Professional Cultivation as a Framework for Staff Success, Part One

My coordinator is leaving! My coordinator, the woman who knows every nook and cranny of the operation and who made me so welcome and supported my shaky first month? Leaving!! She’s leaving on good terms, and I am gearing up to run the school using my processes alone. It’s a bit frightening in some respects, but I have to say I am ready to rework the department. The distribution of work needs to be rebalanced; my ideas can roll out and become implemented. It’s time for a reorg!

Developing Paths into the Organization

When I began working in the summer, I accepted the opportunity to lead not only the School staff (my coordinator and registrar) but the Front Desk staff as well (five customer service associates). The first thing I did was interview each person informally and find out what they hoped to get out of working for the Art Center. One person is a dedicated ceramicist, so I immediately asked her to study the Ceramics Department and suss out some issues I saw in the kiln room. Another person is pursuing a degree in Museum Professions, so I went to the Exhibitions Department and made sure she was given a chance to work for them.

Not everyone was into a long-term plan. As the months went on, I discovered a couple of folks were ready to move on, but I found a new crew member right in front of me. The Camp Manager who had rocked the casbah all through summer wanted a more permanent position. I brought her on and once again asked her for her five-year plan. She wants to learn about curation, so now she runs all of the School’s offsite exhibits. My latest hire came in through volunteering, then teaching, and now could rise again: she is formulating her vision for the next five years but has shown such a gift for administrative tasks I am working to have her develop processes for teachers, students, and staff.

The Siloed Past

I was surprised to find that previously, the front desk crew had not been tapped at all for their obvious talents. Through a succession of management changes over several years, the entire organization had become pretty siloed. I found this so easily crumbled: I simply talked to everyone in the place and got them excited about the work my crew was doing; I am lucky to have landed in a workplace filled with some genuinely beautiful, collaborative people. My whole (rather obvious) idea was to give my crew the small opportunities floating around. Since I knew what each person wanted to make his/her “concentration,” I could channel the same person towards those tasks and happenings and together, we could chart paths into the organization. Each member of my staff now holds a specific bit of value to the entire organization s/he did not have before. Everyone up in the admin offices knows my people as being valuable in their particular realm.

I started to hatch a plan by which I could find ways to cultivate a path into the Studio School admin. All my professional life, I have wanted to use every scrap of position I could accumulate to create opportunities for growth for anyone I can. The minute I dedicated my whole work day to creating chances for others, my own career took a sudden upswing.

Signs of Growth and Success

I measure administrative success in all that I am not having to do myself. If I point out a situation, my staff comes back to me with unsolicited possible fixes. My staff now comes to me to request new challenges, ones they suss out for themselves. They are effortlessly making decisions for themselves that are well-aligned with the overall objectives of our department. I can honestly say each of my people gives a damn about the success of the Art Center as whole, and the Studio School specifically. The pay has not increased, the number of tasks has grown, so what gives? I believe it is because each of my crew members chose how to become vested in the work for themselves.

My Ceramics Department liaison has turned around the prevailing attitude of hyper-productive students. She has single-handedly created a data collection system for all firings, enabling my kiln techs to instill much-needed order. My Exhibitions liaison has shepherded several shows of member and student work to fruition. My Offsite Exhibitions person? She has curated 3 excellent shows and then facilitated their every step. Every single person has also helped me to rewrite and refocus the duties of the Customer Service Associate role.

My Hopes for the Future

My greatest hope? My biggest dream? I want to hire someone for the lowest position in my organization and cultivate that person’s choices into a trajectory which could lead them to be my successor. That seems the height of success. After all, I run a school: my entire business is inculcating progression. I need that definitive tug built into the DNA of my department to keep the energy high throughout.

The jobs I have to offer are not glamorous or wildly well-paid. There is the distinct possibility that any one of us will mop a floor, collate a pile of handouts, or even help a sick kid any day of the week. There are weekend shifts, redolent buckets of paper pulp, and cranky callers to navigate. None of that quotidian stuff matters in the end, except for the cumulative ascension they can inspire.

I have pursued a career in education for a decade because it helps me give more of my best to the world. I always knew I’d find a way to rise to the next opportunity if I ferreted it out. I am obligated to create structures for my employees that make those chances evident and abundant. I must provide clear paths into the organization and give every staff member daily proof that s/he can lead. The more I get used to being an administrator, the more I realize it is all about serving my staff as they amplify their capability within the brackets of the job at hand.

A Crossroads

I am faced with a real opportunity now: as I restructure my department, how can I build momentum within my established staff? I am interviewing new people, I am restructuring the roles… How do I navigate this in ways that keep morale high? I have already worked through most of my decisions on this point, but as I am still meeting new people, I am letting myself dream a bit of the group I could assemble. Who can I add who might have skills we can build upon in whole new directions?

I will detail my conclusions and next steps in Part Two of this essay later this month.

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