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Executive Director Blog Series No. 3: Academy Center of the Arts

“Sustainable leadership isn’t about having full control of your organization. There is strength and utility in strategically letting go.” 

In my first post, I mentioned that my sabbatical was not a vacation. An effective sabbatical at its core has goals that are primarily focused on the institution and not the individual. It is not that the executive’s well-being isn’t a consideration, but their well-being ties back to the organization’s health. So, I am not deciding on the goals of my sabbatical. Instead, the organization is. 

We hired Ryan Ripperton, a consultant out of Richmond to lead this process. The process started as a reworking of our organizational chart, intending to help us create a healthier workflow. 

Simply, the Academy’s goals with my executive sabbatical are the following: 

  • Reenergize a committed executive 

  • Build staff ‘bench strength”  

  • Deepen the boards’ governance engagement

Reenergize a committed executive 

The first goal is probably the most obvious, and why one might think that a sabbatical is like an executive vacation. When asked what I am going to do with my time away, my simple answer is this: “I am finding out who Geoff Kershner is when he isn’t at the Academy.” I have eaten, slept, and breathed the Academy for seven long years. I really am not sure who I am outside of the organization. When I took my position at the Academy, I sacrificed huge parts of myself. I stepped away from my life as an artist (theatre directing) and got very disconnected from social activities that weren’t work-related. 

This all meant that when something went wrong (or went right) with the organization, I took it way too personally and felt it very deeply. When facing a crisis like a global pandemic, it wasn’t just a professional crisis, but also a personal crisis. Navigating the entirety of COVID-19 was emotionally and psychologically brutal, resulting in an extremely unsustainable work-life balance. I will be honest, if it weren’t for this sabbatical process (not just the sabbatical itself, but the entire process), then I would have or would soon be planning my exit from the Academy. 

By finding out who I am outside of the Academy, I can lean on that in the future. Inevitably, there will be a future crisis. There will be unplanned staff turnover, and there will be programs that don’t go well. I will take all of this seriously, but I also need to understand the difference between my job and who I actually am. I am more than my job, and organizational pressures are not personal ones. 

I also have a great job, I really do. How lucky am I? Every day, I get to create activities that bring joy to many people’s lives. I want to see and feel that again. I want to come back with a fresh perspective so I can be invigorated by the good, not overwhelmed by the bad. With this new perspective, both my creativity and motivation will be boosted as we focus on the future of the arts in Lynchburg. 

Build staff ‘bench strength” 

The Academy is way bigger than me. It will live on after me, and part of my job as its current leader is making sure it is just as healthy with me as it is without me. It is very easy for small and midsize not-for-profit organizations to become reliant on a single individual. When Ryan Ripperton began to do his analysis of the organization, he found that too much flowed back and connected to me. There was literal work, yes, but this isn’t all of what I am talking about. Much like my personal experience of not being able to separate myself from the organization, the same thing has happened with the organization; it couldn’t separate itself from me. Too much needed to be decided by me, driven by me, approved by me, or represented by me. This is not sustainable or healthy for any organization or leader. 

Through his recommendations, Ryan began setting goals to create a stronger leadership dynamic within our organization. We had capable and strong leaders already within the organization, it was just a matter of elevating them through the structure of the org chart; changing titles, shifting some final decision making, and elevating the visibility of our other leaders, resulting in the creation of a healthier dynamic that is not overly reliant on me. This is where distributed leadership principles come into play. 

We now have four executive leaders in the organization, not just one. We changed my title to CEO and elevated Tabitha, our Director of Operations, to a COO, as well as Michelline, our Director of Programs, to a CPO, and finally Kimberly, our Director of Finance, to a CFO. The sabbatical prep process is one in which we are temporarily, and in some cases, permanently, moving my responsibilities to these other organizational leaders. 

Through my temporary absence, we will redistribute responsibilities throughout the team. This doesn’t just impact the c-suite but flows down to our directors and managers as well. This has been a complete analysis of what all of us do, as well as how we distribute work and responsibility. When I return, what work and responsibilities need to live on with me will return, but those that do not, won’t. We hope our employees will find that they both like their change in responsibilities and will find their new leadership roles to be more rewarding. 

The goal is that with newly distributed roles and responsibilities, I will be able to focus more of my attention on what is most important. This will be a healthier alignment for the organization, and in turn, I will be a healthier person and a better executive. 

Now, I want to be clear about something. This has been messy at times. It is a surgical procedure that is not going to come without some pain, discomfort, and conflict. Even when an old way of working isn't functional, we may find comfort in sticking with what we know. Change is unsettling, and we have found ourselves in conflict at moments during the preparation process. I do believe this conflict is healthy, that we are working to identify it and harness it to address organizational pain points, prompt open discussion, and lead us to formulate solutions.

