The Grand Turnaround: Respect and Inclusion Take Centre Stage at the Alberta Theatre

When Tony McGrath started working at The Grand Theatre in Alberta, there was an epic show going on. Two leaders were battling for control of their turf - each with their own gang of supporters. The story was fraught with aggression and vicious behaviour. It was getting a lot of publicity in the regular media, and it was being shared widely on social. It might sound like a standout production of West Side Story, but sadly, it wasn’t.

It was a story of abuse and disrespect in the workplace featuring the theatre’s executive and creative directors. The two were behaving so badly that when McGrath asked if they could at least just communicate with one another about their jobs, they couldn’t even commit to that. “They had no ability to speak to one another on a rational level,” he says.

McGrath had been hired to assist with strategic planning and wound up coaching the two leaders in a last-ditch effort to control the damage being done. McGrath says with personal bullying, passive-aggressive, and inappropriate behaviour all rampant, the situation wasn’t redeemable. Their refusal to cooperate with the process and one another, led to their undoing, and the Board saw fit to let both leaders go.

The rest of the staff members were so emotionally entrenched in the situation that they were either laid off or quit. And it didn’t stop there. The toxic culture had seeped out beyond the theatre walls to community members who had also started choosing sides.

The Board turned to McGrath to see them through this challenging time and asked if he would assume the role of CEO on an interim basis. McGrath chuckles when he recounts that he “just kind of fell in with the role.” Despite the dire circumstances, and the fact that he had no experience working in a theatre, or in any previous role in the arts, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.

“I had no executive or creative director, the entire team was gone, there were no shows booked, the theatre had an awful relationship with the tenant restaurant, and with the arts community. It was a totally broken business. This was right up my street,” laughs McGrath.

Act one: Draw a line in the sand

With only a volunteer board left, McGrath couldn’t rebuild from the inside out. He knew Sheldon Kennedy and the team at The Respect Group well, so working with them seemed like a natural place to start.

One of the first things he did was to establish clear boundaries. “Even before I started rebuilding the team, I drew a line in the sand. There are behavioural standards expected of everyone in the organization, whether you are an artist, a contractor, a leader, or a member of the Board. You may not cross the line. I don’t care who you are.”

“I knew if I didn’t establish the black and white line before anyone came on board, I’d have to do it as behaviours cropped up, which would be far more difficult.” He acknowledges it was an unorthodox way to approach things, but given the theatre’s history, and the fact that he was starting with a clean slate, he had a unique opportunity to be proactive and explicit in outlining expected behaviour.

McGrath says the Respect Group was fantastic in helping him remove ambiguity. “Sheldon and I spoke about everything related to personal safety, poor leadership behaviour, and the ability to speak about and report abuses.” He notes there had been no such structure previously, and, as leaders had been the primary perpetrators, any action of this sort presented a huge risk to whistleblowers.

He says this was the foundation of their brand. They needed to do this work before they determined the theatre’s artistic direction. The Grand would be known as the first arts organization in North America to engage in the Respect Program.

Lay the foundation and let the team build the rest

McGrath made time to step back and think about the culture he wanted to build at The Grand. He went away on his own strategic retreat to consider his values, and what he wanted the theatre to be known for. He needed time to figure out the type of people he should hire to embody this.

He started by bringing back a couple of dancers who hadn’t experienced the same degree of emotional damage as others. While they didn’t have the business experience, they were good people and understood the arts and entertainment community. They gradually built the rest of the team together.

“I gave the artists the opportunity to build The Grand culture as they would like to see it—to build an environment they would like to work in with the principles they would like to have as human beings.”

By allowing the team the freedom to build and run the business, they started to trust him. “All I did was draw a line in the sand and they built the environment.”

Diversity and Inclusion are natural outcomes when a welcome culture exists

McGrath is aware of his privilege and the way others might perceive him. “I am a 64-year old white man who comes from the business world. People in the arts would be entitled to be suspicious of me. I come from a generation that caused many of the problems we have today. However, I’ve been able to engage in my relationships in this community fully, and I’ve been well received.”

“The theatre is a world well ahead of most businesses in terms of race, gender identity, LGBTQ communities, and integration. I’ve learned from our community that those policies are really just pieces of paper and many leaders don’t actually buy into them, but they feel that they have to have a policy. We treat everyone equally and that is the end of it. We don’t allow hatred and racism. That’s our policy.”

The Grand has welcomed performance groups from around the world into the theatre, and it was the first in North America to have an indigenous company resident in the theatre. “We didn’t need a reconciliation program with our indigenous brothers and sisters. We share the same space and go to lunch with each other. It is live and in action.”

You are a good human or you’re not

McGrath has coached many leaders who have behaved badly and has seen too many organizations treat these situations as risk rather than ethical scenarios. They are afraid that if they take a stand against this behaviour publicly, it will make investors and stakeholders skittish. “They’re not investors worth having if they don’t see the value of the company saying we don’t stand for that. You see so many organizational websites that claim they have a safe working environment and they don’t,” says McGrath.

His work with the Respect Group focused heavily on creating a culture of safety and paying attention to the physical and mental wellness of the staff. “A leader has to genuinely care about their people. You are a good human or you’re not, and you are a grown-up or you’re not.”

McGrath was an Infantry Officer in the British Army. He says they were forward thinking in the way they led their people. “Before I went to sleep at night, my soldiers were fed, their feet were in good condition, they had cleaned their weapons, they understood the Sentry roster, they knew what they were going to do the next day, and they were set to get a good night’s sleep. I have always managed this way. You can’t say one thing and do another.”

Leader self-care is a reflection of the culture you create

McGrath believes that care is reciprocal. It is not just about the leader or the staff. He says staff should feel safe to ask you how you are doing. They should feel safe calling you out if you are being short in your answers, your body language is negative, or you look like your physical health is suffering.

“In many environments, nobody really cares about the CEO. My team cares about me as much as any member of the team. When the culture is caring, it naturally goes both ways. My soldiers used to ask me if I was okay. They looked after me because I was a decent officer. In a combat situation, they will leave you out in the cold if you aren’t.” 

Act two: The Grand sets a new precedent for respect in the arts

It is two years since The Grand began its turnaround. All team members, including the Board, have completed Respect in the Workplace, as well as the headversity program, which includes an app to help individuals assess their own mental health. They also engaged a Brené Brown certified coach who happens to be a board member to lead everyone through an empathetic leadership program.

In this same window of time, they have had no incidents, complaints, or negative reports in traditional or social media, and there hasn’t been a single report processed through the Respect in the Workplace program. McGrath says, “It is unusual for an organization like ours to have zero incidents. That speaks well to drawing a line in the sand and hiring grown-ups to make that happen.”

He notes the key is to be honest about who you want to be as an organization. “I’m not saying the way we built the culture is the right way. There is nothing wrong with building an autocratic culture if everyone understands and buys into that. If you are genuine that’s fine. Just be honest about who you are and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

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