The social profit world is so big that no leadership and organization are the same. Taking us into the arts and cultural sector of social profit, Kim Gaynor, the General Director of the Vancouver Opera, sheds light to its differences against other kinds of organizations. Entailing a different type of leadership, Kim shares how she handles her team and board, and also talks about keeping organization’s connection to the community and helping the people in it along a path that is not just transaction but also transformative.
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Arts Leadership And Organizational Transformation with Kim Gaynor
Our guest is Kim Gaynor. She’s the General Director of the Vancouver Opera. As she prepares to enter her fourth season as the General Director, we’re pleased to have her on the show. Welcome, Kim. It’s great to have you here. One of the things we often ask our guests to kick the conversation off is to tell us a little bit more about yourself, about your professional career that brought you to the Vancouver Opera.
I’m Canadian. I was born in Canada, but I’ve spent about half my professional career working outside of Canada, mostly in Europe. I started on the East Coast. My education was at the University of Toronto and then York University in the Master’s of Business Administration program, but with a specialization in Arts and Media Administration. I knew quite early on that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and quite early on also that I wanted to be in the cultural sector. From there, I started working at the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa, which was a fantastic experience because I got to travel across the country and learn about the dynamic of the cultural sector in Canada. Shortly after that, I went over to Europe and worked in England, Austria, then before coming back to Canada for many years at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, which is a big performing arts festival in the Swiss Alps.
How did you find that re-entry into the Canadian cultural thing?
It’s been revealing. It’s my first time living on the West Coast. The West Coast is quite different from the East Coast in terms of what’s important on the social and community agenda. That takes us a little bit into our topic of social profit management. In order to be successful, you have to be quite closely aligned to the values of your local society and community. You have to understand what their priorities are and what is on their agenda so that you can align your programs and your goals closely to that. I think that’s a key to success.
Over the years, you’ve taken the organization through a strategic planning process to ensure that connection to the community is there. What did you learn as you went through that process with your organization?
I learned that a lot of people view the organization and is working in very different ways than I did or do as the head of the organization. From very specific viewpoints, for example, the members of our board or even members of our staff. The challenge in putting in place and making live a strategic plan is to try and bring all of those very different visions together in a coherent way so that we’re all pulling in the same direction.
It is a real challenge of leadership too to be able to pull all of those things together and realize there isn’t always room for every viewpoint in that strategic plan that you have to pick a path or pick a road. Working with your management team and your board, how did you make those hard decisions as you went through that process?
I don’t think the process is complete. I think that is the living document, the strategic plan. I was talking to my senior team about bringing it back to our staff. When times are challenging as they are now for everyone in the social and the nonprofit sectors, you have to keep reminding people of why we do what we do. The document has to be a living one. It has to change. In fact, it can’t be something that stays rigid. Otherwise, people will stop buying into the vision.In order to be successful, you have to be closely aligned to the values of your local society and community. Click To Tweet
You mentioned you knew that you wanted to be in the social profit sector and in the charitable sector. The culture sector is what drew you in. How would you say that an arts organization or a cultural organization is different than other organizations in the social profit sector?
It’s interesting that you use the expression social profit because I use the expression nonprofit. You could look at profits in different ways. In the cultural sector, I feel that we profit our communities. Whether that be the artists who participate in our performances, including the young artists who we train every year. We also profit our communities beyond that because we’re involved in a lot of educational activities and outreach activities to various sectors. I’ve never worked in the health social profit sector. This is just maybe an impression. There are certain social profit sectors such as health where I feel everyone understands the need. Whereas in the cultural sector, we often find ourselves before we get to try to have people support us, whether it’s financially or participating in our events, we have to first explain to them why there is a need for their help. That’s because many people believe that the arts are funded through government tax dollars. They have this belief that most of our costs are covered by the revenue from the box office. In fact, that’s only about 20% to 30% if we’re lucky of our revenues to cover our costs. That’s one of the major differences for me.
It’s balancing the funding available from the government and we can spend some time talking about changes in that area, but also that impression that the tickets pay for the operation of the company. That definitely isn’t the case. One of the things that’s been impressive as an outsider looking at Vancouver Opera has been over a number of years, the commitment to bringing opera and connecting opera to the community. You’ve done that through a number of special stage operas and working with other community groups. How has that connection to community acted as a guiding light or a North Star for the organization?
