4 things arts managers are noticing in their best workers right now

ArtsHub surveyed a range of arts managers to find out what their top workers are bringing to the table right now. Their observations may surprise you.
arts managers, best workers: A young white woman smiling while "high fiving" a group of three other people.

It’s a well-known truism that arts professionals’ energy for what they do usually far outweighs their passion for their pay cheques.

It’s also a widely-known fact that many arts sector workers could be using their topnotch skills in other sectors for triple the pay, but they choose to stay in the arts because, unlike in other industries, they can see how much value their work brings to other people’s lives.

But when it comes to the top qualities that define a highly effective arts professional, the latest advice from arts managers suggests that those with the most passion for what they do are not necessarily the ones bringing the most value to their organisations.

It seems that what arts managers are most keen on at the moment are attributes in their staff that show they have healthy perspectives on their lives outside of the office, and their interests outside of the arts.

So, after picking the brains of arts managers from around the country who shared their thoughts on what qualities they are noticing about their best workers right now (and who, for obvious reasons, will remain anonymous in this article), we have shortlisted some of those attributes for all arts workers to consider.

Positive attitudes (minus the slogans)

Like it or loathe it, we live in an age where “positivity mindsets” and “the power of positivity” is being spruiked by almost every life coach and is headlining every self-help book, which makes it easy to cast it aside as yet another overhyped phenomenon.

But after speaking with a range of arts managers (whose comments were notably free of “positivity-speak” or slogans) it seems that an attribute they are noticing in their best workers right now is the ability to recognise where opportunities and/ or learnings can be found in otherwise challenging situations, and use those perspectives to fuel new ideas for the whole team to consider.

Read: 6 tips for managing multiple creative projects without burnout

As one manager put it, ‘I have a staff member who often looks at tough situations and says things like, “What is the opportunity here? What can we learn from this?”.

‘I think it’s their confidence to raise those sort of questions with the team that is so valuable. It changes our perspectives on a situation, so that we can brainstorm new ideas around that issue, while at the same time, it models the kind of professional approach other staff can take to having the courageous conversations we need to have.’

Seeing the bigger picture (in work and in life)

Aside from the skills to see our work from different angles, managers are also giving the big tick to staff members who can “step back” from work, and recognise how their roles and projects fit in to the bigger picture.

One manager told ArtsHub, ‘It’s easy for us to get stuck in the nitty-gritty of our everyday work. But we need people who can keep the bigger picture in mind as they attend to their routine tasks.

They continued, ‘In the arts, we often can’t plan too far ahead in terms of the detail of exactly how the work will unfold or exactly what a part of a project will look like. So we need people who can handle that uncertainty and who have the capacity to not get too caught up in the detail work of those bigger picture aspects of our projects.’

On a related note, many managers commented on the importance of their staff being able to step back from their work from a strictly self-care point of view.

One manager said, ‘Self-care is almost a cliché now and organisations that suggest it to deal with bigger systemic issues give it a bad name.

‘But looking after yourself is essential,’ they added. ‘If I knew the secret to keeping optimistic in a tough arts funding environment, then I’d have written a best-selling self-help book, but I do think knowing when to step away is important to avoid losing yourself in your job.’

The ability to ‘hold projects lightly’

Another consensus theme was the capacity for arts workers to bring a light touch approach to their work and their projects.

As one manager explained, ‘One thing we talk a lot about is how we want our workers to be able to hold their projects lightly, which is another way of saying that we don’t want them to hold on to their work or project too tightly.

‘If they are holding on too tightly, they are not making space for anyone else, and that is rarely the best thing for a project,’ they continued.

‘So, we want people who know when to delegate tasks and who feel comfortable to hand things over.’

They also reported that, interestingly, this quality of the light touch approach is one of the hardest to find in their staff, ‘because one of the defining characteristics of those of us who work in the arts is that we have this huge passion and belief in what we do. So it’s really common for us to want to hold on to projects and not let go, because we feel so invested in them.

‘But to achieve great outcomes, it’s always a collaborative, shared effort where everyone needs to be able to step in, but then also step away at the right times,’ they said.

The skills to speak up

On the theme of teamwork and collaboration, managers stressed the importance of every team member feeling emotionally safe at work, so everyone is confident enough to raise their voices in appropriate ways to share ideas and feedback with colleagues.

As one arts manager said, ‘If staff feel confident in what they are doing, and safe in their work environment, they can raise things that need to be dealt with in a professional way that helps us resolve issues effectively, and in ways that don’t lead to further conflicts or difficulties.’

This manager also highlighted the value of their staff who offer positive feedback to their peers in genuine ways and at key moments on the job, while another manager signalled their need for staff who can keep new ideas flowing among the team to help push their organisation forward.

As they told ArtsHub, ‘It’s important for my staff to always be bringing new ideas to the table. Whether that’s about seeing new directions we could be heading in, or about identifying new connections between things for the benefit of future projects… I work in a small team, so sharing ideas between us in that way is very important to what we can ultimately achieve.’

Finally, when it comes to day-to-day communication between, one manager suggested it was their staff who take a “no surprises” approach to daily communication that are the best to work with.

‘I want my staff to come to me first when something goes wrong, so we can tackle the problem together,’ they said. ‘I don’t want to hear about the problem from someone else. So having a “no surprises” rule of thumb is good for me,’ they concluded.

ArtsHub's Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).