How I Thrive: “As part of my morning routine I walk my dog for 30 minutes and I never take my phone”, With Ming Zhao & Piper Gunnarson

As part of my morning routine (after yoga), I walk my dog for 30 minutes — and I never take my phone. It forces me to stay present in the moment. Since my dog needs a walk every morning, I can rarely get out of it, so it truly does help me stick to my morning […]

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As part of my morning routine (after yoga), I walk my dog for 30 minutes — and I never take my phone. It forces me to stay present in the moment. Since my dog needs a walk every morning, I can rarely get out of it, so it truly does help me stick to my morning routine. Dogs don’t have the same concerns we have — flooded email inboxes, political news, work crises — so when I leave the phone at home to focus on this adorable creature for 30 minutes, it truly grounds me.

As a part of my series about what successful women leaders do to thrive, both personally and professionally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Piper Gunnarson. Piper Gunnarson is the Executive Director of On Site Opera, a unique nonprofit arts organization that presents opera performances in unusual spaces, such as museums, gardens, and historic sites. As ED, she guides the organization’s strategic plans, and oversees all administrative aspects of this company’s operations, from fundraising and finance to marketing and audience experience. She has previously held leadership positions with a number of performing arts groups, and regularly speaks at conferences and forums to drive conversations among leaders in the performing arts fields, particularly as it relates to the advancement of women in arts leadership.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Piper! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path and to where you are today?

Like many people working in arts administration, I started as an artist, specifically as a stage actor. To help pay the rent when I was starting out, I worked in the back offices for a number of nonprofit theater companies. As a performer, I was already very familiar with how a theater production comes together — the acting, directing, stage management, production design, etc. — but I hadn’t had much exposure to the side of theater companies that runs the day-to-day operations, like fundraising and marketing. It all fascinated me, and I eventually transitioned to a full-time career in arts administration. The concept of leadership as it applies to performing arts organizations is especially appealing to me. Theater artists are some of the most imaginative and resourceful problem solvers you will ever meet, and those characteristics lend themselves really well to positions of leadership and decision-making roles in any business, especially an arts-focused nonprofit where resources are limited and creative thinking is key. A few years ago, I joined On Site Opera, which was a shift for me, moving from the theater industry to opera. They are two very similar fields, but there are definitely some differences.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Hmm. This is really hard to pinpoint. I work in the performing arts, so interesting things happen all the time! Especially in my current position, with an opera organization that produces site-specific performances. We just produced an opera in a soup kitchen featuring a chorus of people who have experienced homelessness. And right before that, we produced an opera on a historic estate where we asked the audience to carry lanterns across the estate grounds as an immersive part of the performance. Last year, we presented a world premiere of a new opera inside a major museum, and before that we presented a Mozart opera in this amazing semi-hidden garden in Manhattan. All of these projects are fascinating and thrilling and present unique challenges that require ample creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

This is a tough one. There are little mistakes and big mistakes, some in the distant past, and some more recent. With any mistake, it’s important to own it, learn from it and, hopefully, you can eventually laugh about it and find it humorous. In the moment, though, it never feels humorous. Hm. It’s hard for me to think back to a mistake I made early in my career because the more recent things are so present in my mind that they overshadow anything I might have done years ago. No doubt those early-career missteps would have felt dire at the time, but time and perspective have probably shifted my memory of them so that they don’t seem so horrible anymore. I guess the mistake that looms at the forefront of my mind was something that happened only last year. Our organization’s annual gala fundraiser raises about 20% of our yearly income and it’s one of my biggest (and most fun!) annual projects. Due to a miscommunication between our venue scout and the venue manager, the event space was booked for the wrong date. I signed the contract without noticing this critical detail (therein lies my mistake) and the issue didn’t come to light until five weeks before the event, after most of our guests had already rsvp’d. It was absolutely heart-shattering when I realized the error. I’m really proud of how I handled it, though. It was almost like an out-of-body experience because while I was completely falling apart on the inside, I also knew that I just had to own up to the mistake and find a solution as quickly as possible. The thing that was truly remarkable was how supportive and understanding everyone was, from my colleagues to our board of directors to the many donors who had purchased tickets to the fundraiser. Obviously, the major lesson from this was to read every line of a contract multiple times and by multiple people before signing. The other really big takeaway was that this reinforced my personal belief and our company’s commitment to transparency. I think this was the reason that people were so forgiving of the issue; we have a reputation for being very transparent as a company, and we continued to demonstrate that value in how we handled this issue, so people were really on our side.

As I have moved forward in my career towards positions of greater responsibility, mistakes carry more weight. Fortunately the benefit of experience helps me to prevent most mistakes before they happen so that they don’t occur very often!

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?

