Transcript – Episode 109

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Narrator:  This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council, we believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Michael Bobbitt:  You’re gonna be asked, “What did you do?” even if you are in production, “What did you do to advance race equity?  What did you do to reduce the debt to get more butts in the seats?”

Anita Walker:  Hi.  I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is Michael Bobbitt, he is the new Artistic Director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.  Welcome to our program.

Michael Bobbitt:  Thanks so much, I’m happy to be here.

Anita Walker:  You and I had a conversation some time ago, but you said some things that really kind of perked my interest and I thought would be interesting to our field.  I’m gonna give you a little bit of background on this.  My Millennial sons are in Silicon Valley and they work in the environment of sort of start-uppy culture.  When you were talking about some of your approach to running the theater, some of what you said reminded me a lot of the way the work environment is in techy startup companies, and I thought, “Geez I’ve never heard about this kind of an approach to work, in our workplaces.”  So I want to start out by talking about that.  My son gets infinite days off.  Go.

Michael Bobbitt:  <laughs>  Yeah sure.  So we’re talking about the work/life balance in the culture inside the building.  Part of what I really wanted to do and what I do at most organizations I go to is really sort of define what the culture is that we want.  So one of the first things I did with the senior staff was to sit them down and talk about how we wanted to identify the culture of the organization.  There were sort of some cultural things that I inherited, some positive, some negative, but I wanted to also create the kind of environment that I like to live and work under.  So I asked them all to tell me how they define the culture and we named things like entrepreneurial, good work/life balance, not afraid of growth, happy fun place to work, team player.  And so I took all those things and I used those to redefine the employee handbook to make sure that there was nothing in the handbook that was against the cultures that we talked about and then those things helped to look at how we wanted to refine our employee benefits.  So we walked away from that with– some of the things in the handbook were we created a liberal teleworking policy being that we’re in theater, we have lots of evenings and weekends, I’m not going to make you work an evening, a weekend and then come in to do a 40 hour day and punch a clock, and plus with technology, I don’t need you to be in the office to have a meeting with you and to know you’re working, so that policy has been great.  We also came up with the moonlighting policy and some of that had to do with where we are in our salaries, my hope is to build the salaries over the next few years, but given where we are, I did not want the staff to feel like they couldn’t get side jobs.  Our job is their most primary job but other gigs they can do, they just have to check with their supervisors and make sure it’s okay.  We also walked away from there with the one you were talking about is unlimited vacation.

Anita Walker:  Everyone’s ears are perking up.

Michael Bobbitt:  <laughs>

Anita Walker:  Actually even outside the pod pod and throughout this organization.  So talk about that.

Michael Bobbitt:  So yeah, I did a lot of research on it and this was one of the things that I did at my last organization and it worked so beautifully well.  The staff at New Rep was very confused, it was like, “What do you mean unlimited vacation?”  I was like, “Well what do you think I mean?  I mean unlimited vacation.”  It’s an interesting concept that I didn’t make up, it’s out there elsewhere, many corporations are doing it.  The job then becomes being based on deliverables and not based on punching a clock.  If you get your things done and you need to take time off, it’s fine or you make sure your things are getting done, sometimes it’s working with a colleague to make sure things are being covered when you’re out of the office.  Some of the benefits of the organization is that we do save money on payout if someone leaves early that’s one of the benefits.  The second benefit is that it’s a better work/life balance and people can really balance their time.  You do have to watch things like over abuse of it, sometimes there are parameters on it, and again it’s based on deliverables, so if you’re taking time and you’re not getting your stuff then that kind of conversation has to have a supervisor.  The other thing is that you have to lead by example, so the leadership has to take time off, when they need it.

Anita Walker:  You mentioned that I actually was thinking less about people taking too much time off but people being afraid to take any time off.

Michael Bobbitt:  Right, both the leaders and the management team have to sort of model that behavior.  And then we have a mantra around the office, we actually write it up on the board which is that, “There always is a to-do list,” you never get it done and so you have to work with your supervisor to prioritize the list so that you can get the most important things done.  We’re also looking at an HAS, health savings account, right now our health insurance is a little lower than I want it to be so hoping to put some money into a health savings account for those folks as they need it.  We have a retirement in place, I want to get to three to five percent of a match for that, someday life insurance, offering that.  And there’s this wonderful national thing called the employee assistance program where you can actually create a support network for staff that’s in crisis, if they have crisis about financials or mental illness, they can call the hotline and get free support services.  So all of that goes into making the culture change inside the company.

Anita Walker:  I’ve had a chance to talk to many, many people who run theaters, but your focus on the staff, the support that you’re providing the staff and the culture in which the staff works, you enthusiastically told me this story when we first met, it’s really something that’s important to you.

