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.
Margaret Keller: When you’re founding an organization, things move so quickly that I don’t think there’s a chance to write everything down. So to be able to receive that institutional history firsthand was really valuable.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Margaret Keller, Executive Director of Community Access to the Arts. And welcome to our program.
Margaret Keller: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here, Anita.
Anita Walker: So I really wanted to invite you to talk with us today because you have mastered something that is a mystery to a lot of people and that is how do you follow in the footsteps of an organization founder, especially a beloved, well-respected founder of an organization? Community Access to the Arts, first share what that is for listeners who don’t know.
Margaret Keller: Sure, yes. We are a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to nurture and celebrate the creativity of people with disabilities. So we serve 700 people with disabilities across Berkshire County in Massachusetts and then also into Columbia County, New York a little bit too, through intensive workshops in both the visual and performing arts. And then we share their creativity with the wider community through performances and art exhibits and other collaborations with major cultural organizations in the Berkshires.
Anita Walker: So this is a program that I think started in the living room of the founder.
Margaret Keller: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: Sandy Newman.
Margaret Keller: Yes.
Anita Walker: And grew to have this incredible reach here in Berkshire County.
Margaret Keller: Yes.
Anita Walker: And Sandy was very thoughtful about passing her legacy on to make sure that it would live and continue to serve citizens here in Berkshire County. But it’s hard to step in. It’s hard to walk away but it’s equally if perhaps not harder to walk in after a founder. So talk to us a little bit about sort of that process. It usually starts with the board, the board who’s thinking about what’s coming next. How did the board work with you on that?
Margaret Keller: Yes. I was really lucky to be able to benefit from having such an engaged board and, frankly, also a very engaged founder. And before I ever even stepped on the scene, you know, for two, three years they had really paved the way. Sandy went to the board first to talk about transition. And, you know, she was really looking ahead and thinking about the future of this organization that she had founded and that she felt so passionately connected to. And she wanted to ensure CATA’s future and longevity, so she went to the board and opened up that conversation, which I think is a really difficult thing to do. And the board was really right there with her ready to have that conversation and they began talking and they created a plan together that really, all of that work really started two or three years before I walked in the door. Part of what they did was to prepare a timeline and to talk about when that moment would come and what needed to happen as they prepared for Sandy’s retirement and to put together a job description for the person who would follow. When I stepped in the door I had the opportunity to interview with many members of the board, but then also at some point in the process to meet Sandy, too. And then once I was hired, that thoughtful process really stood me in good stead. Sandy continued on at CATA for the first few months that I was there, so I had this remarkable opportunity to really work almost, you know, hand-in-hand with her. Side by side we traveled <laughs> all of Berkshire County to meet CATA’s partner organizations. And our organization is one that’s very much rooted in very strong partnerships with we have 49 partner organizations now. I think when I first came on we had at least 30, so that was still quite a number of people to meet. Other agencies, residences, day habilitation programs, schools, and we really went hand-in-hand to meet the leaders of each of those organizations and Sandy was able to introduce me directly to each of our partners and that was really a wonderful opportunity for me to get that introduction firsthand. And then also, we logged a lot of hours in the car <laughs> side by side. Berkshire County is 920 square miles, so, <laughs> that’s a lot of time for road trip conversation, which was also really valuable.
Anita Walker: One of the things that happens when a founder leaves is there’s so much in their head in their noggin’s hard drive and try as you might to try to write everything down and write down policies and processes and, you know, get the Rolodex down on paper, there’s so much intuitive knowledge and action and just behavior in the organization as the founder that those hours in the car I bet you took full advantage of just to find out what wasn’t written down.
Margaret Keller: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you know, when you’re founding an organization things move so quickly that I don’t think there’s a chance to write everything down. So to be able to receive that institutional history firsthand was really valuable for me. And just to have the chance to ask questions about what had been tried before, what worked, what the challenges had been, what some of the obstacles to growth were. What were the things you always wanted to do and, you know, how did those trials work?
Anita Walker: So did the board give you permission to not be Sandy?
