CLP013 Amy Nesbitt – Building Coalitions and Having Positive Impact (PDF)
Marc Pitman: Welcome to the Concord Leaders podcast. I’m Marc Pitman CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today our guest is Amy Nesbitt. She is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. Amy, I am so thrilled to have you here.
Amy Nesbitt: Thanks for inviting me. I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Marc Pitman: You know, I love what you do because I have seen artistic organizations that have two separate people. Tell me quickly, what led to having both titles because that seems like wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
Amy Nesbitt: Yeah, exactly. Well, I come from a long production background actually, a variety of areas of nonprofit work, work in the film industry, work in music booking. I came to the festival really with a lot of production and operational background and skill set, but I had a lot of programming background and worked with artists and working with different festivals and nonprofits across the country.
Basically it was really the lovely opportunity with my predecessor to segue into a leadership position in all the right ways that we always hope we have those opportunities both from those of us who are moving up from the bench that we’re building below. I did have experience in both and was really given the opportunity to enlarge that and explore in a lot of different facets of the festival here which became a natural segue for my organization when the opportunity for leadership came up.
Marc Pitman: That is so cool. As is the way on Concord Leaders, my first question always is, usually not what I just asked you but is, what do you enjoy about leading? You have been doing this it sounds like for … You have a lot of experience there. What is it about being in leadership, are things that you find enjoyable?
Amy Nesbitt: Well, it’s actually a little bit of a segue onto that or off of that, in that for me I think some of my greatest joys in leading are the ability to braid together these incredibly wide and disparate bodies of knowledge that I have amassed over my professional career and put them to use. Rather than a very siloed work scope, by doing both the executive duties as well as the programmatic duties and artistic duties, I really get to engage that body of knowledge and work with colleagues to further their professional growth.
Specifically the next generation of leaders, junior staff who are just starting their career, really being in a good position to impart some of that knowledge and wisdom. Some of it has been terribly hard earned. Some of it has been pretty easy. It’s actually been really wonderful to be able to have such a diverse palette to draw from and to inspire and work with others so that they can reach their full potential as well.
Marc Pitman: Do you find that people with that … I love your focus on helping grow others as well because sometimes you can find in the nonprofit sector anyway, that some leaders are intimidated by that.
Amy Nesbitt: Umm.
Marc Pitman: People in leadership positions let me say. True leaders obviously are the ones that want to grow the people around them. Do you find that you have developed a reputation or that the Ann Arbor Summer Festival has developed a reputation of being a place to, kind of an incubator, to grow leaders?
Amy Nesbitt: Absolutely. I’ve very, very proud of the many, many folks who have come through our organization, particularly obviously during the tenure that I’ve been here. Everything from folks that we have worked with in an internship capacity who have contacted me years later and said, “That handful of weeks in the summer or the couple of months that I worked with you, changed the course of my career. Now I’m in graduate school at Columbia to become an arts administrator and I never thought I would do that. I’m doing it because I had such a positive experience and it really changed the course of my direction.”
I look at situations like that and to me that speaks for itself with the kind of positive impact that we’re having amongst the many people that we come in contact with. It’s kind of a mantra here for me and for my team internally, that really from a perspective of HR, that it’s important to us that everyone is having a good ride, as it were. People have to work for a living and working to further a mission is certainly much more inspiring than making [widgets 00:04:30] but even within that, there’s a lot of ways to make sure as best you can with the resources you have, to make sure your team is having a good ride. To take the time to tease out that someone’s got a real passion around foreign cinema and that’s where they can shine. Actually punt a ball to them and say, “Okay, for the three films that we’re going to do this season with foreign cinema, I’d like to hear what you would suggest and why and we work on it together.”
It’s not always sort of a turnkey handover in terms of programming, but it empowers them in a very low-risk environment to really walk the walk and live their values in a really positive way. I’m very proud of that and I can’t say enough good about what I think that ultimately does. I joke with some of my colleagues that as nonprofit leaders, you need to look out because the very interns you had you might be working for someday because some these folks are wildly talented. There’s nothing better than seeing them succeed over time.
Marc Pitman: What a good reminder. I call it forced integrity. You want to do the right things anyway but when you remind someone that that might be your boss someday, it also helps you. We know from working with leaders and growing leaders and being in leadership isn’t always pretty because what we have to work with is human beings like us that have all sorts of foibles and flaws. What was a time that you ran into an issue and how did you deal with it?
Amy Nesbitt: Well, there have been a few in my tenure here which I am sure others [crosstalk 00:05:58]. It’s crazy. Recently, just a few years ago, the outdoor location of our festival was given very short notice for an entire relocation. Some context, it’s a 34-year-old organization that does both indoor and outdoor programming here in the lovely beautiful weather that is Michigan in the summertime. It can be a little chaotic but after so many decades the community was very, very bonded to the location and change doesn’t always sit well with community members. The organization had only had to move this community favorite location once before in 34 years. That time we had two years notice to make the change. This time we had eight months.
Marc Pitman: Wow.
Amy Nesbitt: It was exciting to say the least. I think other people probably would have lost more sleep about it but, not to say that I didn’t lose a little bit, but my tactic has always been one of essentially coalition building and gathering intelligence from people that I trust outside of my direct sphere. What I did is I essentially gathered what I would call key advisors. Some of those were as straight forward as board members or folks within my operations group. Sort of what are the things that we need to tackle, what are the big blind spots?