Michael Bobbitt:  Oh yeah.  Well first of all my biggest expense is the staff, they’re the ones running the company so if they’re not taken care of, everything else will fall apart.  I also believe, I mean I have a really intense self care practice and I believe that that the personality of organizations stems from the top down, organizations that are in crisis probably have leadership that’s in crisis, organizations that are not fun and approachable probably have a leader that’s not fun and approachable.  And so I want to use what I know in my own life to filter that through the company.  But really the staff is doing the work and so if they’re not taken care, no one else is going to be taken care of, so it’s super important.

Anita Walker:  One of the other things that I know is important to you is professional development, continuous learning and you have a new approach to that as well.

Michael Bobbitt:  Yeah sure, so at previous jobs, I’ve put aside a specific line item so that each staff person had 500 dollars annually in their budget for professional development, but again we talked about when we defined the cultures that we wanted, they defined growth and entrepreneurship so I want to make sure they are continuing to learn and to grow.  So one, all professional development is on the job training, I’m not going to tell you you have to spend your weekends and evenings outside of work hours.  There are no defined work hours because we have unlimited vacation.  <laughs>  But if you come to the office and you want to sit at your desk and take a course, that’s fine, I like that.  So I looked into a bunch of platforms for online learning to see sort of which one suited us best expense-wise and also which ones had the kinds of courses that my staff needed, so we looked at LinkedIn Learning which just acquired and so on LinkedIn Learning there are over 100,000 courses in anything you want to know business and nonprofit-wise.  Some of these course are three minute introductions, some are 45 minute classes, some are eight hour learning paths.  So the management can go in and suggest classes that the staff can take for specific departments or specific people, you can even put a timeline on when you have to get it taken care of.  So if say you’re looking at trying to up your social media game, you can put a bunch of courses in your staffs’ inbox and say, “By next week have these courses looked at so we can have a really good conversation about upping our social media.”  But I know the staff has gone in, they’ve come up with– some of them told me they have 100 courses in their inbox they want to take.  But again, that’s a great way for them to continue to grow and it’s for the betterment of the company so I highly recommend people look at it.

Anita Walker:  So it sounds like you are really investing time and really a lot of thought into making sure your staff is the best that they can possibly be.  At the same time, you’ve come into an organization that is really in need of some change to be successful both physically healthy as well as meeting the needs of your audiences.  How do you approach major change in an organization?

Michael Bobbitt:  Yeah.  <laughs>  Tons of change management classes.  There are many approaches, one is you can slowly rip the band-aid off and deal with the fallout every single time you pull the band-aid a little bit more, or you can rip it off, deal with all the grossness underneath and then start to work to repair.  I tend to like that version than the other version because especially if you’re in crisis or have needs that need to be addressed sooner than later, it’s easier just to deal with it all, the fallout right away and then slowly rebuild.  I try to maintain a sense of positivity and also focus on the concepts and where we’re trying to go rather than cutting this, cutting that, changing this, changing that.  So for me the biggest roadmap that I got from New Rep was their strategic plan which is called Vision 2020, it was very clear what the board wanted us to do and I think that strategic plan was more operational improvement plan but they were very clear about what they wanted us to do, so that was my marching orders, so everything else had to be restructured to sort of help us get to that place.  And I think often organizations spend all this time on strategic plans and they don’t really look at the strategies and the structures and the revising job descriptions and even job descriptions that go to the board to help us get there.  So I look at the main focus areas of a strategic plan and everyone’s job description has those written in including the board.  So ours was advance race equity, expand audiences, get rid of the debt and grow contributed revenues.  Every staff person and every board member’s job description has that in it.  And when we evaluate ourselves at the end of the year, you’re going to be asked, “What did you do?” even if you’re in production, “What did you do to advance race equity?  What did you do to reduce the debt, to get more butts in seats?”  That’s the way to keep us all focused on the main prize.

Anita Walker:  So I’m going to pick up on that work you’re doing with the board because one thing we hear a lot about from our organizations is, “How do we make sure we have the most productive board possible that they don’t feel like potted plants sitting in the meeting and just being reported to but what is the role of the board, how can the board member be making the highest and best contribution of their time and effort?”  So you started out by talking about linking job descriptions of board members with the strategic plan, talk more about that and what you’re getting out of board members as a result.

