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The Privilege of Leadership
Episode 8
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The Privilege of Leadership

CI to Eye with Monica Holt

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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IN THIS EPISODE

Erik and Monica discuss the privilege of leadership, the best ways to get buy-in for digital marketing at large arts organizations, and how being a good employee does not necessarily make you a good manager (and how that is totally okay).

Erik Gensler: Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside an outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal: to see eye to eye. I sat down with director of marketing at the Kennedy Center and Capacity Interactive client, Monica Holt. In her role, Monica leads the marketing and sales arm of the Kennedy Center, which includes designers, writers, media buyers, the box office, and genre specialists for a broad roster of programs that Kennedy Center presents. Monica began leading a team early in her career and brings the thoughtful and very much self-taught take on leadership at a large complex arts organization,

Monica Holt: Leadership and management. It’s very much a privilege and that means that you get to reap the internal reward of watching someone grow and see their ideas succeed and shine a spotlight on them, which ultimately reflects on everyone.

Erik Gensler: We talked about recognizing the privilege of leading people, how to get buy-in for digital marketing in a multi-layered organization, and how being a good employee doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager and how That’s totally okay. Monica, I’m really excited to have you here and to have this conversation. I want to start this, I start all our interviews and I would just love for you to give us a quick professional bio.

Monica Holt: Sure. I am currently the director of marketing at the Kennedy Center in DC. I started actually right across the street from where I am now at Washington National Opera. I started there right out of school as an intern working in press and communications and was fortunate enough to get hired right out of the internship as, and you’ll love this as their first new media coordinator. Great title. Great title. Looking back on it, I have many feelings about it, but Washington National Opera, those who know the tale was not exactly in a place of financial stability. My third or fourth week of work was furloughed and then we came back and so clearly things were going, so I was there for a little bit. And then in 2011, the Kennedy Center affiliated with Washington National Opera. What that meant was the artistic and production staff was largely maintained, but the administrative staff was largely disbanded and a few of us were able to be folded into the Kennedy Center’s marketing development education teams.

I was very lucky at the time to be pulled as one of those people who went to the Kennedy Center and essentially just maintained the same type of job there. But I got exposure to all the different genres the Kennedy Center did and naively for someone who was very early in their career, it was actually an amazing opportunity that came out of this rather sad experience for the company itself. In hindsight, it was absolutely what needed to happen for WNO to continue and sustain itself as an arts organization, but it was definitely early exposure to kind of the trauma that exists in the arts world. And then when I was at the Kennedy Center, like I said, I started on the advertising and social and email side and after a few years, opportunities opened up with sales and marketing strategy. So I transitioned over there. I think I love writing, but it definitely fit my needs for work better, fit my skillset better to work on budgets and look at long-term strategy and plan out a campaign kind of soup to nuts. And we’ve basically just grown that marketing side year after year, and that’s where I ended up.

Erik Gensler: So you manage a very broad and large roster of programming. Can you just give a sense of what the scope of that looks like?

Monica Holt: Sure. Yes. The Kennedy Center broad and large are two good, good descriptors. We have about a thousand performances a year, and that translates to a seated Capacity of about 1 million seats every year that we could potentially fill. No pressure, no pressure. And of course that doesn’t include our nightly free performances on millennium stage. So all of these performances are ballet and dance and theater and comedy and opera and the symphony, jazz, hip hop, you name it. And it’s quite a large volume. And what I find interesting to share because I’m not sure everyone is always immediately apparent is unlike Lincoln Center, which probably has even more in terms of Capacity and shows and scope, the Kennedy Center is operating administratively under a shared service model. So while there are individual programming departments for ballet and dance and opera and theater, the marketing development, education finance side is all shared. So we aren’t independent companies on one campus. We are all under one roof and all working towards the same goal. All of those budgets get folded together at the end to create our bottom line. So it’s exciting and scary and very challenging at times, but it opens our eyes to how everything can work together as a family and frankly leads to great opportunities for the art to interact with each other in ways that it wouldn’t necessarily if everyone was operating completely independently.

Erik Gensler: So what is the makeup of the marketing department to handle that volume? I know it’s a pretty tactical question, but I think people would just be curious what are the roles, how are the responsibilities divided?

Monica Holt: Sure. The marketing and sales division at the Kennedy Center includes creative shop, which has three dedicated designers, three dedicated writers, and then our creative director as well as a team of two that manages all of our placement. And then obviously the box office is kind of a beast of its own, but that’s all under the marketing shop. And then my team is a team of six marketing specialists, so managers, assistant managers, coordinators who each specialize in a certain genre and sometimes that’s based on their background and sometimes it’s just based on their skillset and what they’ve learned as well as our wonderful social media manager and a marketing analyst. And then we work very closely obviously with our public relations department and the digital team and then development and the programming team throughout the building. So while it sounds like a lot of people, I think in reality when you look at what we’re really trying to accomplish and how many shows we have and all the work in front of us, we’re actually pretty lean.

I say that each of the marketing specialists is more or less a marketing team of one. When we need to plan something for the symphony, whether it has to do with outreach or pricing increases or what the campaign looks like now and in three months, that’s all the same person doing that. So it’s a huge amount of responsibility on every person and it’s a lot of work. It’s remarkable to me, especially on the creative side, just what the output is for our writers and designers and how they’re able to bounce around from a kid show to Lao M in a matter of an hour. It’s exciting, but it’s very challenging.