We’re very committed to those activities. Whether it’s working with a shelter who houses people who’ve experienced homelessness and bringing them through the process of learning opera, singing and writing their stories. Many of them we’ve brought to very different places in their life and in terms of their feeling about their opportunities going forward. What we did was we created an experience in the theater where people who have a difficulty sitting through a regular performance, either because the social experience of it is too intense like for example, people who might be on the autism spectrum or people who have very young children and had to leave the theater possibly at certain times.
We call it a relaxed performance. These relaxed performances allowed people to participate who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate. That was a big commitment of energy on our part. We kept the house lights up. We eliminated any frightening or very loud stage hears that may have scared people. We worked in consultation with people who understand the sector and people living this type of life experience so that we could bring them into what we do. Those are some examples of what we do with people in the opera.
In that relaxed performance, what was the feedback from the performers who were participating in putting on those performances?
The reaction was extremely positive. We even had some performers who came out to the lobby at intermission in costume to speak to the audience. Normally, they would never do that in a performance. They got into it and enjoyed the opportunity to interact in a different way with the audience.
It is a surprise for many people to see an opera company so involved in the community and involved in this particular way. How does that help you connect to the more traditional or what people would think of as a traditional audience for the opera?
In all of this, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, is that we want everyone who interacts with the organization to have a transformational experience and not just a transactional one. What that means is whatever it is that they’re looking for, and that can be very different things for different people, we want our organization to contribute to them moving along that path. Instead of it being just a transaction, I’m going to buy a ticket, go to a performance and I’m going to go home. To be successful, we need at least a good number of those people to believe in what we’re doing in the same way that we believe in it. When that happens, they become champions for our organization. Whether it’s the organizations or the social groups we work with when we do our community outreach or the people who become our donors, if they interact with us in a more transformational way, then we can count on their support. We know that they’re in it for the long-term and they become a part of our family.
That’s an important part of a lot of the transformation that you’ve been doing at Vancouver Opera in your time there. One of the things that’s been in the local newspaper, and has been an issue mostly for the positive, has been the move to a shorter season in the festival. You’re saying that the festival is starting to take hold. How has that transformation of what people expect of Vancouver Opera helped change the culture of the organization?
What we were trying to achieve and are still trying to achieve is to get past many of the stereotypes and assumptions that exist around opera. This is one of the art forms which suffers the most from preconceived ideas about who can enjoy opera, what age of people can enjoy opera, and how much money you need to have to enjoy opera. Most of these things are myths. Anyone can come to the opera for under $50. We have a program for under 40 years of age who can come for $40 to the opera. There are many of these barriers that people think that exist that don’t exist. You can come to the opera in your jeans. You don’t have to dress up. You can come at different times of the day and so on.
The festival was a bit of an extension of this desire to create experiences, which people felt more comfortable from a wider variety or range of ages, communities, language groups and everything. The way we do that is by sometimes moving the opera out of the traditional opera house, which here is the Civic Theater. We’d like to move it into other spaces, which people may feel more comfortable attending. We do things which are maybe shorter or maybe combine opera with other art forms or maybe don’t even have any staged opera at all. We premiered a new Canadian composition by Brian Current called the River of Light, which was an oratorial. It had a choir, solo artist and an orchestra, but there was no onstage action with costumes that are on set, for example. That’s what the festival allows us to do. My hope is that people will know what to expect when they come to the opera, but they also won’t think if you know what I mean.
Absolutely, and your team do an excellent job of that. Developing this change takes a lot of commitment on the part of everyone who’s working there at Vancouver Opera, but also on the part of your board. How do you walk your board through this process of taking opera out of what is expected into what is transformational for the audience?
The board is a group of individuals as well. Some of them come to it more easily than others as well. We have some real champions on the board for what we’re trying to achieve. Everyone has a role to play. The board can most effectively help us by connecting us through their networks to people who can help us. Whether that means people who will come and bring a group of guests to one of our events or to a fundraising event. They may personally find, through corporate contact, someone who can support one of our activities. They themselves can put us in touch with suppliers of something we need. The board provides that link into the community here. They are the network that expands our network.
As you’ve been going through a lot of organizational change to match the change in programming, you use your board for a lot of strategic counsel when it comes to important decisions. How do you engage them either as individuals or the entire board?
