Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Profile in Bravery

Sharon Gersten Luckman.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.
TRG President Jill Robinson and I recently hosted an online webinar entitled “Make Time to Make Money.”  Our central thesis was the need for arts managers to stop trying to do everything and focus on those strategies that can truly move the institutional needle of success. 

Based on considerable feedback, one of my closing remarks apparently hit a nerve for many participants when I admonished the group to “Be Brave.”  Because organizational and industry needs are so great (and feel more dire with each passing week), insignificant or incremental change simply will not get the job done.

It was in that context that I received an invitation to attend a celebration honoring Sharon Gersten Luckman who is retiring as Executive Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  When reading the invitation, it hit me.  Sharon is the perfect example of what I had in mind when describing bravery on the front lines of arts management. 

First, a bit of background.  The Ailey company is a genuine national treasure.  They are big, influential and driven by a powerful brand based on artistic genius, a storied tradition of excellence and the deep passion required to create a uniquely great American institution. 

Truly great companies uphold their tradition of greatness without becoming bound to it above all else.  In the wrong hands a heritage of success can become a strategic straight jacket that warps institutional values and vision.  Change becomes a dirty word and perpetuating the status quo becomes the real organizational mission. 

Sharon never allowed this to happen on her watch at Ailey.  Simply put, she questioned everything. She regularly dared to challenge the conventional ways of managing an arts organization while running one of the most fiscally-disciplined operations our firm has ever seen.   

When TRG was asked to work with Alvin Ailey, we made a number of recommendations that significantly challenged aspects of the Ailey business model.  In the months that followed, Sharon was a demanding client.  She insisted that we examine every issue, every recommendation from every possible angle.  We covered and reexamined contingencies and consequences – both intended and unintended.  And once she agreed to move forward, she was “all in” on the strategies. She expected and got the best that TRG and her staff had to offer – the same level of performance excellence in the front office that audiences have come to expect from the stage. 

The results were spectacular by any measure. 

So, what made Sharon such a model of management bravery?

1.    She was never content with business as usual answers or solutions.  She knew that to be great, one must always seek to be better.  Constant improvement is the only path to sustainable greatness.

2.    She was unafraid to ask the hard questions – many times, if necessary – to get quantifiable answers required for making smart decisions.

3.    She had the guts to take calculated risks.  She also clearly understood the differences between taking a calculated risk and risky behavior.  Risk for the sake of risk is guaranteed to fail on many levels.

4.    Finally, once Sharon made a decision, all energies were mobilized on implementing the new strategy or business direction.  Bravery means nothing without action.  As I consider the thousands of arts management professionals I’ve been privileged to know, the most successful have always been those who possessed an ability to make things happen. Sharon consistently and persistently insured that the entire staff team and their partners were aggressively pulling in the same direction.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was a great company before Sharon Luckman joined the team.  The company that will carry forward her management legacy is stronger because of her leadership, passion and bravery of both thought and action. 

My colleagues at TRG and I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity to play a small part in her and Alvin Ailey’s success story.

If you missed Rick and Jill's webinar "Make Time to Make Money", you can access the recording here.

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