Erik Gensler: Marketers from smaller organizations often talk about how hard it is to stay on top of everything and everything in the marketing world changes so fast and they have very few resources. But you’re talking about the challenge of limited time and doing so much with so little. Do you think because the Kennedy Center is so large and has larger budgets and more resources, it’s easier or it’s equal or it’s challenging in a different way? I think it’s easy to look from a small organization and say, oh, if we only had bigger budgets or if we only had these resources. But my hunch is that in the arts you’re always sort of trying to do more with less.

Monica Holt: Yeah, I think every arts marketer knows the value of being a little scrappy from time to time. It’s interesting, the small large organization comparison to me works best in an apples to apple situation, a small local opera company versus Chicago Lyric Opera even that’s a little bit of a stretch, but comparing small organizations and the Kennedy Center is a little bit like comparing apples to staplers. There is no comparison because what we’re doing is so absolutely different. And the Kennedy Center contains so many large programs that in and of itself, you could obviously compare Washington National Opera to a smaller or larger opera organization, but the Kennedy Center itself has very few organizations, whether smaller, the same size or larger. So it’s hard to make that comparison. I do think what’s most important is to know your advantages and use ’em in a smaller organization.

I would imagine that you can be a little more bold and brave in a testing situation. You can just try something and maybe it only takes one person to say do it. Or maybe you sitting at your desk decide, today we’re going to be on Snapchat and you’re on Snapchat at a larger organization, certainly the bureaucracy grows, the number of check boxes grow exponentially, and that’s fine and sometimes necessary, but it means that we’re fighting our urge to be nimble in order to also be secure and safe for the whole organization. I challenge myself and our team to sometimes behave more like we think a small organization would behave to just do it forgiveness, ask forgiveness, not permission. I don’t think that’s a great operating. I don’t think that’s a great way to consistently operate on an organization like ours because you will hit a moment where something is really wrong, you shouldn’t have done it. I think we’ve been fortunate to not have a lot of those, but I think a dash of fearlessness and bravery is really important in any organization.

Erik Gensler: I think we’re talking about is innovation in a complex and organization. And I think you’ve hit on a good point. When it’s a small organization, something happens in the world, you can respond very quickly rather than having to have meetings and meetings and meetings. And I remember in my time in an organization, I spent most of my day in meetings checking boxes and checking for approvals. And I wasn’t good at that. I am someone who moves fast, can be occasionally impulsive, and to have to constantly check everything I found to be very frustrating, but it’s also, it’s the Kennedy Center. I mean, everything you do I think is held to a certain regard. Do you feel like innovation is often more challenging because there are so many boxes to check?

Monica Holt: I think as an organization we’ve gone through phases where that’s true. I believe that we happen to be in a moment where innovation is more valued, both in the art we’re producing and in the way we’re behaving administratively. I do think it’s certainly easier when the leaders of the organization support it, and we’re definitely in a time where I feel that that’s true. The flip of that is there are still important processes that have to take place in order for us to maintain any sort of schedule or control over workload. Capacity limitation is real, even at a big organization. And while we want to innovate and do everything new that comes to our door right now that’s tied to personalization and website technology for instance, we also need to maintain everything that’s happening now, like a really easy ticket flow. And juggling those two things is what becomes difficult, especially in an institution that has so much process ingrained in what we do because you don’t want to break it.

One interesting place from programmatic standpoint is that in addition to maintaining traditional ballet season, a traditional theater season, a traditional opera season, we are now trying to really focus on Capacity utilization, not just in butts and seats for all those performances, but in using the houses in the Kennedy Center as frequently as possible. And that puts a great burden on the programmers as well as on the marketing team because the programmers have to come up with the events or acts that go in the houses. And then the marketers are learning how to market a completely different set of items. So for instance, comedy shows or pop music acts, those sometimes now get booked eight weeks out from when the performances and we’re reacting. I think we’re starting to really figure out our groove for that, but it’s this maintenance of a traditional performing arts center season and then this brand new layer on top of it of quick sales and announcements and being as flexible and nimble as possible, but with the same staff that you had to do just the first thing.

Erik Gensler: I found that all the time in arts organizations where they would be like, and we’re doing this new initiative and this new initiative, and you’re not getting anyone else the help. So you just sort of have to figure it out. And I always go back to the biggest limiter for everyone is time and money. And so your time is so fixed and every time you’re focused on one thing, there’s 20 things you’re not focused on. So by constantly piling on, ultimately it’s going to catch up. And so it’s a tough position to be in.

Monica Holt: Absolutely. And going back to looking at how small organizations might deal that versus how we might deal with it, I will say I do think it’s easier for us to find pockets of money to reallocate something from one direction to another, but the time management that’s finite.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, the money makes it easier, but you’re still dealing with very few people to do a lot when that comes down. And you have eight weeks to sell a comedy show. I’m curious, are you just to use a Steven Roth term, are you shopping in your closet or are you going to try to find new people or a little of both?

Monica Holt: A little of both. Our programming team for special programs in comedy is great at talking to us as these deals are developing, seeing what we think is reasonable from a pricing perspective, from a Capacity perspective, weighing that against what they know they need to get the act there. We’re lucky a lot of these acts are extremely talented, so they are bringing in lots of new people, but that’s because these individuals already have those followings.