Margaret Keller: Oh, that’s such a great question. Yes, they did. I think they were very wise in recognizing that they weren’t looking to hire another Sandy because that’s impossible. No two people are ever the same. And that they really wanted someone who would bring their own strengths and their own vision. So I did, I felt that I had the leeway to be me, to be Margaret and to learn, certainly, from Sandy and to learn from everything that had come before me, but to bring my own vision and to make my own stand.
Anita Walker: So let’s talk– You’ve now been, what, two, three, four–?
Margaret Keller: Four.
Anita Walker: Oh, my gosh, I can’t keep track.
Margaret Keller: Yes, I know, time moves quickly.
Anita Walker: Four years. So you’re the old hand now. But if you were going to give some advice to someone who is in the shoes you were in four years ago, in other words, applying for a position to run an organization when a founder steps away,–
Margaret Keller: Yes.
Anita Walker: What are some of the questions that you would advise or things to consider, you would advise that person to consider?
Margaret Keller: Yes. I think there’s a balancing act when you’re coming in following a founder, and particularly a beloved founder. I think it’s really, really important to honor the legacy of the organization that you’re stepping into. The reason you want to be the ED of this organization is because you think it’s amazing and you recognize everything that has come before you. So I think it’s really important to come in with an attitude of respect for that legacy and with a desire to honor the legacy of the rounder. That’s really important. At the same time, I think you really need to come in with a vision of your own or with a desire to create that vision. What I found really helpful in creating my own vision for the organization is to spend time really doing my research and getting to know the organization. Being very outward focused. Looking at all those external stakeholders and taking the time to meet with people and to listen. To ask a lot of questions and to hear from them about the opportunities that they saw for CATA, for our organization, the opportunities they saw for their own organizations as we work together on shared projects and a shared mission and also the challenges that they saw. So I think being externally focused and really making a list of all of the people who have a stake in the success of your organization. For us that was the partner agencies that we work with, other agencies that serve people with disabilities that we join with to create our programs nurturing the creativity of our artists. It was also the cultural organizations that we work with to shine a light on that creativity and to bring that incredible artistry out to the public. It was our donors and supporters. It’s our board. It’s our staff, people who had been there in some cases for almost as long as Sandy who also had such a valuable perspective to share. So sitting down with all of those people and getting a handle of what they saw for the organization, what they had bumped up against in the past, what they saw as challenges and obstacles and what they saw as opportunities for growth.
Anita Walker: I know what you’re talking about, it might surprise a lot of people, because if I were to say, “What do you think the first thing that the coming person is going to look at or concentrate on?” my guess is most people would say the balance sheet.
Margaret Keller: Mmm.
Anita Walker: The financial capitalization of the organization. But you are talking about something that is equally or perhaps more important, which is the social capitalization, the years and years of relationships between the founder and the organization. Money is almost a little more straightforward and easy to address.
Margaret Keller: It is.
Anita Walker: Social capital, those are earned, those are reputation, those are cultivated over time and the fact that you dove right into that spot, that pretty amazing.
Margaret Keller: Well, you’re absolutely right. I think, you know, you need to absolutely get a handle on the finances right away. That’s another place where the board is such a crucial partner to be able to help you in that process. But you’re also absolutely right that it is about social capital. When you’re thinking about the assets and the resources of any organization, the people, the people that you’re serving, the people that you work with, the people that are your absolutely critical partners to do the work, they are part of your asset list. <laughs> So you have to get– You can get to know the money side much more quickly than you can get to know the community side and–
Anita Walker: And the money doesn’t deliver itself. Actually, it’s that social capital that– <laughs>
Margaret Keller: Yes.
Anita Walker: That addresses the balance sheet.
Margaret Keller: Right, right. It’s the board. It’s your donors. It’s your partners. So being able to steep yourself in that I think is critical. Because you can come in with a whole lot of ideas based on, you know, your professional expertise, your background, your read of the community. But if you’re not marrying that with what the organization and the people in it need and want and understand, you’re really not doing your job. You have to really sit down at a table with all of the people that you’re working with and get a sense from them of how everything works and what they see as the opportunities and challenges. And out of those conversations, then your vision can emerge, begin to emerge much more organically so that you’re not in a top-down way kind of overlaying your sense of where the organization should go; rather, you’re letting that emerge maybe a little bit from your own background and your own knowledge but also from what the organization needs and wants. So, yeah, it’s looking at those assets more broadly and it’s thinking about who are the resources that are here for me to help me figure this out as the new leader.
