Here’s a data-informed peek at what influences leaders in cultural institutions.
I’m in the business of cultural sector evolution and – given that the cultural business model is in need of an update – we at IMPACTS have been looking at how the opportunity for evolution may be best understood. We work directly with many industry leaders (the Chiefs, or the “Cs”), and recently had occasion to scour the minds of these executives in order to better understand how they obtain information, and the roles that various information channels play in influencing their executive decisions. Potentially innovative, groundbreaking ideas risk dying on the vine if they aren’t understood and supported by an organization’s leadership. We wanted to find out more about how to keep that from happening.
The data below is from a survey of 306 executive leaders working at nonprofit visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums, aquariums, cultural centers, theaters, orchestras, zoos, historic sites, etc.). The study identified the primary information channels that executives use to inform their decision-making processes, and further measured the relative trust and influence that these same leaders ascribe to the various information channels. These values are quantified on an index value basis – a way of assessing and comparing these measurements in relative terms (i.e. an information channel with an influence value of 200.0 is 2x as influential in the surveyed leaders’ decision-making processes than is an information channel with an influence index value of 100.0).
The findings of this study are relevant to anyone whose profession requires influence, motivation, and collaboration with or among leaders. If we know what informs and influences leaders, then we can more effectively communicate with, and, in turn, influence leadership. Before you can change the world, you likely need to change some minds. Here’s data that will help:
1) Timeliness matters
Let’s start with the obvious: It’s easiest to reach fellow leaders via the information sources that they are actually using.
Books and manuals generally have some influence power and are perceived as trustworthy and relatively influential sources (more on that in the charts that follow). This is frequently because book publishers employ credibility protectors such as fact-checkers, researchers, and editors, so leaders often regard this information channel as an expertly vetted, reliable source of information. But, it also takes time to write, edit, publish, and distribute (not to mention read) a book. That may be why the data suggest that leaders aren’t primarily relying on books and manuals for information (which they reference for information approximately 3.5x less often than they do online daily news sources). So, yes, books are potentially influential – if you can get the leader to read the book!
Data suggest that more timely information channels win the day when it comes to providing value as an information resource for leaders. Consultants/industry experts, peer-to-peer communications, and especially daily newspapers and blogs are timely by nature. Timely information sources are likely to be more right-now relevant than sources with more labored publication processes.
In addition to books, industry publications (often published periodically) and conferences (typically occurring annually) struggle to meet the timeliness requirement that agile leaders demand of their most important information sources.
2) Experts are far more valuable than participants
Perceived expertise is a significant driver of influence. Daily newspapers are definitionally timely – and the perceived prestige, credibility, and expertise of publications (think The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, etc.) inure to the benefit of their journalistic staff. There’s a high level of trust and influence embedded in these brands despite the fact that the web allows nearly anyone to be a “reporter” these days. Sources perceived as expert – such as industry experts, consultants and industry executives – dominate influence on leaders.
Conversely, sources based heavily in participation don’t perform nearly so well. Not everyone who participates in something is an expert. This may be a challenge for industry publications and conferences – they often feature far more participants than experts. More heavily participation-based (versus expert-based) sources often supply unfiltered noise in the already-noisy world of an executive leader…a circumstance that may be the opposite of helpful in the eyes of the “Cs.”
I wonder if – as the most effective leaders increasingly play the symbolic role of a conductor within organizations – the influence, trustworthiness, and go-to value of professional staff will increase. That’s a tide that may necessarily turn as cultural organizations evolve: Leaders may need to trust the (increasingly nuanced and specialized) experts that they hire in order to simply run their organizations.
Fun fact: Leaders right now utilize printed newspapers far, far more frequently than the general population. Nope, it’s not because printed newspapers are different than online newspapers in terms of content – it’s because today’s head-honchos are generally educated Baby Boomers who simply still prefer getting their news in print.
3) It’s a small world after all
What leaders say to one another is far more influential than what non-peers say to leaders. This is evident when observing the high impact of peer-to-peer communications and industry experts. Leaders seek out and listen to other leaders.
While this may be slightly disappointing for non-Chiefs, I urge these future leaders to look at the very bright side of this finding: If you can influence a small group of leaders, then you may be able to influence the entire sector. Hopeful? Perhaps. But identifying this narrow band of very specific influencers could prove enlightening for both current and future leaders alike – especially considering the imperative to evolve the way that many nonprofits do business. Think of other relatively small groups of folks who knew one another and changed the course of history. The Beat Generation. The Lost Generation. The Cultural Institution Reinvention Generation? Perhaps change in this sector is not so different. Or, perhaps I just want an excuse to include references to both Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a post.
Ours is not a kingdom, it is a collaboration. To influence leaders, we must compellingly communicate a point of view…and it’s easiest to do this when we communicate in consideration of leadership’s most preferred, trusted, and influential information sources.