Erik Gensler: So it is a lot of acquisition.

Monica Holt: So a tweet will go out on their account and our sales will skyrocket, which is something we don’t always get the pleasure of seeing in all of the more traditional art forms. But we are now — having done comedy for instance, we’re about to hit three years of doing it with consistency. That audience is starting to build at the Kennedy Center too, which makes it exciting when we’ll have a comedy festival in the summer, which might only have sprinkling of people, but you’ll be introduced to entirely new artists too. And so building that feels really important and fun and innovative to an idea. I couldn’t have predicted five years ago that Kennedy Center was going to be a comedy house on tours for, I dunno, Louis CK and Ma Giani and whoever else happens to pop up next. So it’s pretty exciting.

Erik Gensler: It’s a little different than opera.

Monica Holt: It’s a little different than opera. Yeah, I don’t think we’ve had a comedy act in the Opera house yet, but I’m waiting. I think that’ll be a fun new experience.

Erik Gensler: You’re talking about how you collaborated with the programming department. I’d love to hear more about that collaboration between marketing and programming and how that gets balanced between doing the kind of work that is bringing in new audiences like comedy or really looking at how do you provide more challenging work that’s going to bring back perhaps a loyalist or someone who has an appetite for that and how revenue ties all into that and how those decisions are made. And big question.

Monica Holt: That’s a lot.

Our work with the programming teams has again, definitely changed over the past several years. I think absolutely for the better. And it’s always going to be somewhat individual. Some programmers started in marketing themselves or have experience there, and so that relationship and understanding is organic. It’s there, they get it. They’re looking at our long game as well as theirs. Some are truly removed from that side of the work, but have developed a sense of understanding that it’s in everyone’s best interest to start together as early as possible. So I think there was a time where programmers said, this is what the programming is. You tell us how much money we’re going to make and how much you need to spend, and then that’s our budget and development. You need to make up the difference. And that’s still from development’s perspective, that still kind of exists.

At a certain point, you got to raise the money that people aren’t paying foreign tickets. But what’s changed is that it’s now a dialogue from the beginning that involves both trust, shared risk and a better understanding of data. We might get a proposed scaling for an event, which sometimes happens. Sometimes we start by giving a scaling that we think and a Capacity. And sometimes in trying to expedite the process, they send us what the agent thinks or what the producing company thinks, and we’ll look at it and then we’ll go back and look in our data in our RMA thank you Steven, and we’ll say, well, that’s great that that’s what we want, that that’s what you want. But last time that act was here, the average ticket price, the average sold ticket price was $68. So no, I don’t think starting with $99 for the whole house is the best idea in the world and we’ll negotiate.

And the data really helps on both sides because especially with some of the newer acts they can send us, well, here is all of the data from all of the markets that they’ve played in. Let’s find some comparables and work to a compromise. And that’s great. And that’s more of the modern work. With opera specifically, we have developed a really great working relationship with the programming team there and the executive director there where we’ll not only give them options, they’ll say, what about this season? What about that season? Where do we land? Where do you think we land from a financial ticket sales perspective? And we’ll give it back to them, but we can also say, but if instead of doing eight performances we did six, the capacities would probably be this much better, et cetera, et cetera. And then again, it just depends on what the shared goal is because maybe doing eight performances gets the incremental cost of doing a seventh and eighth performance is less than the revenue that would be generated, but are you comfortable if that means all the performances are at 65% capacity, where’s the line between optics and finance?

And that’s been really interesting for us to discuss.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s interesting questions. I talked on this podcast with Jill Robinson about the, she talks about the desire for more, and the goal is always a sold out house, but maybe success means you have 200 of your most loyal and excited patrons there, right? So the goal isn’t always to sell out the house necessarily.

Monica Holt: And I honestly forget the rest of what you asked me after that first part of the question.

Erik Gensler: It was a multi-part question. We can go back to more comfortable territory for both of us. Let’s talk about how we met, I believe it was at the Tessitura conference a number of years back. And at the time you felt like there was a lot of opportunity for the Kennedy Center and the digital realm. Can you talk a bit about the Kennedy Center’s leap into digital?

Monica Holt: Yes. One of my favorite topics, yes. We met at the Tessit Tour conference in Dallas 2014, my first ever trip to Texas. And I remember sitting with Ryan Lewis, who of course was one of my first bosses now at Alpha Philadelphia, Philadelphia. As we watched you give your presentation, which I’m sure one of the two of us could recite by heart at this point, becoming content creators and how the market is changing and how you need to be where people are interruption marketing and the whole kit and caboodle. And I was just kind of wide-eyed the whole time because I knew this in my head, but we were really at a moment where getting through a season was enough. And every time we took the step to think about all the things that we weren’t doing that we wanted to do, we knew exactly what the obstacle was in our way.

And that stress meant we just need to keep doing what we’re doing until we can find a way around that obstacle. And that’s not happening right now. So your presentation came at a moment where I wasn’t as focused on the day-to-day, where I could kind of reflect back. And it also came at a moment of the beginning of great change at the Kennedy Center. Michael Kaiser was our wonderful president for 13 or 14 years, and then in 2014, Deborah Rudder was coming in. So that coincided nicely with that. And with her came a new vision and idea for how we could modify our mission and our values and also planning strategically for the future. And that meant putting digital more into our strategic planning. Then it had been earlier, so saw the presentation grabbed you for a second afterwards and you said, come by our table or whatever.

