being a parent for the first time – you want everyone to think you’ve got it all under control, but if you have a few trusted people around you who you can share war stories with and talk through problems, you can feel less alone.’

Emotional intelligence

Before you were a manager, your number one job was to accomplish tasks. Now, your job is to help other people accomplish the tasks in an outstanding way. Generally, getting to a management level means you are a step removed from the grunt work of most industries. You will spend more time putting out fires, allocating resources and dealing with competing agendas than doing the frontline creative work. But managing resources is a breeze when compared to managing people.

‘The key to effective management is your capacity to manage resources and people,’ said Tonks. ‘In many ways, resources are the easiest part of the portfolio as long as you have a good analytical brain and have studied subjects such as finance and project management. But the really tough challenge is managing people. In this area, the skills required are more subtle and based around the qualities of emotional intelligence. You also have to have the resilience to deal with the changes and challenges that are part and parcel of working in the arts.’

Part of managing people is understanding how they learn best. People have different ways of processing information, interacting with others and working through issues, said Hoepper. ‘I see that a lot of the challenges in teams comes from a conflict between these work styles, so trying to help others see these differences and support them with tools to best work together is something I try to focus on. And it’s something I draw on when managing people.’

Steer the ship

Read: Time management for portfolio careers

Due to the volatile nature of the arts industry, a manager can feel like they are in a warzone: rallying troops and keeping spirits high, all with limited resources. But your team will be looking to you to set the culture, which is much more nuanced than gimmicky team-building activities. Feeling like part of a team is important for employees, and your own success and failure will depend on your team. This means if your team fails, you fail. And if they succeed? You can take credit, but you must share it with the rest of the group, too—or they won’t be motivated to do a great job for you in the future. Taking on a true team-oriented focus will be a huge key to your success.

‘In my experience, managers in the arts are as diverse as the work we make,’ said Hoepper. ‘Thanks to that we have a vibrant sector, multiple opinions and vigorous debate. But I think it’s important to be passionate, adaptable, solution-oriented and collaborative. No two days are ever the same, so you have to be prepared to throw the plan out the window and find creative solutions for any problems that arise.’

It can also help to think ahead. How will you deal with a team member who is underperforming? Or an overachiever who you’d love to promote but can’t because of budget cuts? Considering these potential situations before they arise can help you to be stay calm in the face of angry staff, low morale and falling productivity.

About the author

Emma Clark Gratton is an ArtsHub staff writer.

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