Positive work culture is extremely important to me, and I am very fortunate that I am now in a leadership position within an organization that values this at all levels, from its board of directors to full-time staff to production teams. I think this is especially important in a deadline-driven field like the performing arts. There is never an option to extend a project deadline; tickets have already been sold, artists are contracted to work for a specific time period before they fly off to their next job; the venue is only available for a specific calendar window; the show must go on! This business model can easily lead to high stress levels, tense relations, and burn-out. Knowing that the project timeline is non-negotiable, it becomes critical to get people on the team who have positive attitudes and collaborative work styles, so I recommend always starting there. Take time to find people who will be a really positive addition to your team. At my current company, we always start every rehearsal process, every team meeting, and every new hire on-boarding process from a very human place. Team meetings start with the question “what’s new and interesting?” to give people space to share what’s going on in their lives. A movie they saw, a musical they attended, an interesting podcast they heard, family news. We have lives outside of work, and these small moments have big impact to connect with each other as a work family. And when we start a rehearsal process, where many of the artists are visiting from out of town, we start by welcoming everyone to the neighborhood with an info sheet about local restaurants, drug stores, banks, etc, followed by our code of conduct policy to remind everyone to help us create a supportive and respectful work environment. Encouraging a positive work culture is kind of like cooking comfort food: the secret ingredient is love. You have to have love in the rehearsal room, in the office, and in the board room if your opera production is going to feel great to the audience. If you create your production — or whatever project — with any venom in your heart, it will be felt by everyone, and it’s all downhill from there. I also think that taking a breath to remember that each person is a person is key — it sounds obvious, but I think this gets lost in the sauce at a lot of companies. We all have flaws and challenges and fears and goals and preferences and dislikes, etc. As long as you pause in those tough moments to acknowledge each other as people, you will find a way through.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

All of those things are interconnected, aren’t they? The routines I have set up for myself tend to address body, mind, and heart simultaneously, but I suppose some routines prioritize one of those areas over the others. Let me start by admitting that I do not keep up with my routines as well as I wish I did. The thing I have learned as I have advanced to a busier leadership role is to create routines that I can maintain without much thought energy. My work day is full of assessing data, reviewing projects, and making decisions; every day looks different, so the more small choices I can take off my plate the better. For me, this all starts with a morning routine that jumpstarts my body, mind, and spirit. If I can stick to my healthy, grounding routine in the morning, then I can feel good about myself even if the rest of the day gets shot.

My morning yoga is key. I try to start every day (yes every day, even weekends) with a 15–20 minute yoga practice. I’m not very skilled at it, but it helps to wake up my body and center my mind before the day starts. I tend to wake up with my brain already racing to brainstorm ideas and trouble-shoot problems before my feet have even hit the floor. The yoga helps me pause, reflect, and focus. I am prone to migraines, and stress is one of my triggers, so the yoga helps to stretch out some of my key stress spots and reduce the likelihood of a migraine later in the day or week.

My diet is also very important to me. Since I know that sweets are my weak spot — and I allow myself to have it — I focus on controlling the other parts of my diet. I always eat at least 5 servings of produce each day, leaning more towards veggies than fruit (starting with 3 servings at breakfast), and I have significantly reduced the amount of refined starches in my diet. I am pretty good about making sure to eat 3 meals a day. I don’t do well when I skip meals!

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

The yoga is great for my mind as well as my body. Also, I have started having a daily conversation with myself on my morning commute to answer a few questions that help ground and focus me. They are:

  1. How can I help or support someone else today?
  2. How can I help or support myself today?
  3. What did I do yesterday that I am really proud of?
  4. If I only achieve one thing today, what will it be?

Something I want to start doing more is a daily gratitude exercise as well.

Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

As part of my morning routine (after yoga), I walk my dog for 30 minutes — and I never take my phone. It forces me to stay present in the moment. Since my dog needs a walk every morning, I can rarely get out of it, so it truly does help me stick to my morning routine. Dogs don’t have the same concerns we have — flooded email inboxes, political news, work crises — so when I leave the phone at home to focus on this adorable creature for 30 minutes, it truly grounds me.

Also — dance class! I recently started taking a weekly ballet class. I used to be a really good dancer as a kid, and it’s amusing how bad I am now, but I don’t care! It’s not the point. You know how they say “dance like no one is watching?” Well, obviously there are other people in the class and the instructor who are watching, but I don’t know any of them personally so it kinda feels like no one is watching. I go to a dance class where I don’t know anyone by name, I don’t have to prepare for a performance or any other type of obligation, and I don’t care how I look doing it. It is truly just for me, and it is incredibly therapeutic, emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services for your mind, body, or soul that you absolutely cannot live without?

I try to keep back-up plans on deck for those times when I can’t stick to a predefined routine. For example, I keep high-fiber, high-protein KIND bars in my desk in case my meal schedule gets thrown off by a busy day. I also keep low-sodium V8 and frozen broccoli at home for quick infusions of produce and vitamins when I’m in a rush or need a quick snack. Keeping a good stock of these dietary back-up plans helps to get me back on track when things get nuts.

And honestly, having a dog is helpful. When you live in New York City, you can’t not walk your dog, so this part of my morning routine is a given. If I do nothing else in the day that is positive for my well-being, at least I know I have had my 30-minute walk in the fresh morning air with a sweet, floppy, furry being who reminds me to stay in the moment.