It was very kind. Oh, you were very nice. And then I ended up sitting with Christopher for half an hour just talking through, here’s what I know our challenges are, here’s what I think we can do. Here’s where I need your help telling us what’s possible. And it was great. And what I ended up doing is coming back to the Kennedy Center and I cribbed maybe 40% of your presentation off the slides from online. And I made my own little internal, I think I called it our digital marketing jumpstart presentation. And I somewhat comedically sat down at a table, not much bigger than this with our senior vice president of marketing, David Kiddo, creative director and advertising production manager. And I gave them a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of digital marketing and its impact and what our spend look like right now. Kind of combining your data points with internal data points and then outlining what our next steps should be.

And I think somewhat motivated by changes in leadership and new opportunities opening up in our IT department. David Kiddo, our senior vice president of marketing said, okay, now’s the time. Let’s do it. Which was great and shocking all at once. And so we did. And what that meant for us was first rewriting our privacy policy. The first step was getting buy-in from our legal team because putting down tracking pixels on our website was brand new territory. I mean, we’d barely done Facebook advertising. We’d done some banner ads our previous endeavors into online. Were pretty small looking back on it. So we talked to our legal team, we changed our privacy policy, we updated our patrons on the changes and then came the work with it and saying, what do we need for the website? And I had known from talking with Christopher that there was great experience at Capacity and helping with our tracking pixel implementation and a Google analytics implementation.

And we just said, let’s try. And we did. And when I set out with this presentation, I remember saying that we wanted to try it in the 14, 15 season and that maybe by 1516 we could be doing it more broadly, which sounds like an enormous amount of time when you want change badly. But I know the Kennedy Center and I wanted to be realistic. And what that meant was we didn’t really get the tracking pixel on the website until January of 2015, which was right in time to try it for Gigi when it was at the Kennedy Center. We worked with Capacity. They did a wonderful job with this wonderful show and it worked very well. No one should be surprised that remarketing as a closer is pretty effective and something we’d never had before. And so then as we moved into 1516, we were set up to really do a full season’s worth of digital marketing acquisition and retargeting for almost every genre. So that was kind of the digital marketing piece of it. It in retrospect became somewhat of the low hanging fruit that then really transformed. And now our organization, digital is a pillar of our strategic plan. We’re expanding in content creation and in what we want our breadth and scope to be online, both as it relates to the website and video live streaming. So it was in some ways a pretty important catalyst getting us to where we are now.

Erik Gensler: It really does require a change agent and internally what that takes to make change. And I always say change is hard. People don’t like change. And to have someone really just force the issue, like the conditions were right, but someone internally, meaning you had to really push the boulder up the hill until it got to a point where it was just sort of rolling on its own.

Monica Holt: Yeah, I think we needed a little push and using a lot of what I had learned from you at the conference, I was able to provide that. But as you say, the conditions were right, the moment was there and it was the right moment to strike. And we did.

Erik Gensler: And you guys hired Greg Hughes who we had worked with two or three seasons at Jacob’s Pillow, and I think Greg is one of the most talented content creators that I’ve ever met. And that was an incredibly lucky hire.

Monica Holt: And I couldn’t agree more with anything you say in regards to Greg Hughes. Yes, he’s a huge asset for the Kennedy Center. We were thrilled that he was willing and able to move down to DC and take on this behemoth of a job, which was brand new at the time. It had previously been a shared thing with our email team who did the best they could, but again, we needed someone dedicated. And Greg came in with his very specific viewpoint and background in writing, just kind of turned the lights on for the Kennedy Center in social and also just on the marketing team, getting us to think about things from a new perspective. I think his second day was our Kendrick Lamar concert with the symphony, and then the following weekend was Mark Twain prize. And we were doing brand new things at each of those moments on social, and he just dove right in. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since, frankly.

Erik Gensler: That’s one of the really challenging things for organizations. I think it’s at this point, as long as we have the internal buy-in, it’s easy for us to set up the tracking pixels to build the infrastructure, to target the right content to the right people at the right time. But the right content is the hard part. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in any organization is how do you transition to a voice and a style of communicating that connects in the digital world. And Greg has that. He’s a great writer, he has really good taste and he has an eye for design. And I really try to think about how do I articulate this for arts organizations of what that job requires? I don’t think traditional marketing departments necessarily have that person. And I think that person, that content creator is one of the most critical hires an organization has to make in order to fully transition to be successful at digital communication.

Monica Holt: A hundred percent agree. We couldn’t have so quickly adapted to some of frankly Capacity’s best practices if Greg hadn’t been there.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I think it’s just for the people listening to this, geez, Thomas Katz joke, all three of you. No, he said all two of you. I think looking to people who have a journalism background or a writing background or a theater background, it’s a different skillset I think than a lot of marketing departments have. It’s someone who, I don’t know, we find a lot of people who come from journalism backgrounds and it’s not like it has to be from one background, but it’s definitely someone who really just enjoys creating. It’s almost like the spirit of an artist in a way.

Monica Holt: That’s a great way to describe it.

