Women Of The C-Suite: “Take time to develop relationships” With Elizabeth Doran, CEO of North Carolina Theatre

There are assumptions made on a grand, world scale that we should have first, second, and third world economies. I wish we could turn…

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There are assumptions made on a grand, world scale that we should have first, second, and third world economies. I wish we could turn these assumptions upside down — our world should not have economic tiers that by location determine a newborn child’s access to basic human rights and needs. If every child born in the world could have equal access to basic rights, our world would transform. Some scientists, some economists, even some world leaders have imagined this as possible. But, artists help us witness the possibilities.

I had the pleasure to interview Elizabeth Doran, President & CEO of North Carolina Theatre. Elizabeth has over 15 years of experience as an arts leader and theatre producer on the west and east coast, serving as the CEO of San Diego Theatres, executive director of The Pasadena Playhouse, and as managing director of The Actors’ Gang with Oscar-winner Tim Robbins. Along with producing theatre internationally in Europe and South America, Elizabeth has worked on the development side of major Broadway-bound shows such as Jersey Boys and has presented many Broadway touring shows including Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King. Beyond her depth of experience in producing and presenting the arts, Elizabeth’s focus on education, audience development, and diversity and inclusion has attracted millions of dollars of funding to support programs which break down barriers by merging the arts into schools, universities, prisons, underserved and new-immigrant neighborhoods, and businesses.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Though I work in the arts, I love to follow scientific studies. I once read a study focused on compassion in very young children. I was fascinated to learn that children as young as one-year-old learn how to respond to their innate compassionate feelings; they either practice empathy, antipathy, or apathy. Each of these are behaviors that are learned, and can be exercised. I then read another study, focused on empathy among incoming freshman in college, which has shown that empathy has gone down markedly over the past thirty years in young adults, corresponding with the rise of two dimensional, digital human contact. I understood that a solution to this is providing a place for people to exercise empathy, a real life place where we celebrate face-to-face contact: the theatre! I have made this my career and life’s journey.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the most interesting thing I have experienced since I began leading my company is experiencing the people of the south. Many issues our nation is grappling with are played out here in the south, a place where there are complex contradictions. Here, we see battles waged over Confederate statues, gerrymandering, gender-biases, and more. Yet we also see deeply held common values, such as loyalty, humor, family, faith, and good neighborliness. There is also great value held in the arts — music, poetry, writing, theatre, and art are important to people here. So, too, is discourse. It is interesting to be a part of this culture at this seemingly ideologically-divided time in our American history.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I first started out as an actress. I remember once I was in a comedy and the other actors in the show were particularly funny. One night during a scene in the show, I was playing a mom and the other actor was playing my young child. Her comedic timing and physical humor was so good that instead of acting stern and troubled, as was required by the scene, I burst into laughter to the point of tears! The audience waited for me, probably a bit bewildered, and I improvised some lines to try and move things back on track. Since then as a leader I have heard advisement given again and again that especially as women in top positions we should be careful not to reveal ourselves too much — we should keep our emotions in check, not over-share. I think we need to be ourselves, and burst out laughing from time to time, even if this makes us vulnerable. Our skills and experience can guide our leadership, but a good emotional life develops human connections. We need both to succeed.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Though we are a professional theatre company producing major Broadway-quality shows, we are absolutely crazy about our community, and take every opportunity we can to embrace and celebrate our audiences and artists. For example, we provide thousands of free tickets to those who might otherwise not be able to come to the theatre. During our production of Beauty and the Beast last year, over 700 people attended our final dress rehearsal for free, many of these coming from other organizations serving families in need. A single mother and her two year old son suffering from multiple illnesses approached us and when we brought them up on stage, the entire cast came out in costume and sang a song, just for them. That’s just how we roll.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a new play development program in partnership with another local company, Theatre Raleigh. It is called Reflections: Sharing Our Stories and examines the urban/rural Divide. With the majority of urban and rural people thinking that they have major differences in value systems, it is our hope that by creating two plays, one urban and one rural, and then looking at them in the context of one another, we will surface much stronger common values. We think more than ever, we need to come at our ideologically-based issues first from the point of view of those things we have in common, and not those things that divide us.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Build trust. Take time to develop relationships. When opportunities arise, take steps to deepen diversity — both in background but also in style. Be visionary, work hard, celebrate those who are willing to be bold, and be grateful to those who prefer to be careful. A good team is composed of hard working people with a common vision who respect and try to help one another, but who each approach a problem differently. As a female leader, take advantage of this #MeToo movement to build a respectful and safe workplace.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Invest time and energy in building your direct team and arrange resources to support their passion, values, and strengths. Ensure this team is diverse, hard-working, respectful, and generous. Be clear with them on vision and strategy. Lead by example, but also listen to them, and take their advisement. Rely on them and then, invest time in the people at the front line, learning names and faces, and share vision and strategy with them. Be positive. You cannot be everywhere at once, so develop advocates across the institution who can speak positively to others about the path you are carving out for the company.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mother, Barbaralee Purcell, has always been an inspiration to me. I have pictures in my office of her posed with her Nigerian students when she was a Peace Corp volunteer teaching English to girls there in 1964. She has consistently been a living example to me of taking positive actions in my own life to benefit humanity. She drove forward my love of the arts from a very young age and has celebrated my successes, while continuing to make the arts a part of her life, playing violin in several orchestras.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our art form is set up to bring goodness to the world, so in a thousand different ways, success in my career has brought goodness! I’ve brought arts programming into prisons, worked with gang interventionists, immigrant mothers, extremely at-risk youth, and so many others, working with amazing teams of people to help bring joy and transformation through theatre. Working with great artists, I’ve produced shows in response to national issues and movements, humanizing these things through thoughtful and heartfelt plays and musicals. Through my work I met people in recovery and now serve on the board of a drug and alcohol treatment center in Pasadena, CA. I also enjoy the goodness of my three children, who love the arts and have big plans to make the world a better place!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

