A reflection on leadership in non-profit arts, occasioned on Lara Smith leaving Dad’s Garage
By Guest Columnist DERIN DICKERSON, outgoing chairperson of Dad’s Garage
Being a leader in the arts is not an easy job, and especially so over the last year dealing with COVID-19. I have learned that, as the outgoing chair of the board of Dad’s Garage (in fact, July 31 was my last day).
As a board chair, my job was to help provide strategic direction for the organization and ensure the staff leaders had what they needed to succeed. During my time on the board, I was extremely fortunate to work with Lara Smith, the long-time managing director of Dad’s Garage.
Even though being a leader in the arts is a tough job, Lara has excelled in the face of setbacks, challenges, and frustrations. Having served faithfully for over a decade, Lara is stepping down from her role this year and passing the baton to Stacey Sharer, the new managing director. Over her 10-year tenure, Lara has exemplified leadership in ways that I would like to share with you here. I hope that this can inspire other business leaders to become more engaged with arts organizations because we need strong leadership in this sector.
1) Going the extra mile to ensure that staff is taken care of, especially during hard times.
The arts are not a robustly funded sector. The people who make the magic happen at a theatre do so on tight budgets, and a lot of what drives them is a passion for their work. This also means that when times are tough, the burdens on artists seem amplified. Lara often said, “Theatre is the community of people that make it,” and that it was a priority to take care of the people that make Dad’s Garage so awesome.
As we were all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lara immediately jumped into action to help support our performers who were unable to perform, as everything was shutdown. Lara implemented an assistance fund for performers and staff and took the initiative to raise funds from members of the broader Dad’s Garage family. As a result of her efforts, many of our staff members and performers were able to receive the assistance they needed to pay rent, buy food and medicine, and stay on their feet during a challenging time for everyone.
This is something the corporate world could learn a lot from. It’s important to see employees as people first, and not simply numbers on a spreadsheet. By putting the human needs of your team first, you strengthen the entire company’s ability to grow and achieve more.
2) Leading with grace and strength
There are times when all leaders probably want to scream out of frustration. Your best-laid plans have to be thrown out the door. New challenges pop up unexpectedly. Lara, perhaps owing to her knowledge of improv, showed how she can juggle these issues and look smooth doing it.
In 2019, our long-time artistic director decided to transition into a different role with the organization a week before I took over as chair (thanks, Kevin Gillese). Lara and I led an extensive nationwide search for his replacement. After a year in the job, the new artistic director was offered an opportunity of a lifetime to lead the renowned Second City theatre in Chicago, and we were once again in search of an artistic director (thanks, Jon Carr). And while all of this was going on, Lara had to stabilize the company’s finances and internal culture during both COVID and societal change. Long story short, these last few years have been – to borrow a phrase from Lara – a “dumpster fire.”
But, with Lara, there is never yelling or panicking. To act with grace and strength is to accept the situation, and figure out the best way to move forward. As with improv, where the ideal approach is to respond to whatever prompt is presented with “Yes, and…” to move the scene forward, the corporate environment often requires a “Yes, and…” approach to problems and challenging situations to find the optimal path forward.
At a nonprofit like Dad’s Garage, nobody is doing this work for the money. Our board is all-volunteer, folks like Lara put in the work for their passion and dedication to the mission (aka: they could probably make a lot more money in the corporate world), and all of our profits go back into the organization rather than lining the pockets of owners.
Despite the challenges of budget, or unforeseen circumstances, Lara has been able to bring a level of leadership that can inspire even a corporate lawyer like myself. I think all of us at Dad’s Garage are sad to see Lara leave, but excited to see what she does next. Perhaps what is most exciting is the legacy she has left – the leaders she has trained, the people she has inspired, and the capacity she has built for the Atlanta arts community.
Note to readers: Derin Dickerson is the outgoing board chair of Dad’s Garage and an attorney at Alston & Bird.