Erik Gensler: So speaking of art, I hear the Kennedy Center is embarking on a rebranding project. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Monica Holt: We are, sure. The Kennedy Center has more or less had the same brand since it opened in 1971. I think there have been a few modifications to the waves under the houseboat. If anyone knows our logo, they will understand what that means, but nothing radical. And as I was saying before, we’re in this moment where we have a new set of mission, vision values, a new strategic plan, and with that, it only seemed right that now’s the moment, let’s do it. Let’s jump in. And so this rebranding project has been really interesting to watch develop because the premise is that instead of branding the building, we’re branding the mission. So it’s this literal transformation because to date our logo was our building a rendering of the marble building on the Potomac, and now we want to move completely away from that. And while I won’t reveal too much about what that means from a visual perspective, what that means for us is very much trying to figure out how we can project this idea that we are open to all, we have new programming every day and while we’re working against our look marble chandeliers, tall ceilings doesn’t naturally scream, bring the kids any community welcome.

We internally feel that that’s exactly what we want. We want to be a loud happy space. And finding a way to have a brand that compliments that desire has been really interesting to watch develop because as you kind of referenced earlier, we are still the Kennedy Center and more than we are still the Kennedy Center. We are still a memorial to our 35th president. We are John f Kennedy’s memorial in Washington dc. And so how can we create an active light memorial space that is also welcoming and also includes all of this living art and then package that all into one solid brand that everyone understands the concept of as soon as they see it. And so I think the branding has been interesting, but also the compliment to that will be how we structure our collateral and our signage beyond what a logo is, what fonts are we going to use that envelop, that feeling that we’re trying to convey.

Erik Gensler: I think the idea of a rebranding is so important because I feel like a brand is the foundation of a pyramid, and if you don’t have that firm foundation, the executions of your marketing, you’re really trying to reinvent things every time. So if you have a firm brand in place, it’s easy to craft a Facebook post because you’re sitting on the foundation of brand. It’s easy to create a brochure because you have this strong brand as a foundation. I think branding projects, rebranding projects to do it well and to do it thoughtfully and to hire the right people to do it, they’re expensive and they’re time consuming. But having been through a number of them, we’re going through one right now at Capacity and I didn’t, I can show you some of the designs after,

Monica Holt: Okay. We can geek out a little bit later.

Erik Gensler: That’s really fun. But I just think it’s so important, and we had to answer those questions first us before anything is designed, what do you stand for? What do you now, what want to be? And then how can the topography and the graphical elements and the colors expressed that?

Monica Holt: Absolutely. And while we’re still developing the look per se, what came together pretty quickly that we’re already using are our tone and messaging, our new kind of tone and messaging guidelines per se, that again speaks directly to how we want to interact with patrons at every level. Social print, dare I say in this room, it’s a safe space at the box office, every usher, every interaction. And those have been enormously helpful to internally reconcile who, what we’re going for, how we’re bringing along our mission, vision, values, and how we can start to let it live in the public perception before we might get a mark that says those things succinctly.

Erik Gensler: And I’ve been going through this branding process, I’ve been thinking about it and doing some reading about it. And I think it’s easy to think that a brand is a logo, but ultimately a good brand is not a logo. You don’t need the logo. If you really have a strong brand, you can tell by other things without the logo.

Monica Holt: Yes.

Erik Gensler: What year was the building built? Not to put you on the spot.

Monica Holt: Around… It opened in 1971.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Okay. It’s interesting when you think of these iconic AmErikan culture institutions like the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center or the music center in LA that were all built in the middle, pretty the middle of the last century I believe, and they were all sort of built as temples almost. If you look at Lincoln Center, they raised all of the buildings there and built this platform on which these sort of temple like buildings were crafted. And I think the same is true in la and the same is true of the Kennedy Center. And now you’re talking about a mission that is accessible and welcoming everybody in, but you have these fixed buildings that are designed to be temple like and sacred. And you’re right, it doesn’t necessarily speak the message of inclusion.

Monica Holt: The Kennedy Center is lucky because we are also expanding physically as we’re having this moment of rebrand. And some of those new spaces will be more conducive to hanging out on campus, outdoor spaces, a cafe where people can sit and watch rehearsal rooms that have windows that you can see into. Right now, everything is really in that. The backstage is backstage and our offices are kind of tucked in the nooks and crannies that exist there. But hopefully with these new spaces, you’re not only making the performed art accessible, you are making the experience and the creative process more accessible.

Erik Gensler: And that’s a modern idea. And it makes me think about just how challenging it is to remain modern and to create the experience of going to the theater to work it into contemporary lives. And contemporary expectations requires so much. It’s not just about getting the right ad in front of the right person. It’s about the experience, it’s about the space, it’s about the brand. I mean, these are incredibly complex jobs and we’re faced with doing so much with very little resources, and they’re just massive projects in order for the art to stay relevant and to get people engaged. Yeah, it’s not easy, which is really why I wanted to have this podcast, is to talk about these things and talk about how administrators are doing this and there’s so much more competition, there’s so much more distraction. So speaking of the broader world, in preparing for this conversation, you told me that your sister works for Facebook.

Monica Holt: She does.

Erik Gensler: And we were talking about organizational culture and you talked a little bit about these two paths of career progression at Facebook, and I’d love to turn the conversation there.