It’s funny, I think my spontaneous 20-year-old self (the one who backpacked through Europe for 2 months without an itinerary or a single hotel reservation) would scoff at all these routines and rote practices. As my life and career have become busier and busier, it’s nice to have certain parts of my daily routine that I don’t have to think about, so that I can save my brain power and creative energy for the important decisions throughout the day.

All of us have great days and days that are not as great. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?

Rock star days are when I check off one of the big goals, like winning a major grant award to support our organization, or closing out our annual gala fundraiser with a successful and goal-exceeding splash, or selling out all performances of one of our productions. Then its hugs all around and maybe a little in-office dance party to celebrate. Getting to that point? Lots and lots of patience and persistence. Nothing I do is ever about getting something done in one day — it’s all about weeks or months or years of planning and teamwork leading up to a culminating moment of victory. Celebrating success is important. I have even started asking this question when interviewing for staff positions: How do you celebrate your successes?

In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?

The growing email inbox is my great foe. It’s a constant reminder of all the things I haven’t done, all the people I haven’t responded to yet, and it makes me feel incredibly guilty and unaccomplished. If I have a week where I am ending on this kind of note, especially a week when there haven’t been any exciting achievements to counterbalance that feeling, I take a few minutes to read through something that confirms how my past achievements fit into the big picture, like a description of the company from 2 years ago that reminds me how much we have grown since then. If things are really tense or difficult, I start feeling it in my body, so I try to do something that releases that negative energy, like hiking or screaming along to loud music. I also have a great group of girlfriends and a really supportive husband who are all right there via text message to offer sympathy, advice, or good old corroboration mid-workday if needed. It’s so important to surround yourself with good people that can be there for you in the best and worst times.

Do you have a story about the weirdest, most bizarre or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.

I once signed up for a yoga class called Morning Balance Yoga. I thought it would be a yoga class that would focus on spiritual balance to get your day started. I had no idea that it literally meant balancing on your head, and I was definitely not skilled enough to do that. There was no indication on the class description of required experience level!

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?

This is so real! It truly takes a beat to switch gears from work-mode to home-mode, and I am the first to admit that I am not great at it. I don’t think I have a different personality in one setting vs the other (though I realize that some people do have this experience), so it’s not really about changing my attitude or how I relate to people. For me, it’s more about turning off the work brain so I can focus on my family and friends. Reminding myself to not talk about work, to not check my email, to leave my phone in the other room, etc. Also, equality in the home is extremely important in our marriage. My husband and I both work really hard at out jobs and often help each other sort through work challenges or celebrate professional successes, so it can be hard for both of us to turn off work-brain at the end of the day. Communication about this is key. We will often say “let’s take 10 minutes to share our work things and then move on for the evening.” We fail at this more often than succeed, but at least we acknowledge it and make an effort. We also try really hard to communicate with each other about what’s coming up each week so that we can anticipate when and how we will each be in that transitional period from work to home and vice versa. Who is home late on which nights? What does this mean about the division of responsibilities? Who cooks which meals? For me, I have found that the best ways to move my brain from work-mode to home-mode are: cooking (it’s really hard to think about work when your eyes are watering from chopping onions), and sitting on the living room floor spinning records while drinking a glass of wine. There is something about putting myself physically on the floor and then having to physically get up to flip the record that pulls me out of work-brain and into home-brain.

Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?

Elizabeth Gamza. She was my acting coach more than a decade ago, but she really ended up being a life coach at a moment when I really needed it. She does corporate and executive coaching as well, which I think served me well since I was starting to enter a transition from acting to arts administration and needed some guidance in figuring out what I wanted my life to look like. Even if you are not an actor, acting classes can be an incredible way to explore new and untapped avenues of self-expression and work though some inner conflicts When I first met Elizabeth, she said it seemed like someone had put a lid on me and that I was stifled inside a container. She was instrumental in pulling that lid off of me and helping me stand for myself. In fact, the first year that I worked with her, she gave me a mantra of “I stand for myself” which I recited every morning and it helped me increase my confidence and find my own strength and beauty.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would hardly call myself a person of great influence! There are so many worthy ideas and movements out there in various stages of activation; it’s really hard to pick something. I guess I already have picked one through my work, though. I believe — and have believed since a very young age — that the arts are a necessary part of any culture’s soul. They fuel and inspire people as individuals. They reflect our society back to us (good, bad, and ugly), and inspire new ideas and progress. They are therapeutic, whether you are creating or enjoying them. They lift local and national economies. They improve real estate values and quality of life. The existence of art is essential and the support for it is necessary. This is why I dedicate my career to it. I guess the movement I would want to start is to inspire everyone in our country to appreciate and value and study and practice art — in all its forms.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my mentors, a woman who leads another performing arts organization, told a great story that has always stuck with me. There was a day when her morning started with someone critiquing her leadership style as being “too soft, you need to toughen up”. Then her day ended with someone telling her that she is “too tough, you need to lighten up” to which she replied “Are you sure you’re not confusing toughness with competence and confidence?” This is one of my favorite leadership quotes ever.

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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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