Tuesday, April 25, 2017

From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 8

MAH staffer Sandino Gomez extolls the virtues of Abbott Square.
This is the eighth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started the Abbott Square expansion project, I knew it would change our facility. I knew it would change the museum visitor experience. I knew it would change our downtown.

But I completely missed something else it would change: our staff.

It's absurd in retrospect to think this project could change the downtown without changing our organization. But when we started Abbott Square, I saw it as a new program. I assumed it would grow alongside our existing work rather than reshaping it. We were developing something that departed from our core services, on a site that we didn’t currently activate, with money we didn’t yet have. It felt separate from the ongoing work of the organization. For the first two years, the board was deeply involved. The staff was not.

The Abbott Square development team started with one staff member and one trustee. I brought the community visioning and planning process. Peter Orr (the trustee) brought the business planning and operational know-how. For over a year, Peter and I built the plan, negotiated partnerships, crunched numbers. We worked with community partners, stakeholders, and trustees to hone the plan.

When the capital campaign started, the staff team grew from one to three. I hired a development director whose primary focus was the capital campaign. Our marketing and engagement coordinator expanded her role to produce campaign collateral. Working closely with trustees and community partners, we raised the $5,000,000 needed to make the Abbott Square a reality.

All our staff members worked fundraising events. They heard the pitch. They knew the broad strokes of the project. But internally, many staff (including me) treated the Abbott Square project as “my” project. I felt both excited and isolated by the project. I sat alone in the corner reviewing contracts and architectural plans. Abbott Square was still an idea conjured in site plans and fundraising brochures. It existed outside the real world of museum exhibits, events, and visitors our staff worked with every day.

For the first couple years, I was comfortable with this division of labor. I had my job; my colleagues had theirs. Since there wasn’t yet concrete work for them to DO related to Abbott Square, separation felt appropriate. In staff meetings, I treated Abbott Square as an inspiring distraction. Something to be aware of and informed about. Not something to focus on.

But as we started shifting from vision to action, we had to change this approach. Abbott Square wasn’t shaping up to be another project in a portfolio of MAH projects. It was changing our community, and it had to change our organization. I needed to desilo the project. I needed to open it up to our staff’s expertise. I needed to invite staff members to feel like owners of it.

Even once I understood this, I wasn’t sure when and how to shift. There were so many questions about Abbott Square where the answer was, “I don’t know yet.” There were so many parts of the project that took up a ton of my time but shouldn’t concern others. There were stressful moments—getting permits, settling the lawsuit—that could have been big distractions for our staff. I felt protective of their time. I wanted to insulate them from the strange world of the project. I wanted to wait until I could answer their questions with something other than “I don’t know yet.”

And so I waited.

It never felt like the right time to make the shift. I never felt like I had enough information for staff. I never felt ready to ask people to shift their attention to something that didn’t exist yet. I hated being unsure of dates and timelines. I kept telling myself we should wait a little longer.

But then two things happened that made me feel like I had to act. First, our Development Director moved on from the MAH when the campaign wrapped up. My main staff partner on the project was gone. And Intersection for the Arts fell into crisis.

Intersection is a San Francisco-based arts organization I had long admired. In the mid-2000s, under the leadership of Deborah Cullinan, they entered into a partnership with a real estate developer to move into a new building and transform their business model. The move was ambitious, innovative, and bold—everything Deborah was known for. Three years after the move, Deborah left Intersection to become the new CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She thought she was leaving Intersection in a strong position. Instead, within a year, it fell into financial crisis.

I know very little about Intersection’s move, meltdown, and subsequent regrowth. But I do know this: the financial crisis underscored the need for the whole organization to understand and embrace the move in all its complexity.

The Intersection crisis was a wakeup call for me. If Abbott Square launched as “my” project, or even as the board’s project, MAH staff might not be ready to lead it. They might not seize all the opportunities it presents. They might struggle to tackle the challenges it introduces.