Monica Holt: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. My sister has worked there for some time and well, shows me lots of interesting things that are not for this podcast. One thing that really struck me is when she was taught, she was sharing with me how career progression may work at Facebook and what she tapped into that I had never heard of, although I think it might be more widely used in the tech industry or for-profit, is this idea that management is not an equivalent to progression. That there are two tracks for career progression as an individual contributor or an IC or as a manager. And that moving from an IC position to a manager position is a lateral move. And then of course within each track you can progress. And it’s great that this idea that it shouldn’t just, management shouldn’t come out of a desire to make more money, which I think at a base level more or less is what exists in a lot of companies, including the arts nonprofit organizations that I am aware of.

But the truth of the matter is, is that being a good employee doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a good manager. And I think all of us, whether or not we want to say it have had a bad manager at one point or another, and I think in the moment you can think, oh, they don’t care, or, oh, they’re not good at their job. But the truth is they could have been a brilliant employee and then all of a sudden management was thrust upon them with probably no training. And more importantly, without someone asking, do you want to manage people? And that’s one thing that Facebook does is to move to a manager track. They ask, do you want to manage people? And if the answer is no, then you’re not going to manage people. And I just wonder what that would be like in our field if we said, if we let individualists be individualists and we let visionaries and creative types who aren’t interested in management do that. And I think you can have leaders who are both, you can have individual contributors who are leaders and you can have managers who are leaders, but why try and force everyone into management?

Erik Gensler: When you told me that, my eyes just lit up, and this is a lesson I’ve had to learn where we’ve gone from a company of me and then two people and three people, and now close to 40, where management is such a skill and it takes so much time and I’ve learned that it’s something that I don’t think I’m great at. I think I’m a good leader. I think I am a good CEO of this company, but day-to day-to-day management, I’m so externally focused and I’m so future focused, and I don’t know if that’s the best skill for someone who’s actually managing people. So acknowledging that, acknowledging that there are people who are actually really good managers and putting them in place and letting them manage, and then also looking at really great individual contributors and separating that out. I think it’s super eyeopening and it gives me a lot to think about.

Monica Holt: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite topics, management generally, but also this particular approach is one of my favorites to discuss because I do think I would love to see an arts organization try it and see what happens because that’s individual contributors. They still want to be challenged and move forward with new ideas. But I think you and Christopher on your chat on CI to Eye, we’re talking about his day and how interruptions are a natural part of his day. And it’s not a bad thing, it’s just what the job entails. And I think that’s true of a lot, if not all managerial positions. I know it’s true for me, and that’s okay because I like that that’s what I want to be managing, and I’m lucky that that’s in me. But if you can’t be okay with that, if you can’t see that as a positive output of what you’re supposed to be doing, if it instead feels like it’s interfering with the work you want to be doing, then that’s a problem.

Erik Gensler: And maybe the structure is wrong because if you are going to be an individual contributor, I think it just has to be recognized that the pie of your week or the pie of your day is a certain size and you have to be resourced if you’re managing people that a piece of that pie needs to go to management. And then a hundred percent of your pie can’t go to individual contributor tasks if you are expected to manage people.

Monica Holt: Exactly.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I think that’s eyeopening. I think the Peter principle is this concept, have you heard this? It’s people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. So if you’re a really great say designer, you’ll then be a senior designer, so then you’re going to have to manage designers, then you’re going to have to lead the design department. And then your job goes what you were really great at, which was designing things to something you may not be great at, which is leading a team. Yes, exactly. So you keep getting promoted, but if we adopted that idea of like, okay, you’re a great designer, let’s just let you design more and give you more design responsibility rather than trying to promote you out of what you’re so skilled at.

Monica Holt: Exactly.

Erik Gensler: So what are some things that you’ve learned about leading or managing people?

Monica Holt: Sure. I am still learning so much about both. I think many first started managing one person somewhat suddenly and without any real training. And so my management style quickly just became Monica, but managing. And so there wasn’t a kind of moment where I was like, this is the type of manager I want to be or this is the type of actions we’re going to take. And I’m lucky. My first direct report figured each other out pretty quickly and we’re able to grow together, which thank goodness for that because our team grew pretty dramatically over the next few years. And suddenly I had a team of eight people I was responsible for, again, without ever really deciding what my management style was. And maybe that’s antiquated, maybe that’s not a thing that anyone does. But what I’ve learned is that obviously what works for one person doesn’t work for every person.

And I think that by being Monica, but with a managerial relationship, I was actually able to avoid that trap pretty quickly. It became very much about how am I developing my relationship with this person who is now a wonderful part of every day of my life and learning from them without asking which maybe I should do more of what was working, what feedback was being interpreted right or wrong or the way that I meant it or not. Mine was a very much learn as you go, for better or worse. Now, I hope that our team would agree that I think we’ve all gotten to a place where that style works. I want a happy environment, even if it’s just on our floor at sometimes. And I think the way I was able to work towards that was by just being very honest and direct and forthcoming about my own worries and shortcomings, vulnerability.

Yeah, I think my colleagues would say that about me, but also not having a lot of ego I think is really important. I see some young leaders, some not who get put into a management position and all of a sudden I’m managing, this is a thing I’m doing now and there are people below me. I’m not super comfortable with that idea. I think a lot of people aren’t. And I think because of that I try to view it as I am supporting this team. And some people would say that that gets me in trouble sometimes because I might say, I think you should focus on this, which means I might pick up these two or three tasks for you, which I’m frankly happy to do. I like getting my hands dirty sometimes, but that might mean that I’m then setting myself up to not spend as much time on the big think so to speak as maybe I should be.

