Thursday, June 20, 2013

You Need To Know This: Be A CEO

A post-rehearsal conversation I had this past Sunday with two colleagues motivated me to return to the You Need To Know This series that I started last fall. While walking to a local watering hole with Cynthia Heininger and Michael Gray (Producing Artistic Director, City Theater of Wilmington), the subject of artists and business came up. “Ugh,” I said, “don't get me started”, after Michael made the observation that academic arts programs are still doing a less-than-adequate job of preparing artists for the real world. Cynthia's simple, but elegant addition was “Yes, they have to see themselves as entrepeneurs.”

So I'm back to the series, and specifically, this post, which has been much tougher to write than I anticipated. There are so many ideas I could put out there, but I want to make sure you don't become overwhelmed.  But more than that, I want you to have the time and space to seriously consider these ideas because I think they are extremely, well, important.

Remember that I foisted the responsibility of choosing the order of the posts for the You Need To Know This series off onto various young artists? Yeah, I didn't think you would.  Well, I did, so today's post has been chosen by Meghan Dewald.

Bright and talented – that's Meghan. I've watched Meghan grow up as a person and as a singer. As a high school student, she faithfully drove 100 miles round trip to her weekly voice lesson with the Beloved. She paid attention, she practiced, she went off to Northwestern and she came back. She started her performing career, she went to Indiana for graduate work and she came back. She's continuing her performing career and starting her teaching career. She works, she practices, she runs, she is making a career happen. Check out Meghan's gorgeous singing.  Go ahead.  Click through!


CEO. What's the image conjured up in your mind when you hear those three letters? Some white guy wearing an impeccably-tailored suit, confidently striding down the hallway of a sleek office building, issuing orders to a trail of nervous underlings? Or do you envision the more hip version of CEO - a smart college dropout, decked out in yesterday's hoodie, hanging in a conference room, shooting baskets while strategizing with his also-hip, multi-ethnic team of smart employees? Now ask yourself this. What's behind the suit and hoodie? Not the ideas, not the business decisions, but the human qualities. What are the qualities that come to your mind when you imagine a CEO? Confident? Decisive? Powerful? Are those qualities you assign to yourself on a regular day? Powerful? Decisive? Confident? Right...I didn't think so.

I imagine some of you are already snoring or ready to click back over to Facebook. You are an artist, proud of your zigging-when-others-are-zagging ways. Part of why you fought so long and hard with your parents to become an artist was so you didn't have to conform to the corporate ways. Well, you know what? I'm very proud of you and I agree with you. I live my life the very same way. You keep that zigging, not zagging way about you and continue your non-conformity. But, consider, even for a minute, what would happen if you approached your career like a CEO.

Here are the three topics we're going to consider:

  • CEOs make decisions
  • CEOs make investments
  • CEOs assume responsibility

CEOs Make Decisions

As CEO, you get to decide what your business will be. Will you be particular, only accepting work at companies with annual budgets over $1 million? Will you be generous, giving free performances or art away on a regular basis? Will you teach as well as write, perform, and compose? Will you sing only the works of 16th-century Belgian composers whose last names start with F? You're the CEO, you decide.

Every corporation has divisions. Part of being a CEO means deciding which divisions you will offer. Take GE. When I was a kid, eons ago, GE was known for lightbulbs and stoves. Somewhere along the way, GE branched out from selling lightbulbs to incorporate all kinds of divisions – medical imaging devices, engines, airplanes and even mortgages. How did that happen? If you were CEO of a company, would you want to be making decisions about products as diverse as lightbulbs and mortgages?

Well, guess what, you can be like GE, if you choose. You can be a singer-songwriter AND you can be a lumberjack. Up to you. You're in charge.

I will suggest that you ponder what divisions you are presently offering. How are they doing? Is there one division that's taking more time, perhaps too much time? How do you feel about that? Is this the time to invest in that other division that means so much to you, but doesn't get enough attention? I have this constant struggle in my career. Because I have many skills, I'm easily distracted by projects in less-important divisions. I have to make sure I am accepting a project for the right reason, which for me is usually because I'm immensely curious about the potential artistic experience and it fits my current lifestyle (read I still want to be available for The Teen even though he could give a flying fig about me). By the way, I did NOT always think this way. That's why I'm telling you this now.

CEOs gather the best information available and consider the pros and cons of that information, the current situation as well as the future, and then they make a decision. While they rely on their gut instincts, good CEOs know how to remove the unnecessary emotion from decision-making. This is crucial and difficult. Crucial because they want to make a good decision based on truth and reality. Difficult, because, as an artist, emotion is at the core of your art, which happens to be your product. But taking the unnecessary emotion OUT of business decisions (such as “Why am I getting offered parts with this tiny company?” “Why did they cast her and not me? I can act circles around her!”) allows you to put that emotion where it belongs – in your art.

CEOS Make Investments

You do know that all corporations incur debt to make investments in their products, right? While I am most definitely not encouraging you to incur huge amounts of debt, I am encouraging you to look at how you invest in your art, which is your product.

A good CEO will recognize that there are many possible investment - headshots, websites, lessons, classes, networking, instruments, auditions, to name a few. These are all expenses that you need to incur because these are investments in your career. A good CEO will recognize that the time has come to reinvest in acting classes because the monologue you learned in your college acting class is horrifically out of date, or that now is the time to invest in that voice-over workshop because you have now turned down 3 possible voice-over jobs because you don't know how to do voice-overs.

Look at it this way. Let's say you know you are a great singer and a rotten actor. Let's say you have been told by casting directors that you would be cast if you were a better actor. Well then, wouldn't it make sense to seriously invest in acting lessons? Look, let's say you take 10 lessons at $75 a lesson. That's $750. Let's add $250 for travel, supplies, lost income. Now we're up to $1,000. That's a big chunk of money. Serious money. BUT, if you become a better actor with quality audition material and more confidence, there's an extremely good chance you will be cast. Let's say your first role is a 6-week contract at $200 a week. That means you get paid $1,200. You just made back your investment AND you made a profit of $200. Yes, I know you still didn't pay your rent, utilities or college loans. But you did get a job that you wouldn't have gotten before and if you keep up your skills, there's a good chance you'll get cast somewhere else, make more money, AND get to revel in your passion.  Why not?

CEOS Assume Responsibility

Nobody likes a irresponsible person. Nobody. Nobody likes to hear “I don't know why they didn't cast me again. Maybe other people dance/sing/act better than I do, but they always cast the same people. They should give people like me a chance.”

Everybody likes to hear a responsible person. Everybody. Everybody likes to hear “I know what is happening at auditions. I am not acting/singing/dancing as well as I could and should. I need to figure out why this isn't working. I need to be honest with myself, consider improving my skills or think about the companies for which I am auditioning. I bet my attitude will become more positive and joyful when I do that. If it doesn't, I'm going to work on that as well.”

The vast majority of us work in situations where our product is part of a business decision. Like it or not, opera and theatre companies, dance troupes, orchestras, galleries, and concert promoters have to present a product for which people will pay. Most of these organizations are very clear about their product; they take their mission statements very seriously. These organizations seek out artists who will fit into that product. You might not like this aspect of being an artist, but it is the truth and has been for a long time. Get over it.

When you adopt this responsible attitude, the people in the business who you deal with will come to respect you and ultimately, your work. I know that you can't live on respect alone, but at least you can live with yourself.

There.  That's enough to get you thinking.  Thinking about how you make decisions, how you make investments and how you accept responsibility, like the CEO of the wonderful arts organization called you.