In Good Company Blog

Lessons for Entrepreneurs from the Arts and Culture Sector

Jennifer Edwards Edwards and Skybetter Change Agency

The Edwards and Skybetter | Change Agency recently released a report titled, “Organizational Development and Peer Group Learning: Through the Lens of Trey McIntyre Project.” (download the full report here.) This document is the outcome of a gathering that occurred in the fall of 2012, and which began a continuing project focused on peer-group problem solving and leadership development in the arts and cultural sector. While many participants represented major dance companies and presenters including Boise-based leaders from Trey McIntyre Project, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, BAM, Lincoln Center, and Jacob’s Pillow –  the outcomes of this gathering could be applied to virtually any sector of business. There are many commonalities between entrepreneurs and artists. Individuals in either sector lead with their work, they live their brand, are always “on” and need to stay ahead of the curve to be successful. This often translates into feeling the need to create new products or methods, maintain a competitive edge and feel protective of your process. 

Over the past year, The Change Agency has worked in partnership with The Jerome Robbins Foundation to conduct numerous gatherings, along with an annual symposium in New York City. Our focus has shifted markedly as a result of the findings discussed in the report and most notably we are no longer seeking new business models and solutions, instead we are facilitating peer group learning opportunities. We have found a great interest in this approach, and hope other sectors will consider the practice of peer group learning as well. Below are several key points, along with resources, that we are finding most helpful to keep in mind.

No New Models [or, Flux as Non-Model Model]

While some leaders in the arts have called for the next / new business model, leaders in several high performing corporations have identified that building a portfolio of short-term strategies best suits a company’s need in a swiftly changing environment. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Rita Gunther McGrath writes, “In a world where a competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year, companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy. To stay ahead, they need to constantly start new strategic initiatives, building and exploiting many transient competitive advantages at once.” It is exceedingly rare that non-profit or smaller organizations have the capacity to create and test multiple strategies at once. However, if individual organizations within a cohort group were willing to try something new and report back to the collective, and to the public, each organization could leverage collective learning and implement strategies most useful per their unique challenges. This type of thinking is the topic of a recently released book titled, Wise Beyond Your Field: How Creative Leaders Out Innovate to Out Perform, co-authored by Boise State University professor Nancy Napier and a group of Boise-based business leaders.

Take-away for entrepreneurs: If your business focuses on working with client companies or individuals, you may be asked to give them a solution, or to fix their problem. We have found that the solutions that stick are the ones found together. Explore bringing your clients together. You will maintain and deepen your role as a wisdom-keeper in your industry, while expanding the networks and growth potential for your clients.

Collaboration, Not Competition

The art world is too small to have competition among administrative teams, either from different organizations or within organizations. We need multiple thriving arts organizations in each community to grow a healthy arts market overall. Don’t be afraid to share thoughts with, and learn from, all parts of your extended team, including funders, board members, local government officials, audience members, staff, and dancers. Each group meeting we have convened has been different from the others, and with each conversation a new level of inter-institutional understanding is reached. We have witnessed funders achieve deeper understanding of union struggles, modern dance companies learn about ballet company models and vice versa, and lobbyists share how to apply local learning to the national level. We are at the beginning of a long process of breaking through the fear to share knowledge, but already have heard from countless people of the importance and positive consequences of such an undertaking.

So far, the key ingredient in both facilitating these convenings and in building strong organizations is authenticity — people and companies who want to know who they are, are willing to explore who and how they serve, and who can be present while actively listening, seem to fare best in both this economy as well as in group learning environments.

Take-away for entrepreneurs: Stop selling and start listening. Working for yourself can be isolating and, like artists, you may feel like you need to grab every client, donor, or investor for yourself. In Good Company offers many opportunities to talk with other entrepreneurs, but you may find yourself compelled to turn those friendly events into pitching sessions. We’ve found more success and built long-term engagements through creating opportunities for collaborative partnerships, rather than seeking clients.

Who’s at Your Table?

Boise State professor Nancy Napier, in a recent phone conversation, shared what she sees as essential characteristics for members in a fruitful cohort. “They must be voracious learners, with their egos in check.” (This notably applies to the facilitators as well.) Everyone at the table must show up with a willingness to be effected, to change their view, to throw out the agenda if the wrong set of questions have been posed, and to let go of preconceived solutions to problems. It’s important to own one’s own knowledge, while acknowledging that you may only hold a piece to a greater understanding of your community, identity, and field. We urge you to invite people from all sectors of your various communities, and trust that active participants will self-select topics to work on — or even decide this approach isn’t right for them. You will be left with exactly the right people, and can always ask others to join later.

While project-specific group learning opportunities abound, we are suggesting that companies need time and space to talk broadly about any and every aspect of the business of running a company. As performers know, authentic expression is revealed most often in front of others. Cultivating the understanding of oneself, one’s organization, one’s identity and purpose within a given community is impossible in isolation. If building a business is a creative pursuit then we surely have much to teach, and still more to learn, from our teaching and learning together.

Take-away for entrepreneurs: Become a voracious learner – both inside and outside your field. Trespass often on the playing fields of other sectors. Sometimes the most successful and innovative ideas grow at the edges of industries, where one field bleeds into another. Talk about your business with other active learners from completely different fields and learn about how they work and act in the world. This will serve you better than staying within your own network and on your designated, safe turf.

IGC member, Jennifer Edwards is an expert in stress management ( as well as an organizational development consultant. She and her business partner, technologist, Sydney Skybetter, founded Edwards and Skybetter | Change Agency with the intention of facilitating change processes that entail integration of new technologies. They continue to do this work and find that their primary training as choreographers, both hold MFAs from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, often serves them best in collaborating and improvising with clients as well as in moving ideas across platforms and around boardrooms.


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