And that’s something that I am constantly working on. I also think pretty early on in my career, I really did notice the importance of every word that you say when you’re managing, and this is something I still am working on every moment of every day, but I remember one of my first bosses said, I came in with a question. I said, I’m not sure if I should go with option A or B. Both of them are going to get us where we need to be, but what do you think? And the answer, and this is going to come out harsher than it was at the time was, I don’t care. Whichever you decide is fine, right? Pretty innocuous. But what a difference it would’ve been if instead of I don’t care. It was, I trust you to make that decision. It’s simple. And I believe in that situation, that was the intent of what he was saying, right?

Erik Gensler: Words matter.

Monica Holt: But words matter. And especially with younger team members, I think that’s really true. The generation that’s coming out of school right now, they listen. They want to know what’s going on. They want as much information as possible, and that means that every word you say is locked up there, whether it’s information or constructive criticism or praise. And so that’s something that I’ve learned more and more and more with every day.

Erik Gensler: And what you’re talking about completely is just soft skills. And I don’t think soft skills get enough credit because that’s so much of what it’s about is not about, of course, analyzing data and being data driven and data super important, but to lead a team, it’s always the soft skills that I think make a great team versus a good team.

Monica Holt: I believe so too. And I think also leadership and management, whatever you want to call, whichever part of it, it’s very much a privilege. And that means that you get to reap the internal reward of watching someone grow and see their ideas succeed and shine a spotlight on them, which ultimately reflects on everyone. And it also means the cost is just be willing to be bold, whether that means standing up for your team or being that bridge between the team and executives that they might not have access to. And also taking the fall, your risk when you are managing a team and something goes wrong. And of course I’m not talking about catastrophic things going wrong. That should be well beyond what we’re dealing with, but if something goes wrong, be the barrier. Take the heat because that’s the cost of admission for getting the privilege to lead a team and work with a group of people.

Erik Gensler: I think that’s a wonderful framework, the framework of acknowledging the privilege of it and acknowledging the responsibility of it. And I think you hit on something earlier that people aren’t teaching that. And wouldn’t it have been amazing if when you were given this responsibility, some conversations were had about here are some resources or here are some, I don’t know, things you can read or classes you can take or podcasts can listen to about meeting people?

Monica Holt: Honestly, I wish that I had had management training of some kind, which might’ve just been, this is the core of what you’re trying to get at and here are some resources. Because ultimately I ended up just having to find books on my own that spoke to leadership and management. And I was lucky enough that my husband is very into leadership philosophies, and so he was able to provide some guidance. But yeah, I kind of just dove in and luckily it worked.

Erik Gensler: That’s great. That was really in some level, the intent for this podcast is to fill in that gap in the arts and provide a place for those conversations and to really talk about what leadership and management looks like. So you’re married to someone in the field? I am. Do you talk about arts administration at dinner?

Monica Holt: I don’t get home for dinner too often these days. And when I do, I much like Christopher Christopher, Capacity Christopher, not Christopher, my husband Christopher. I very much when I get home need that kind of protected insulated time after a day of talking to everyone at work. So not at the dinner table, but my husband and I met at Washington National Opera, Ryan Lewis, our matchmaker, although I’m sure he hates being called that, hired Chris from the Clarice, which was C spac at the time to work in the box office. And Chris did not choose to stay at the opera for very long. It was not for him, but I met him. So a win-win for me, he went back to the corporate field working in operations and then actually came back to the arts with Steven Roth and works for him at JCA arts marketing right now.

So we kind of have this natural love of the arts and of theater. And so it’s great to have that in a companion, a shared interest. But while we don’t get into the nitty gritty of any of his client work, certainly or some of my projects, we might go out and have a conversation about the value proposition that’s being made for the movie we’re seeing or the vacation we’re taking, which is fun. And it’s also just nice to have someone at home who understands it. A couple of weeks ago we had an event coming up that I needed to get set up, and I decided at 11 o’clock at night that that was the perfect time for me to rezone the family theater, which in hindsight might sound a little ridiculous, but it was pretty straightforward. I knew I needed my four zones and I used my heat maps and laid it out. And what was great is at the end of doing that, I could just say, Hey Chris, could you just take a look at this real quick —

Erik Gensler: In-house pricing expert.

Monica Holt: Exactly right. Don’t tell Steven, but he did. He said, yeah, asked couple questions, validated my reasons, and then I was done. And the next morning on its way to the box office, it went. So there are definitely perks in that.

Erik Gensler: That’s great. So where do you look for inspiration?

Monica Holt: I find inspiration the most in actions or the art. Aside from that, I guess to start, inspiration came from my mom and I hope that many people have the opportunity to say that. I’m certainly lucky to be able to say that, and not just because she and my dad and her parents really fostered my love for the arts growing up, but also just seeing a driven woman working throughout my childhood, fully supported by my father, watching her work ethic day to day, learning about her job at the dinner table, and also learning about her colleagues at the dinner table, that the fact that both the projects and the people were part of the conversation from the beginning paired with just seeing her work and knowing her work ethic absolutely was inspirational and certainly shaped the working woman I am today subconsciously or very consciously moment to moment.