Deepen the boards’ governance engagement

The distributed leadership approach does not stop at the staff, but also extends to the board. The sabbatical provides a fantastic opportunity to engage the board more fully to support the staff in my absence, as well as to keep the train on track. The board gets to know the wider staff on a deeper level because I am no longer their primary conduit for governance. Their relationship and understanding of the organization will also deepen as a result of their managing the organization in my absence. This will move board members to be more involved, engaged, and supportive. 

Here are some practical ways the board is supporting the process: 

  1. Board President and Vice President are meeting with the COO, CFO, and CPO weekly. 

  2. Current board member/past President, Rick Loving, is overseeing the sabbatical preparation process. 

  3. Committee Chairs are checking in with their staff counterparts on a weekly basis. 

  4. Three members of the board are serving as leadership coaches for the COO, CFO, and CPO during the sabbatical and are meeting on a bi-weekly basis. 

  5. The board President and committee chairs will serve as public advocates for the organization for some donor interactions and public functions. 

In January, we welcomed a new Board President, Elizabeth Stroud. The sabbatical also provides an opportunity to establish her leadership dynamically, instilling confidence as she inaugurates her leadership of the organization. Her purpose in my three-month sabbatical provides a clear function during this first phase of her presidency; to support, guide, and lead the staff/board through my absence. 

The level of board connectivity and knowledge of our operations will increase significantly due to this sabbatical. Along with Elizabeth, our committee chairs and the board at large will have a relationship to who we are and what we do by being in the trenches with the wider Academy team. That experience and these relationships will run far deeper than simple committee reports at monthly board meetings. This sabbatical will help the board support our organization at a more substantial level, and the positive impact will be felt for many years after.

What if I run a small organization with minimal staff or no staff? 

I will be honest, this is tough. I recognize how lucky I am to be in an organization that is large enough to support such an endeavor and also have both a staff and board willing to support me. There are three thoughts below I will share in my thinking around this, these could be helpful to someone with a smaller team or a solo executive looking for a sabbatical:

  • I am taking my sabbatical during the summer months, which is the slower fundraising and solicitation period for our organization. This is also a period in which our programming is largely education-focused. My current role in the organization is less directly involved in this side of our mission delivery. This means that the chosen time period reduces the pressure my organization feels in my absence. 

All of our organizations are important to our community, but there may be a period when the needed support that your board and/or smaller staff must provide is reduced. If you can identify two to three months when this is the case, this would be the time for your sabbatical. Then, the distributed leadership tactics that I describe would move across your staff and/or board in a consolidated format, suiting the reality of your organization. 

  • I mentioned at the start of this post the idea of  “letting go.” “Letting go” is for my emotional and psychological well-being, so that I reorient my relationship to the stress that my work is, at times, illogically placing on me. I am looking to lower the stakes and rethink the reality of the risks that our organization faces daily. Simply put, do not put so much pressure on yourself to make it all perfect all of the time or be all things to all people. Things can fail sometimes. You can’t be all things to all people. Your organization will likely be fine, and the world will continue to turn if your mission delivery isn’t perfect every single time. 

With this in mind, could your mission delivery take a brief pause or a reduction in scale and scope? This will be different for every organization, but maybe it is more important that your organization retains you for multiple years. This will make a more long-lasting impact, rather than burning you out while delivering the mission with no opportunity to breathe. I know this could be emotionally hard if you are in the social service sector. You could feel people’s welfare is at stake, and that is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. With that being said, think about how a three-month break may extend and strengthen what you can deliver in the long term. What is really at stake? How can you take a wider view of what a brief interim period would really mean to you, your organization, and your constituents? 

  • Finally, hire a consultant to craft the process for you. It is important to have outside professionals advising you, and the investment is worth making. I used the metaphor of surgery earlier. You wouldn’t want anyone lacking proper knowledge to perform surgery, so ensure that you get professional help. We worked with Ryan Ripperton Consulting and I would strongly recommend his services. 

In conclusion, I want to share with you that you are valuable, and you need to remember that. I believe in capitalism, but not-for-profit organizations exist to cover inefficiencies in what the free market and governments will take care of. What you are asked to do every day is to swim upstream, to try and help both our society and communities continue to function. You are expected not only to deliver a mission that is critical to your community with multiple barriers but you are also expected to manifest donated dollars to support that mission. 

A common suggestion from those outside the not-for-profit sector to those inside the sector is, “Run it like a business!” I don’t completely disagree with this suggestion, although often it is ill-informed when it occurs. I think there are a lot of strategies within the for-profit sector that can be applied to our organizations for their health and sustainability. One of them is investing in and retaining executive leadership. You are key to your organization’s success, and it is hard to find good leadership. A sabbatical is an investment in the organization because it is an investment in you. Running a successful organization is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes you need to ease off the gas and take a moment for yourself. In turn, you will provide yourself and your organization with an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of your professional role, utility, and value. 

Again, thank you to Megan and SHARE Greater Lynchburg

I’ll see y’all in August! 

Geoffrey Kershner

Chief Executive Officer

Academy Center of the Arts

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