In this opinion piece, Adele Schonhardt and Tahlia Azaria reflect on their experience of business school and its impact on their arts careers.
‘So you wait for your patrons to die and hope they’ll leave you money?’ asked an incredulous classmate, questioning the notion of bequests as we drafted an arts strategy together.
Welcome to business school – a place where you’ll question everything.
I thought I’d never fit in when I started a part-time Executive MBA in 2015. Coming from a music background, I’m the only arts manager in the room, a non-profit outlier and one of just 20% women in our cohort at UNSW’s Australian Graduate School of Management.
That makes me sad, but many have written eloquently about the lack of women in leadership. What also concerns me is the absence of strong arts voices in Australia’s top management courses. There are some – including dear colleagues and friends – but they are few and far between.
I studied business because I love music and believe that the arts should be shared by all. The world is shifting and my classmate was right: our revenue streams are absurd and precarious. Create NSW just delivered the ‘poorest funding round in history’, and with the media caving in, we can’t expect our few remaining arts journalists to speak out on everyone’s behalf.
It’s up to us. Assuming we don’t plan to bump off all our patrons, we’ll need kick-arse business skills and powerful cross-sector support to see us into the next era of creativity.
Business school taught me about frame blindness: the tendency to see life through a narrow mental window. It’s easy to exist in a bubble, surrounded by wonderful, like-minded people. Yet how does this foster diversity? And how can we expect others to understand the importance and beauty of our world if we’re absent from theirs?
If you’re thinking of further training, all I can say is: widen the frame. Even better: rip a big hole in the wall. Go out there, find a course where you have nothing in common with your classmates and force yourself to consider your industry from their perspective.
Yes, you’ll come out of an MBA with kick-arse business skills. You’ll learn to interpret financial projections, create a watertight strategic plan and hold your head high in any negotiation. Best of all, you’ll share a cohort with brilliant people who’ll open your eyes to new perspectives. It’ll be confronting, too. And it’ll be hard, especially if you’re juggling a job and family. But it’ll be worth it.
You’ll need a strong support network – a wonderful partner and kids who still love you at your worst, a cheer squad of thoughtful colleagues, and a circle of friends who don’t mind you going AWOL for months. I’ve been so fortunate on all three counts.
Four years later, I’m on the verge of graduating and I no longer feel out of place. We were once asked to share anonymous feedback with our classmates. ‘You’re clearly passionate about what you do,’ wrote one respondent, ‘and you’ve inspired me to find work that I’m passionate about, too.’ That was one of my happiest moments.
I almost didn’t get into Melbourne Business School. I was asked to do a Year 9-equivalent maths test as part of my application and I failed. I was horrified at my inability to do simple calculations, and seriously questioned whether I was up to doing the part-time MBA, let alone pursuing a career as a manager.
Fast-forward four years to October 2017 and there’s a photo of me in my graduation robes, degree in one arm and my slightly bewildered one-year-old son in the other.
It was hard. Regular tears and relentless doubting myself kind of hard. Repeating the line ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t get it’ to my Managerial Economics/Data Analysis/Accounting lecturers and then putting my head back in my book and trying again, and again, and again kind of hard.
But it was so worth it. I learnt how to look outside an organisation and a sector, and see things from the perspective of the audience and participants; something I’d argue the arts and creative sectors don’t do enough of, particularly when they’re expecting people to buy what they’re selling. A fellow student helped me with that when they asked quite genuinely ‘what do you mean, not-for-profit… what’s the point?’ when I explained what I do for work.
I now have the evidence and language to articulate my gut feelings around marketing, strategy, negotiations and even finance, where I feel surprisingly comfortable. It’s given me the confidence to find my seat at the table, and dial up the volume on my voice. That’s important for women in the arts, and women in any sector.
I also learnt some hard truths. I realised I’d been living in a bubble: inclusivity, equality and human kindness are not a given. I found myself on more than one occasion explaining to other students that feminism is not a dirty word, and was almost laughed out of the mostly men-in-suits populated room when I suggested the law should require corporates to donate a percentage of profits to charity.
I’m relentless in spruiking the MBA because the challenge is immense and the knowledge, networks and life-affirming (and changing) experiences are unrivalled by other professional development. It’s not the same as learning on the job (unless you’re surrounded by people from all manner of industries at work and constantly forced to reflect on your values and what you thought you knew – then it’s exactly like learning on the job).
And it’s very much a two-way street; you will teach others just as much as you learn yourself.
If you’re serious about leading; if you really want to make change and influence how our arts sector survives and thrives for years to come, consider an MBA. Of course, there are other ways to get where you’re going; an MBA is not the only way. But it certainly helps.