And so I started opening up. I asked colleagues to partner with me on an operational vision. I invited them take the lead on several key elements. I got more comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

The more I did this, the more it became clear that Abbott Square could and should have a transformative impact on our whole organization. About a year before opening, we did a major restructuring of our staff to meet the opportunity of Abbott Square. At first, I’d assumed two or three people’s jobs would be impacted by Abbott Square. Instead, everyone’s job changed. To treat Abbott Square as an expansion of the MAH and not an ancillary project, we all had to reset our idea of what the MAH is and what we do here.

The restructuring was tough, time-consuming, and necessary. We rewrote job descriptions, reoriented teams, and redistributed work. Now, we have a staff team who think of MAH + Abbott Square as one big entity which we are all responsible for.

This transition work is far from done. There are still aspects of the project I have a hard time letting go of. Every day, I have to tell a colleague “I don’t know” when I wish I could give them a definitive answer. But I’m trying to be honest about these items as they arise. Our goal is that when we open this summer, the operation of the expanded MAH is in the hands of our whole team. I think we’re getting there.

I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn't had that wakeup call. I still wonder when the perfect moment was to start this transition. Should I have started sooner, so more staff members co-owned the nascent vision? Should I have waited longer, so staff could do their best work on existing programs and not waste energy on uncertain outcomes? When we’re in this situation someday with the next big project, what will we do?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 7: How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

My husband and I had just come back from a glorious four-day trek through the Pasayten wilderness in the fall of 2015. We were reconnecting with family at dinner when the email came in. My museum was being sued over the Abbott Square project.

All the energy I’d restored on our hike came crashing down around me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t calm down. I didn’t have the tools to make it right.

Before Abbott Square, I thought I knew how to manage stress. I come from a family of hard-driving women. I love intense challenges and the bursts of stress that come with them. I see stress as a motivating factor, a catalyst for action. Even in tough situations, I find ways to push through, solve the problem, make a decision, and get zooming again.

When the Abbott Square project started, a trustee told me: “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” And while I heard him, I didn’t listen. I thought I’d be fine. I didn’t take the time to learn how to retrain my energy for the long haul.

Four years and too many sleepless nights later, I’m still slowly, painfully learning. Abbott Square laid bare the fact that I’m only good at managing stress in situations where I have a lot of control and can work my way out of the stress. I can’t apply hustle to resolve a lawsuit. I can’t push through a lack of communication from a regulatory agency. When it rains, we can’t pour concrete.

It turns out this isn’t a marathon at all. It’s a group road trip where you don’t always get to have your hands on the wheel.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve figured out ways to manage this kind of “group road trip” stress. I haven’t. I’ve learned some small things: how to stop obsessing when it’s not my turn to drive, apply my energy more judiciously, and be more protective of time away from work. The lawsuit was instructive because it had rules, like a game. In the most stressful of situations, I learned to play my turn and stay in my role. A year later, we settled the lawsuit. We were zooming again. But I still had—and have—more sleepless, obsessive nights than I’d like.

I’ve been told that the hardest things to change are the things you feel naturally good at. Until you’re pushed to the limit, you don’t see them as areas for growth. And once you're at that limit and decide you need to grow, it’s hard to abandon patterns that have felt successful for so long. I’d always told myself that I knew how to make stress work for me. Now I’m a little more humble and cautious. If I want to grow and work on even bigger projects, I’ve got to feel okay about those times when my hands aren’t on the wheel.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 6: Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Imagine this situation: you’re about to negotiate a long-term partnership for a massive expansion project. Money is on the table. Values are on the table. Everything’s on the table. How do you decide what to prioritize?

18 months ago, I entered lease negotiations with real estate developer, John McEnery IV, who our board had selected to develop the food component of Abbott Square. John would run Abbott Square Market, a multi-vendor food and drink business, adjacent to the plaza, adjacent to the museum. John would manage the food, the MAH would manage the museum, and we would co-manage the plaza. That’s all we knew going into negotiations.

There were lots of big unresolved questions. How much money would we each bring to the table? How much would John pay for rent and how should we structure it? Who would manage construction? Who would steer the design? Who would pick the food vendors? Who would be responsible for what in the plaza? When would the market be open and under what conditions?

I was overwhelmed and under-confident. I needed a way to focus. I needed a way to get direction from our board and staff on what was inviolate and what was negotiable. I needed the board’s leadership without having all of them involved in every little deal point.