I went beyond that and actually reached out to community members who I knew were really passionate about the event. Even personal friends who I really respected their ability to problem solve, who I normally wouldn’t bring in to sort of the work strategy session. I really found that for me it was important to get enough of a range of different voices, not a huge number of them, but different perspective to help me think outside my own blind spots. With those strategies we ended up pulling off a temporary relocation of the event for a single year.
For the most part what I heard repeatedly from our constituents were that, “It’s an okay location but we can’t wait till everything moves back to the proper place next year. We’ll put up with this, that, and the other that’s not go great because we know from what you’ve said we’re moving back.” It really helped us address a lot of the donor and community concerns by having that think tank in advance be folks that were outside the normal go-to conversations.
Marc Pitman: It sounds like that’s part of how you operate. This think tank, you had this before you got the notice or did the notice [spar 00:08:36] your formalizing?
Amy Nesbitt: No, the notice sparred it for sure. I had lots of small bits of detail that said it could happen but there was no confirmation of the when. It could have been as much as multiple years later …
Marc Pitman: Wow!
Amy Nesbitt: When I got the definitive answer that no, no it will be eight months, not two years, not five years. It will be eight months from now.
Marc Pitman: My goodness. I can’t even imagine with all the moving targets of a summer festival anyway, to then have your outdoor location whipped out from under you. Wow, that’s awesome.
Amy Nesbitt: It was exciting.
Marc Pitman: I was going to say interesting because interesting can be that ambiguous interesting good or interesting bad.
Amy Nesbitt: Right, exactly.
Marc Pitman: Wow! So you were able to move back to the location though after that year?
Amy Nesbitt: Yes, we were and the consistency was wildly happy. We probably heard for about eight months after, lots of ripple comments of, “So glad you’re back. This is where it should be. So glad that everything worked out.” The challenge itself also got us a small window of opportunity, allowed us to reach out to our base and say, “Hey, we’re about to face this challenge. We could really use your help.” It really did galvanize a lot of our donors who otherwise might give a much smaller gift. It kind it lit a fire under people.
In some cases people doubled their gifts knowing that we were going to be fighting sort of an uphill battle. Having an outdoor event, we had lots of mitigating factors like weather that an indoor theater might not. I think our community if gradually recognizing the fragility of particularly the financials of an organization like ours. Just sort of as a snapshot, we produce [170 00:10:28] events in roughly, in just under four weeks. Ninety percent of those events are admission free.
Marc Pitman: Whoa. Yeah.
Amy Nesbitt: We have a full-time staff of three. Being nimble has its bonuses by being a smaller organization but there are also some different challenges that we face to be able to execute on such lofty goals and designs as we have.
Marc Pitman: Wow. Well, Amy, I’m shocked at how quickly our time went. I thank you for sharing that. That’s really interesting. I love the idea of establishing that board of advisors. I love that you used the negative time, a very scary prospect, to not only just reach out to people that you may have wanted, influencers in your community, but also to talk to your donors. Tell them kind of transparently the realness of the urgency that their support will have, the impact it will have. That’s really exciting.
People are going to want to listen to this again I know but if someone is listening to this right now, is there one thing you’d recommend they do or read or look at as soon as we finish this recording?
Amy Nesbitt: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Marc Pitman: Okay.
Amy Nesbitt: I would say, open up your phone book or whatever you use. Put dates on your calendar to call or meet with your peers, not e-mail. I can’t tell you how well that has served me. Just to get some feedback from someone who is also in a leadership position like I am. It makes me appreciate my problems and want to keep them.
Marc Pitman: It took me a second. I had to process what you said.
Amy Nesbitt: Exactly, because their problems when I hear them I think, “Oh, no, no. I’ll deal with what I have. Thanks a lot. You sound like you’ve got entirely different, more challenging problems than I want.” It really allows me to get a different perspective from someone who is also leading a nonprofit. Possibly in an entirely different field or area of service but the important thing is to have something beyond the digital. To be on the phone, to be at coffee, because it’s the casual conversation that sort of teases out some of these things that we don’t give each other enough time to have that space with each other as leaders.
Marc Pitman: What would you suggest the excuse for the coffee?
Amy Nesbitt: It can be as simple as just checking in on how things are going at their organization. Not that you necessarily want to share your problems. Give that coffee time to hear from … You know, there’s no media there. From leader to leader, what are their real challenges. It may very well either make you feel better about the challenges you have or give you a different way to approach a challenge that you were sort of blocked on.
Marc Pitman: That is wonderful. As I said, people are going to want to listen to this again and again. This episode, as with all episodes of the Concord Leaders podcast, can be found at concordleadershipgroup.com/podcast. If people want to learn more about the festival or get in touch with you, where can they go?
Amy Nesbitt: Absolutely. Thanks, Marc. Yeah, they can jump to our website which is a2sf.org and all my contact information is there on the website but I can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc Pitman: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Amy.
Amy Nesbitt: Thanks so much, Marc. It’s been great chatting today.
Marc Pitman: Until next time, remember, healthy nonprofits start with healthy leaders.