11/03/2013 07:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Arts Management Mentoring

Arts management mentorships are tricky. The exchange around corporate mentoring is clearer than in the world of non profits because there is money being made. In the arts world, art is being made, ideas exchanged, and our culture doesn't put as much value on that. So, you want advice from someone else -for free--on how to run an organization that creates something that is not valued in our culture--arts and arts education. Good luck with that, you might think. But in fact, there are amazing mentors available.

Arts management is a place uniquely positioned to find mentors partly because people in this business are already in the business of altruism. They don't think of their time in terms of billable hours. They want to change the world, and if mentoring someone else is part of it, the mentor often sees the process as an extension of what they already do which is creating positive change. For people who work in the arts, much of the process is around making connections, so mentoring just becomes part of that process. It becomes another connection.

One of my best mentors has this saying, "Hire good people, then get out of their way." For many years, I kept arguing with him in my head. "You can't get out of their way," I'd say. "If you don't monitor them every single minute, they go off the rails. They're in the bathroom doing coke or letting the interns party in the basement. It just doesn't work.: I had to keep coming back to it. What he didn't say was, "Hire people and then get out of their way," he said "Hire good people and then get out of their way." So, the first thing about mentoring is you have to actually listen to what is being said.

Like most arts organizations, we have a lot of young people working for us. I always remember walking around the press with one of our new board members. 'My God," she said, "it's like the Clinton White House." I wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not. We start with interns, and some of those interns eventually become staff. What makes them rise to become staff people is all about how well they respond to mentorship from management, from mentors they meet in the field, and just as significantly, from their peers.

What is important to me is that you have a plan for this project, and that you can see to it that the plan is executed. This brings me to the concept of systems. What my staff have benefited from the most in terms of mentors and in their mentoring of others is explaining a system. By that, I mean a roadmap to get from Point A to Point B. You have a benefit. You have a book coming out. You have a book to produce. You have a party. Whatever it is, you ask to see your mentor's system, their timeline and then improve on it. Think about what's missing, what's assumed. Have everything in your timeline and in your system so that you can assign tasks and the whole thing just clicks along like a prayer wheel in the Tibetan sunshine.

One of my mentors has this analogy of the Yard dog, Kennel dog and Wild dog. When you are hiring staff and mentoring them, it's a good thing to keep in mind. I am all wild dog. I walk on the edge. Wild dogs don't necessarily walk around with a knife in our boots; we're not always street and dirty, but we are ready for anything. We're always ready to take on risk.

Yard dogs can bite you. Yard dogs had to fight off other yard dogs. Maybe they had a hard time in high school. The disaster sign, which I learned from experience, is having one bully on the team. Everybody stops learning because the whole crew goes into fight mode. Fight Club may be good for building your black eyes, bloody teeth and testosterone levels, but it isn't conducive to a harmonious working environment. After a while, that's what you're doing at work: Defending yourself against "that Bitch." I'm a big fan of the idea that what you're supposed to be doing at work is working.

Let me take this further. Wild dogs tend to become entrepreneurs, fighters, sometimes lawyers, but they don't necessarily play well with others, and getting them to settle down and not take on way too much risk and fill their life with way too much craziness is difficult especially in their twenties. Wild dogs don't always answer email. Wild dogs might be out playing with other wild dogs. We have one contract person we work with who is all wild dog. She's innovative, whip smart and has an almost genius level of ability to connect different filaments of ideas. But, you're always hoping she'll show up on time, that she'll harness that wildness into a coherent system.

The staff members we have who are well brought up are much easier to work with. They're dependable; gracious, poised; they work well as a team, they're always going to impress board members and writers. We are mentoring them to be willing to take more risks. The wild dog needs to learn how to not make decisions based on fear. Ideally, mentorship allows us to see the best in ourselves and the parts we didn't think we could develop, but we can. I remember saying to myself all the way home from a lunch with my mentor, "I can dress like a grownup. I can and I will."

