Develop the talent in your organisation

I’ve always held the view that the best thing an organisation can do for its staff is to develop them. It improves workflow, develops thinking, and enhances your end product. Doesn’t it?

Not every line manager I’ve had in my near twenty-five year career has shared that view. One challenged my desire to empower team members by pointing out that I was working for a business not a drop-in centre. For a long while I thought I was overly naive and needed to ‘shape-up’.

Andrew Mellor’s blog post on the Classical Music echoes the feelings I had when I left arts administration in 1997.

I regretted leaving arts administration

The picture at the top of this post is of me and my then newly recruited colleague Helen posing for the fundraising magazine, when I worked as an orchestra manager in Suffolk. I was twenty-three. I’d graduated from university with a music degree less than twelve months before. 

I loved my job as an orchestra manager. I loved the location too. It could have been ideal had the money been better (I ended up taking multiple bank loans in order to live), the conditions been a little less demanding, and the support been there to reassure me that yes I was doing a good job.

Arts administration had its perks: this is me at work talking to Dame Joan Sutherland in 1996.

I’ve written before about the more humorous recollections of being an orchestral manager, but the reality was that I felt hugely inexperienced, crippled by imposter syndrome, having to sell concert-playing opportunities to graduate musicians with a rehearsal schedule that didn’t have enough budget. That performances were a success was down to the talent on stage, but my feeling was – for the majority of the time – that I wasn’t the person they really wanted and wasn’t terribly good at the job.

I don’t think that now. The passing of the years has provided me with a far gentler, more forgiving stance. I think I gained far more experience doing the job than I realised, and probably did it to the best of my abilities. It was incredibly demanding for a 24 year old – still a recent graduate, having to take professional responsibility for people the same age as me, and judge them on the quality of their playing.

Is this all my music degree is good for?

The trigger to leave arts administration was down to one crucial event. The organisation I worked for was based in two locations that demanded a car journey between the two. I was based in one office for the day, and my new boss was in the other. “Would you come over to this building please? We need you to move the 150 chorus chairs from the top floor to the restaurant.” I saw red. I did what was asked conscious of the work I was having to leave behind in order to do a spot of stage management. Was this all my music degree was good for? Is this how they saw me? 

I handed in my notice the following day. I left to start working as an IT support engineer in a margarine factory in East London four weeks later. 

Me and arts administration now

It’s only been since I have started writing more and more about classical music on this blog that I notice the odd tang of regret about leaving arts administration back in ’97. Reconnecting with the performing arts because of the blog, but never really feeling as though I’m fully employed by the arts is a bittersweet thing.

A bit of me perhaps still hankers after a job in arts administration. And when I think of that, I start to wonder (and have said in a podcast with one chief exec) whether I was too quick to jack it all in and pursue the money.

There is an argument for saying that arts administration staff do need to accept that their roles will encompass all manner of ad-hoc tasks. Arts organisations have little or no money, so everybody needs to be prepared to ‘muck in’. Maybe I should have stuck at it. And maybe if I had I would have progressed further in arts administration. Maybe I only have myself to blame.

How I would have liked it to be

When I reflect on how I would like my time in arts administration to have been different, I end up thinking that I would have liked to have felt as though I was being invested in. I would have wanted to feel as though my contribution was, above the paltry salary, valued. I would have liked to know that there was a career path. I would have liked to have been able to say to somebody at the time, “I don’t think this is working,” or, “I need some help with this.”

Don’t get me wrong. I offloaded to colleagues a lot. Bored them to tears. But there wasn’t anything practical, useful or empowering to help me see my place in it all, and to halt my incessant ruminations that the difficulties of the job were all down to me.  There could have been so much more which could have helped me and in turn helped the organisation. 

Developing your staff isn’t as costly as you think

As part of my coaching business, I’m trying to offer the kind of skills I didn’t get when worked in the arts, back to the kinds of organisations I used to work for. Some I’ve spoken to have accepted that organisational dysfunction is hampering productivity and effectiveness. 

But, when it comes to tentatively discussing solutions, the message I get back is stark (and here I paraphrase, by the way): why would we invest in developing people when we accept that there will always be a high turnover of staff given the poor salaries there are? It seems as though retaining staff isn’t a priority, because its just not possible, so developing them isn’t either. But wouldn’t challenging that assumption, capitalising on expertise, and developing sector-wide talent be beneficial to the cultural scene as a whole in the long run?

The training and development that could have helped the organisation I worked for help me isn’t costly. That people think it is costly is down to their perception of what its worth and who they think ‘deserves’ to receive it. Helping organisations help their staff be the best they can so the sector can thrive through competition, aspiration, and emulation seems like a no-brainer to me.

Jon Jacob is an ICF accredited leadership coach, mentor and team facilitator. Find out more about his professional background on LinkedIn.

Email him at or call him on 07768 864655.