We have a number of committees. People either self-select or I ask people to sit on those committees. We sometimes bring in other people who are not board members so that’s interesting. For example, I was trying to set up a meeting to re-invent and rejuvenate a young professional’s group because we have one that slaps a little bit where we say young professionals under 45 years of age would probably have their own types of activities to get involved with the opera. I’ve taken and asked a couple of our younger board members if they would spearhead that activity with me. With committees, we are able to do that. Sometimes individuals will host events or activities either in their home or in other locations to which board and other members are invited.When times are challenging, you have to keep reminding people of why you do what you do. Click To Tweet
I’m also in the process of planning with Opera.ca, which is the trade association for opera companies in Canada. The symposiums or summit is going to happen here in the second week of September. The board will be invited to that. We’re planning a track of activities for board members. That’s going to be professional development and also an opportunity to meet board members from other opera companies. That’s a good way to motivate the board members as well and letting them know about opportunities. Even in association with Opera America, which is the American Trade Association, making them aware when these activities are on offer and they can participate if they like.
In a conversation with your board chair and board members, there’s often a sense of, “We’ve got to figure out how to make this work if we want the organization to be successful.” How have you used the board and some of those more difficult internal issues that you needed to work through over the last years?
In a somewhat similar way, there are some board members we work with almost on a daily basis. For example, we’ve worked a lot with our audit committee to try and find appropriate solutions to our financial challenges in the organization. People are always very useful and helpful in that respect. I also bring board members into senior recruiting decisions. If we’re hiring a senior member of the team, I like the board members or some of them to at least be on board with that decision. Sometimes we also invite them to participate in staff-only events. For example, we had our year-end barbecue for staff, chorus, orchestra and everyone. We invited the board to come to that so that they aren’t anonymous faces to the people who work here every day and put the shows on the stage.
That’s a powerful connection when the staff understand why people are on the board, what their commitment to the cause is and what their commitment to the art is. It helps answer a lot of questions about what’s the board thinking about or how has the board making these decisions if the staff understands what’s motivating the board to be a part of the organization.
The best way for that to happen is for them to have a personal relationship and get to know them as people.
One of the things that I find fascinating about arts and cultural organizations is that it does take a series of teams to put the product on the stage. Like the performers who are on the stage, you coordinate a very senior and a very accomplished executive team that I know you work closely with on a day-to-day basis. How do you use your management team to help drive the organization in the direction?
I give them a lot of freedom. That would be the main thing because they’re all quite accomplished in their own areas. They have lots of good ideas. We meet regularly and we speak on an even more often basis. I try and find time to listen, which is not always easy because time is always short. I don’t believe much in a super hierarchical organization. We all have job descriptions and titles, but we work best when we feel that our strengths are appreciated, recognized and used in the best possible way. That’s my philosophy about it.
How important is it for your team to know and understand the big picture?
It’s more important than I realized. This is maybe a cultural difference between where I was working for many years in Europe and here. Here, this kind of transparency at a very detailed level is expected and appreciated. It feels like a dangerous thing for a manager when you’re being totally transparent about a lot of information inside the organization. That’s also a challenge to manage those expectations.
How do you make sure that at least your elite senior leadership team or the whole organization have access to that bigger picture and understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish?
It’s difficult. One of the ways we tried to do it was through the strategic planning process, which we followed on with a process of review and development of all our human resources, policies and procedures in their organization to update them. This has also been a big piece of work because there was a lot going on in that area in organizations with respect to anti-harassment, with respect to policies about inclusion and anti-discrimination and so on. We have been trying to show the organization that’s important to us or to our employees. We’re trying to look after them by making sure we’re updating all of those policies. We’re involving them in the training so that they understand what we’re talking about and how to recognize harassment situations in the organization.
We’re also participating in a big process. This is a Canada-wide opera company process of measuring civic impact. Our employees will also be involved in that. This has to do with measuring what your organization is contributing to society and to its community. On one side of the organization, we will use that information to support our request for funding, whether it’s government funding or private funding. From the employee organizational point of view, wouldn’t it be great to know the impact the organization you’re working for is having in the community? We’ll definitely be sharing that information with the level of staff.