Let's talk about one of the biggest problems of mentorship. If it works at all, it's a two way street. You can't expect someone to do all this giving for nothing. I start simply with a few things to offer:

1. I pay for lunch, breakfast, drinks or coffee.
2. I make sure meeting with me is the most interesting thing you did that day. This sounds grandiose, but it isn't. It requires doing some homework, but then reminding the person how fantastic they are which is why you're there, and being all that. Lots of people are boring. Don't be. I'm all about leaving the mentor meeting with them thinking, "When do I get to see her again?"
3. Thank them afterward.
4. Wait a suitable amount of time before asking for another meeting.
5. I have a tailored list of questions that I'm willing to deviate from. No one likes to feel their time was wasted, so if you know the person came away with a list of questions answered, that's good. However, I'm very aware of the mentor's body language. If they signal the waiter, I got it. We're out of here. If they're relaxed and order coffee, I say, "Do you mind if I hit you with one more question?" and keep the last question brief. I want there to be some time for simply chatting if that's what they want. Most of the time, the mentor is also a friend or becoming one, so I want to know what is going on in his or her life.

What about when mentorships go wrong? The most natural place for them to go wrong is at the beginning. You and your mentor clash in terms of communication styles. There are people I know I could learn from but I'm not going to because they talk down to women. I'm going to spend all the time I am with them not listening to anything he has to say. Instead, I'll be hearing my own voice in my head thinking, "He's talking down to me! I'm just as smart as this guy! Why am I listening to this?" And it's not going to be productive; it will be a big waste of time and I won't learn a thing.

It isn't always a gender thing. I've had a number of women who wanted to mentor me, but I somehow couldn't listen to them. Sometimes their life is so much easier than mine that I don't believe they can possibly understand the challenges I'm facing. I feel like I'm a wild girl with hay in her hair and Miss America is saying to me, "Oh, you can win this beauty pageant, just smile!" And I'm thinking, "Really now? You've never walked in the mud and gotten hay in your hair, honey."

Sometimes it's this simple. What I hear is the person saying, "This is what you should do." But I know that they don't know a thing about me. They don't know who I am or what I want, what my fears and opportunities are. The key to making this work, is that you and your mentor should have the same goal--successful completion of the project, growing the company's publicity model, your being better at your job, your having a better working relationship with clients--the goal should be clearly assessed and workable and it should not be personal. If the mentor is getting his or her rocks off talking down to you, that's not going to work for long. If you're trying to worm your way into your mentor's job, they'll probably sense that you're a snake in the grass and kick you to the curb.

The other hard part is the ending of a mentorship. They must end at some point. That usually happens when the hierarchy shifts and you, the mentee, are now the equal. This can be particularly difficult if the mentor is a man and the mentee a woman. The mentor has given suggestions toward helping the young protégé finish a degree, develop a working life, or move from point A to B in the company, but then she's ready to make her own decisions. She doesn't want to hear every idea taken apart. A friend of mine had been mentored in her academic life by one of her early professors. At this point, she's teaching at the same college that he is and has published books and has national recognition. He's still trying to direct everything she does, but she doesn't want to listen any more. The Pygmalion principle at work. Or it could be Frankenstein in some cases, but at any rate, the creation believes itself equal to the creator and if the mentor is fortunate and gracious, he or she lets go of the hierarchy.

At the heart of a good mentorship relationship is trust. You must trust that you are mentoring someone who is going to make you look good. When my staff are mentoring each other, I'd be shocked if one of them came to me and said, "I swear, I have to tell Susie how to do everything." I want the mentoring to be in an atmosphere where they're all helping each other and covering for each other too.

Often, I hear something one of my mentors tells me and I keep thinking about how wrong they are. Deborah said to me, "Don't make fear based decisions." I spent weeks thinking about how wrong she was. Finally, I realized that I was spending so much time on the subject because I knew she was right. It wouldn't let me go.

What's the best part of mentorship? It involves long conversations with committed brilliant people. In this age of Facebook, Twitter and texting, the long conversations are the experience that make it all worth while.