Michael Bobbitt:  Well again, the roadmap and the marching orders from the board is their strategic plan, their Vision 2020 and so for me everyone on the board has to be able to help get us there.  So as we’re recruiting board members I look at a gap analysis looking at what skills we have on the board and what skills we need to get to the strategic plan, and so we’re hyper-focused on bringing people on that can help us get there and not bringing on people because they can write a big check.  Because those people will come in, they’ll feel disengaged or they’ll get upset because they’re not able to really contribute in a meaningful way besides writing a check, or they’ll hijack board meetings because they want to now do this and it’s not in the plan and they’re not patient enough to wait until the next plan gets devised, so to me it’s all about that strategic plan.  I also believe in models and structures, I look at best practices all the time and I remind the boards that, “We can’t make it up, there are models out there, we can tweak the model to suit what we do but there are models out there, there are reasons why these kind of structures exist.”  I recently had a conversation with the board about the fact that they want 100 percent consensus before they take a vote.  And I’m like, “Look, this is taking too long, we have a democratic process for a reason, we don’t have to get 100 percent consensus and you guys are only meeting once a month so I can’t wait for these decisions, so I’m pushing you, make a decision, take a vote and if it’s not 100 percent, that’s okay, that’s okay.”  So all those little things we do to sort of get a board focus.

Anita Walker:  I want to dig a little more into the board job description because I really do think this is a tool that a lot of our organizations could benefit from.  So let’s take racial equity which is one of the strategic goals of the organization, how do you put that into a board member’s job description?

Michael Bobbitt:  We just write it in to advance…

Anita Walker:  But what is your expectation of that board member?

Michael Bobbitt:  Well we, New Rep has to do a lot more racial equity training first of all, I believe that the race equity work has to start with education, so as we are trying to roll out this race equity work I’m giving them little bits and pieces here and there about the work they can do in actionizing some of the race equity work that I’ve learned.  That’s later on in the strategic plan but I can talk about things like, “Put more butts in seats.  What did you do to put more butts in seats?  I’ve given you guys unlimited tickets to opening night, how many people have you brought this year?”  So when we have their evaluation at the end of the year, I can ask them those kinds of questions.

Anita Walker:  So what is your biggest challenge now?  You’ve taken a look at the whole way that the staff culture has been redesigned around your objectives, you’ve got job descriptions for your board’s members, we haven’t talked about the plays.  <laughs>

Michael Bobbitt:  The plays, right.

Anita Walker:  I suppose you think about the plays from time to time.  So your approach to the content of the work is also part of the change.

Michael Bobbitt:  Yeah, and, you know, it’s interesting because I struggle a little bit with our mission and how it’s actionizing, it feels a little… erudite is the word that comes to mind.  So how do you pick plays based on the mission that we have?  So having conversations with board and staff members about, “What’s your interpretation of the mission?”

Anita Walker:  Which is?

Michael Bobbitt:  The mission is New Rep does work that speaks powerfully to the vital issues of our time.  So I have questions about speaking or plays that speak to or speaking about, because I’m an action person, so I feel sometimes that talking about issues absolves you from doing things, so I want to actionize things.  The vital issues also like who’s deciding what the vital issues are, vital issues kind of puts you in a very sort of heavy place because they’re issues, it’s not vital, I don’t know, things, it’s issues that presents you with picking certain kinds of shows and not other kinds of shows, other kinds of shows that may be more fiscally viable than the vital issue shows.  I also have questions about who’s deciding what the vital issues are, what lens are we looking at it from.  And then there’s the “our time”, so who’s the “our” in that statement and what is “time”, is it today, is it the last 50 years, is it the history of mankind?  All those are questions I have about the mission, and it’s broad on purpose but it’s broad but it’s also very narrow at the same time and so it’s hard to pick a season.  And I will also say picking a season is the least favorite part of my job.

Anita Walker:  I would think that would be the most favorite job.

Michael Bobbitt:  You would, you would but there’s so many masters to answer to you, you can’t just pick five shows because you like those playwrights, you got to think about race equity, you got to think about is it marketable, can we produce it, how many people are in the show, it’s so many questions and finding that balance is hard.  And also you get blamed for it, no matter who helps you pick the season, you the artistic director gets blamed for it.  So it’s not an easy job to do.  But I do have a process, I like models, so I have created a matrix map where the staff decided what five things we want to evaluate all of our shows across and then we weighted each of those things…

Anita Walker:  Such as?

Michael Bobbitt:  Is it on mission, is it equitable, diverse, inclusive, and accessible, does it have marquee value, is it expensive.  And they weighted each of those totaling 100 and then I listed all the shows I’m considering and I sent them this, all this, map for them to rate each show on a scale of one to four across each of those five things.  And then from there we’re going to pick the top ten and then we’re going to open up this conversation to other members of the community, some board members, some advisory council members, some artists, have them read the shows, rate the shows, and give us feedback on it.  And then from there we’ll get to our top five.

Anita Walker:  A model, a process, and a way.

Michael Bobbitt:  Super inclusive, yeah super inclusive.  And I also have to make sure that the community and people that are reading the plays represent diversity of our community so that we are not biased.

Anita Walker:  Amazing work.  Michael Bobbitt, Artistic Director at New Repertory Theatre, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Michael Bobbitt:  Thank you so much, it’s been wonderful to be here.

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