Are there factors that have come up in that discussion of measuring your impact? Are there factors that have come up that are a surprise to you or feel like a bit of a black box or a mystery?
We’re very much at the beginning of that process. I’m not sure I can answer that question now. I’m sure there will be things that surprise me or things that I assume that I’ll be shown to be completely wrong about.
That’s one thing the world is always good for. Having taken a deep look inside the organization, including the board and the groups that you work with in the community, have you identified or were you surprised to find anything that the team felt was a mystery or was a surprise for them that you were able to tell them the answer and say, “This isn’t a mystery,” but they felt it was?
Not really. Sometimes perhaps they don’t understand well-enough how we prioritize. If you have limited resources, how is it you decide that one service should be prioritized over another or if you can only add one staff position? How is it you decide that the other department rather than yours gets the additional resources? Some of these decisions are based on a quite complex analysis of what’s happening in the organization and who the other people are. They’re difficult to explain in a way that everyone would understand.We work best when we feel that our strengths are appreciated, recognized, and used in the best possible way. Click To Tweet
Are there issues or ideas that you wish the board was thinking about on a more regular basis than they are? Is there something you want them paying closer attention to than they are at the present time?
It’s a difficult thing because our board is a volunteer board of very busy professionals who have lots of other things to think about rather than Vancouver Opera all the time. I suppose in an ideal world, I would want more of their time so that whenever we do anything, we had full-board participation and attendance because that generates the energy that you need to make things a success. I know they do the best they can. If I could wave a magic wand and could have all of them there in everything we do, that would make a difference.
Are there things that when you think about your management team or the larger organization in Vancouver Opera that you wished they were thinking about on a more regular basis?
One of the things I’m still working on here is more horizontal integration of people’s activities. I’m not a big believer in the hierarchical structure. I find that people tend to be comfortable working in silos so they have their little area of responsibility and they don’t spend much time thinking about other people’s responsibilities or how they might interact. I know some big organizations like Google or Amazon maybe have achieved this. It’s an organizational cultural question and I’m still working on it.
I think many of your colleagues in the cultural sector and the not-for-profit sector more generally are dealing with those exact same issues. I want to ask you, because you are in a creative industry and you have been a very creative leader of Vancouver Opera, where do you find new ideas or inspiration as the leader of the organization?
Most of them come from other organizations. An example of that would be our new major signature fundraising event. It was a singing competition. We did it because the Canadian Opera Company and Montreal Opera both have a similar event, which is very successful. I always think that if there are not any objections, stealing ideas is a good way to avoid a steep learning curve and dive right into a profitable time. I find some of my colleagues in other opera companies are very inspirational in terms of the way they deal with very similar problems. I’m happy to say that they’re extremely generous with both their time and ideas and their offers and assistance.
If one of our audience, in the next couple of weeks or in the next month or so, was about to take over a large and important cultural institution in their city, either in Canada or in the United States, what would your advice be for how they should handle that first day?
The very first day, all you do is talk to people who are already there. Meet with them or have them into your office or go into their office. Listen and try to get a sense of where things are working and where they’re not working. The personalities because that makes a big difference too. What’s the personality mix and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals? This would take much more than a day, but certainly the first day, I would be doing that.
I like to try and summarize a few of the points or a couple of points that you made that our audience should take away. One thing that came through in all of your answers is you spoke very passionately about the importance of connection. Whether that was a connection to the art form, to the community, the interpersonal relationships between the individuals whether it’s staff and board or the board themselves, the performers. That underlines the importance of being your true self or your real self in positions of leadership. It’s something I know that you do on a very regular basis. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.
You’re most welcome.
Thanks for being a part of the Discovery Pod.
It’s my pleasure.
About Kim Gaynor
Kim Gaynor has spent more than 30 years in influential and senior positions with cultural and performing arts institutions and festivals in Canada, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe. She comes to Vancouver Opera from the Verbier Festival, in Switzerland, where she has served as Managing Director for the past 10 years.
Before her tenure at Verbier Festival, she was Managing Director and Co-founder of Festival Retz, a chamber music and chamber opera festival in Austria; the administrator of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, in London, U.K.; and Head of Marketing Administration at Royal Opera House, London. In Canada, Kim Gaynor has served as Administrative Director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Marketing Director of The National Arts Centre Orchestra, and Managing Director of L’Opéra de Montréal.