Anita Walker: Many times when boards are confronting a major change in leadership, either a long-time leader or a founder retiring or leaving for some reason or another, they consider the option of bringing an interim in, the purpose being the interim can clean out the cobwebs, all the things that are done just the way they were always done and we always do them this way even though it may or may not be the best way. If there’s any hard, tough cleanup that has to be done, they could do that and then set the table so it’s ready for a new, incoming person. What advice would you give the board as they’re considering that option?
Margaret Keller: You know, I guess I wouldn’t want to strike that out of hand as an option. I think there might be situations where that could be appropriate. In that kind of situation, I would really urge the board to at least consider approaching it differently, to at least consider the option of going whole hog and hiring the next ED without having to put that time limit, that kind of caveat around the position of interim. You know, I think one of the challenges that is also an opportunity when you come in as a new ED is that you need to begin building people’s trust right from the get go. And I think the listening that I described earlier is part of that. I think that’s essential as you’re building trust. But you’re kind of hamstringing the interim right from the beginning if you’re telling everybody, “Look, this person’s only going to be here for a year. They’re only going to be here for two years.” You’re in a way asking people not to get too close. Don’t worry too much about building trust. Don’t worry too much about building a relationship with this person because they’re a short-timer. It’s different when you come in as the next person, you have to start building those relationships because those relationships are for the long haul and that’s really what then helps you grow into that position and helps you do your job. So I guess I would encourage a board who was thinking about going the interim route to think differently and to think about what they’re afraid of, what’s keeping them from feeling that they’re ready to hire the next person and to try to see if there might be other ways to confront those problems and overcome those problems and invest their trust in the next person.
Anita Walker: Any tips for boards on what they should be doing as a boards themselves around their vision or their own housekeeping before bringing a new person on board?
Margaret Keller: Mm-hmm. I think that it is true that it is a lot of work for a board to manage this kind of transition because they really need to be a point of continuity for the organization. So I think going into it recognizing that they have to be committed for the long haul, that they have to be there both for the founder as the founder is readying to leave and the founder is making the plan to leave. They have to be really an integral part of that retirement transition process. And then they need to recognize that when the new person comes in, the new leader of the organization comes in, that they need to provide that moment of continuity. You can’t have a kind of wholesale changing of the guard when you have a new leader in place. The new leader really needs people who have been there and have been committed to the organization who can also help to transmit that institutional history and that knowledge that’s really an important piece.
Anita Walker: Margaret, you make it look so easy.
Anita Walker: But I know over the last four years I’m sure that it’s taken a lot of work on your part, on the staff, on the board, on the leaders. But of all of the examples I’ve seen, you have come through this transition with amazing grace, actually. I think the organization has really just continued to fly in this transition and that’s a testament to your predecessor–
Margaret Keller: Yes.
Anita Walker: As well as to you.
Margaret Keller: Very much so. I think I’ve been so lucky in so many different ways and I think that the relationship that I have with Sandy has been a gift for me, too. I mean, for me, it’s been very easy to honor the legacy of CATA’s founder because I do look at what she’s built with awe and it inspires me. It’s been really wonderful to walk into an organization that has such strength behind it and that has already created so much that’s inspiring to our whole community. And it’s a gift for me to be able to build on that and to really be able to think with so many others, with my board, with my staff and my colleagues, with the community and all of our partners and supporters about what comes next, what comes next for CATA. Because there is so much opportunity and even over the last four years, we’ve been able to do so much and in doing what we’ve done, it’s really opened the door for us to think about what comes next, what’s the next 25 years and what does that hold for us? So, it’s been really exciting.
Anita Walker: Margaret Keller, Executive Director of Community Access to the Arts, another one of our “Creative Minds Out Loud.”
Margaret Keller: Thanks so much.
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