So we did two exercises—with board and staff, separately—to develop our priorities. I suspect these exercises might be useful in any complicated project. It is in that spirit that I share them with you.


Nonprofit folk are familiar with this 2x2 grid, with mission fulfillment on one axis and financial sustainability on the other. Nonprofits use this grid to analyze program performance and to explore ways to shift UP towards higher mission fulfillment and/or RIGHT towards higher profitability.

In the case of the Abbott Square Market negotiation, we used this matrix to get a basic sense of our goals. We'd been leasing the site of the future Market as commercial office space for years: solidly profitable, with no mission impact. That (red) dot was our starting point.

We gave board and staff members this diagram and asked them: when the Abbott Square project is complete, where do you want this dot to go? Do you want us to make the same amount of money but increase the mission impact? Would you sacrifice some money for greater mission impact? Would you sacrifice some mission potential for more money?

They drew their dots, building consensus around the blue dot shown. The project had to increase mission impact. And it had to do as well--or better--than the office building financially.

So we structured the rent in a “base with kicker” format. The museum is guaranteed a monthly base rent that is stable and comparable to what we were receiving when the space was leased for offices. But if the Market does better than a certain threshold, we get more money - a kicker - above the base. That's the dotted line potential for the revenue to increase.


In the months leading up to the lease negotiation, trustees and staff voiced lots of different priorities for the project. Some focused on the need for Abbott Square to be as welcoming and inclusive as the MAH. Others cared about it being clean. Still others wanted local food vendors. And so on.

We couldn’t succeed in negotiations if everything was a top priority. There had to be some things we could trade to get other things that mattered more.

So I wrote up ten distinct priorities we’d heard throughout the process and invited board and staff members to each pick their top three.

We tabulated all the top priorities by votes to generate a ranked list. While trustees and staff had different top priorities, the cumulative priorities were clear. We were able to split the original ten priorities into five “must-haves” and five non-essential preferences. You can see them in this chart. The must-haves on the left, and the negotiable non-essentials on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the five must-haves were the ones that hewed closest to the MAH mission. But they were not the ones people talked about the most in the months leading up to this exercise. Once we had to prioritize, some sexy, much-discussed ideas—like celebrating local food—gave way to core MAH values—like celebrating cultural diversity.

Focusing on five priorities gave me focus and freedom. I could focus on what was important, and I had the freedom to pursue and protect those important elements in whatever way I felt best. In many ways, the five “non-essentials” were even more helpful than the must-haves, because I knew I could deal them away as needed.

In the end, we signed a contract that answered all the big questions about how to manage the project. Any contract would have done that. But the answers hewed to the priorities articulated through these two exercises. No matter how small the deal point, I knew I could use these big priorities as a guiding light. And board and staff knew that I was acting on their collective wisdom and our shared vision for success.

What techniques have you used to set priorities for a big, complicated negotiation?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 5: What a Board is For

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for my first couple years as nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary. It took an ambitious expansion project--Abbott Square--for me to learn how a great board makes the impossible possible.

I came to the MAH at a time of transition and turnaround six years ago. The board that hired me included many dedicated, exhausted people who were ready to move on. We expanded the board, bringing new energy and diverse thinking into the room.

I liked my board. I admired them. But I still didn’t know what the board was for. I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes. But I also saw their role as responsive to my actions as the executive director. I didn’t want them getting too involved in our programmatic changes. I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.

All that changed when we started the Abbott Square project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn't need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.

And so I turned to my board. There was the farmer who built the business plan with me. The retired judge who guided us through complicated lease negotiations for the market. The designer and the city councilman who saw the full creative potential of the site. The fundraisers who honed our campaign structure and outreach plan.

Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way.

The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. When I asked them if I should be spending half my time on this expansion, they said yes. When I asked them if we could raise $5,000,000, they said yes. When I asked them if it was worth the pain, they said yes.

If they hadn’t been there to say yes, I would have said no at some point. I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points. We might not have completed the project at all.

This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.

If you want to reach beyond your limits to achieve your mission, you need your board. They are the people who will push you over the edge, pull you up when you stumble, and make the organization soar. Sure, our organization could manage without a board of trustees. But we can only fly because of them.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.