So I would say that she’s been a very inspiring figure in my life and many other people have too, but it’s certainly more in the actions and what they’ve done. Seeing someone stand up for what they believe in or better yet stand up for what someone else believes in because they know they have the voice to do it is hugely impactful for me and something I certainly aspire to. And then beyond that, going back to our jobs and the arts, the art itself should and is inspiring. And for me, that’s not always with the newest or most radical or engaging art, although that can be inspirational as well. But it’s almost in the unexpected moments. We, two weeks ago, this was incredibly, incredibly relevant. So two weeks ago, Damien Wetzel, who does programs like this around the country, if not the world, where he brings together artists of different dance forms or musical backgrounds, he does a series of these called Demo at the Kennedy Center.

And the last one was called Song and Dance. It was in the Eisenhower Theater. It was a Monday night, and I love going to them, but I really had no idea going into this how transformative it was going to be and what a moment it would be for me for what I assume will be many, many months and years to come. Some of my favorite artists were performing Tyler and Christopher Jackson, and I was excited to be there. And then the show started with Bill Irwin and Michelle Dorrance, and from there it was just this explosion of joy on stage, this marriage of such musical talent, Kate Davis with all of these dancers, ballet Modern, and then of course Michelle Dorrance tap dancing. I’ve never seen live in my life watching her for the first time on the lip of the stage during a full number.

I was just inspired and felt enriched in that moment. And the whole show, it felt like there was just magic on it. And I think that was especially true at the end where we always, at the end of shows where there are a bunch of collaborators on stage, let’s get them together, let’s do a group number. Sometimes there’s time for rehearsal, sometimes there’s not time for rehearsal. And this one, just seeing everyone on that stage, the joy in their eyes and their voices and their bodies and the way they were interacting with each other, but still able to rightfully show off their incredible expertise in their field. It was inspiring and it kind of washed over us and became this sparkling moment to remember that I’ll certainly remember for at least the rest of my career, if not the rest of my life. And we need those moments, especially in the field. We need to remember those moments as well as everything else that happens to lift us up.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I mean, I think for a lot of us, why we do this, and when you like to go to the theater, you like to go experience art, you attend a lot of things that maybe aren’t as inspirational, but you go and it’s fine. It’s a nice night at the theater, but ever so often you come across something that just changes you and there’s like magic on the stage. I just saw a Doll’s House part two with Jane Hehe and Laurie Medcalf, and every second of that 90 minute performance was just so important and so transformative and so magical. And when it works, it just works. And you almost can’t explain why it’s working. And it’s so temporal too. It’s just that it starts and you experience and then it’s over, and then it’s in your memory. But when you have something like that, it changes you. And I think it’s certainly one of the reasons I do what I do.

Monica Holt: Absolutely.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So last question. This is your CI to Eye moment. If you could broadcast to the executive directors teams and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide for them to improve their business?

Monica Holt: What a great question.

Erik Gensler: You weren’t prepared for this one.

Monica Holt: I know I hadn’t heard it before. No, I mean, to be honest, what — every previously published CI to Eye that I’ve listened to strikes on the same theme, which is invest in the people, invest in the staff. I won’t regurgitate all of that, but I couldn’t agree more. To add to that, if I may, I would say two things that could help with that are, one, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Lee Cockwell worked for Disney. I love the Disney business model and all of their great practices that go along with it. And he has this book Creating Magic. He talks about when he was working at the hotel managing a hotel, he would get in an hour or two early and walk every floor of the hotel. So he knew what was going on before any of the issues came to his level.

I see that, and it works when it does, but I think part of that is also if you take that initiative to see a little bit more, and I know everyone’s time is crunched and it’s asking a lot, but remember that it’s not just the executives times who are crunched. It’s everyone in the organization. So as a leader, taking that initiative, get your hands dirty, not doing the work, but understanding what’s happening in the building will also reveal to you the people who are killing themselves to get things done and the people who maybe aren’t. And knowing that you can’t treat those people the same way. And I think some of that knowledge is helpful because a lot of what I see in my role is diplomacy. I need to negotiate a lot between the reality of what’s happening and the expectations of the executives.

And I’m happy to be a diplomat that in order to keep things moving efficiently, we need to do that. But if the leadership also knows what’s really going on, even by taking a walk once a week, that helps from the get-go be powerful. And I think the second part is don’t be afraid to be a cheerleader for not just your organization, but for the people in your organization. We know that the symphony and the opera are struggling to find their new role in the modern world, and we know that subscription models may be dying and we know how arts look in the world today and how we’re going to compete with Netflix, et cetera. It’s not just leaders that hear that every single person in the organization hears that every day. Someone you hired two days ago already knows what they’re up against and they decided to do this anyway. So let’s make sure that we’re lifting everyone up and cheerleading the great work that’s done instead of always worrying about the problem that has to be solved. And I think those two things are certainly part of the investing in your staff model.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, that’s really, really insightful. Thank you so much.

Monica Holt: Thank you for having me.

Erik Gensler: Did you enjoy the podcast? Please join Capacity Interactive on email and on Facebook so you could be the first to know when we release new episodes. You’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars, workshops, and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening.


About Our Guests
Monica Holt
Monica Holt
Director of Marketing, The Kennedy Center

Monica Holt is the Director of Marketing at The Kennedy Center. Monica began leading a team early in her career and brings a thoughtful and very much self-taught take on leadership at a large and complex arts organization.

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