I think we all would agree that this problem is not new. Yet it is not always obvious how to exercise control over the use of our time so that we get the best from everyone.
Early in my career as an executive director in the performing arts, I realized that if I was not able to manage my time better I was going to find myself in serious trouble. So, I developed a system of answering and acting upon a series of unchanging daily operational questions. Responding to these questions was critical to my immediate success as an executive director and added more efficiency to my workday.
Some of the questions I addressed first thing in the morning – the tasks of the day. Others were focused on improving my abilities to manage more strategically and thoughtfully, to build better relationships. All helped to create more time to act on the daily work that we as arts managers must get done.
1. Where’s the money to help reach our artistic goals today?
I knew a very wise executive director who taught me that the real job of a chief executive is to be responsible for raising all the funds necessary to operate in the black. No exceptions! Of course, if you are lucky, you will have a development director and an active board of directors to help with this critical work. However, in many choruses staff help is not always affordable or available. Therefore, it falls on your shoulders to see that the funds necessary to balance the budget are raised.
I never really felt comfortable moving on with my day until I knew where the money I needed to raise that day was coming from, whether it was making an ask, signing off on a foundation grant, cultivating a potential sponsor, or making final plans for the annual fund drive kick-off party. It seemed more manageable to raise money and grow organizational financial confidence on a daily basis than trying to do it all at once (and maybe not succeeding).
2. How will I help my people succeed today?
An effective executive director will spend a lot of time each day making sure that the staff, board members, and artistic director have what they need to be successful decisionmakers. This means that everyone who works for the organization, whether paid or volunteer, has the decisionmaking power and tools to do their jobs successfully without hindrances that would prevent their success.
In order to do this, I spent time discussing the priorities of their day, their work, and asking what I could do to help them. In most cases, just assisting them in prioritizing their to-do lists was all they needed because I had already given them the authority to be decisionmakers. Morale flourished and people seemed more content, independent, challenged, and above all, focused. I also found that if I made my office rounds by mid-morning, the rest of the day rolled along with less angst and fewer problems – giving me more time to do my work!
3. When will I talk to my board and volunteer leadership today?
I am amazed at how many executive directors do not routinely talk with their board and volunteer leadership. There is too much that happens in our performing arts organizations each day not to issue frequent updates. Internal communication with your board and top volunteers is critical. Each day, the executive director should know their availability, what should be communicated, and when to schedule the next face-to-face meeting or discussion. With the convenience of email, good communication practices should soar.
In acting on this question each day, the executive director also sends a message that his or her job is important enough to the organization to be worthy of returned telephone calls, timely responses to email, and efforts to schedule meetings. If you expect this respect for your work and offer the same respect to your leaders, chances are you will get it.
4. Who am I having lunch with today?
Don’t have lunch alone. You have to eat, so use the time to your best advantage. Why not invite a board member to join you, make a fundraising ask, meet with a new board prospect, or have lunch with the head of the chamber of commerce or a city council member? The hour spent at lunch can be the most productive time of your day for developing individual support of your organization. The possibilities are endless – take advantage of them. And by the way, have lunch once a week with your staff and update them about what you are doing!
5. What action is necessary to enhance the artistic product today?
Strategically, executive directors should ask themselves every day what steps need to be taken to advance the artistic product. Most likely, these actions will be taken in accordance with an already written, board-adopted strategic plan. Assuming that a plan is in place with responsibilities and timeframes established, it should be clear what steps need to be taken on a daily basis.
As with fundraising, artistic growth and ticket sales should be managed daily in order to maintain product vitality, competitiveness, and an expansion of local market share. Maintaining close daily communication with the artistic leadership is a vital part of this practice.
6. Which board committee is meeting today?
If there isn’t a board committee meeting today, when is the next one? Are you and/or your staff preparing for it and working with committee leadership to build the agenda? Some executive directors abdicate the responsibility of organizing and running meetings to the various board and committee members. However, having an active, engaged, and committed board of directors starts with excellent leadership. Executive directors and staff should be actively involved in organizing and operating board committee meetings, ensuring that they are productive, following up, and strategically setting future direction.
Keeping track of the meetings and activities of board committees is just smart business and builds/renews relationships between administrators, artistic staff, and the board.
7. How will good communication be practiced today?
What more can be done today to improve organizational communication practices both inside and outside your chorus? Generally speaking, with smaller arts organizations the executive director also serves as the official spokesperson and the one responsible for organizational communication. This type of work is very detailed, critically important, and affects everyone.
Obviously, building trust among staff, artists, board, audience, and contributors only happens by listening, acting on, and resolving daily issues and increasing the flow of information. Paying close attention to building good communication practices, such as following up meetings with a clear set of notes, helps keep people better informed.
8. How accessible can I be today?
Don’t pay lip service to being accessible if you are never around or, worse yet, never come out of your office. Being accessible does take more time, but the trade off is that you get better work back. The reason? Because people can then be more spontaneous and interactive, asking questions as needed and grabbing some instant advice. By maintaining confidence and giving more power to your people throughout the day, you will be amazed at how much you get back.
9. How will I demonstrate my vision and leadership skills today?
Once the executive director is established as the organizational leader (and this is demonstrated daily), almost everything else falls into place from there. Do not underestimate the need for thinking and managing slightly ahead of most others – and at times just outside the box.
At the same time, executives need to encourage leadership development throughout the organization. Here again, the more innovation and resourcefulness the executive director can encourage and expect from others, the more he or she will get back in return. Good leaders can be developed and nurtured, which should be a part of every manager’s day.
10. What step toward personal organization and prioritizing will I take today?
It seems to go without saying how important it is today for executive directors to be organized and to be clear about priorities. Finding more time is a direct benefit of good organizational skills, intuition, and improving efficiency through managing our most important commodity – time.
To this day, I carry a small pocket appointment book for meeting reminders and tracking how efficiently I use my time. I am always amazed at the amount of time that ends up not being put to the best use – and this gives me clues about how to improve.
ith the above questions to help guide my work and keep me on track, I find I can organize my time and day so much more efficiently. You may find that your situation calls for different questions that fit your circumstances better – change them to suit your needs. The main point is to find the questions that will help you to improve the management of your day. And you know what? You actually do find more time for yourself. Go figure!
This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2006.