· Choose a path and go down it! I once went strawberry picking in the height of the season. It was a big farm with lots of plants along many paths. I stood with empty basket, not sure where to begin. I decided to go down one path and start picking, and came back overflowing with fruit. I noticed that all the plants on my path were related — propagating each other with flowers and bees.This applies to life at work, too — pick a path and you’ll find many related opportunities there. Don’t wait all day to decide!

· Test out tactics. I like to test out new ideas with “pilot projects” in support of a new vision or strategy. I once did this in an effort to build Asian-American audiences, piloting a new initiative focused on inclusion of first generation Asian-American youth. Within a year of investing $3,000 in that pilot, our company won a $1.25M national grant for this work. I have also piloted projects that failed…saving the company money in the long run. I used to spend time with Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists when I lived in Pasadena, CA…and learned they have two Mars Rovers — one on Mars, and one sitting outside in the rocks at JPL. They test out everything they plan to do on Mars on this “local” rover…and learn. I love that!

· Be a diversity evangelist. There is no other way forward. Exclusion is all around you and it is within you and your organization — we have learned it from one another. We must find explicit ways to exercise compassion for others through inclusion, and help those around us deepen empathy.

· Listen to people. Learn to be visionary but also a good listener. This can be tough, especially when starting out in a new company. I implemented a “meet 100 people in your first 100 days” strategy when I started my job here. I hand wrote 100 thank you cards, and kept a spreadsheet of the most important things I learned from each. I hope this has helped me be a better leader and more in-tune with my community.

· Be ethical. In everyday life, there is rarely a good reason to make an unethical decision. Yet leaders of organizations face them in big and small ways all the time. Making a decision that reflects principled values can feel uncomfortable and difficult, but it will pay off. I heard somewhere the idea that a principle is not a principle unless it hurts sometimes to act on it. So, take deep breaths and do the right thing for your company.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

There are assumptions made on a grand, world scale that we should have first, second, and third world economies. I wish we could turn these assumptions upside down — our world should not have economic tiers that by location determine a newborn child’s access to basic human rights and needs. If every child born in the world could have equal access to basic rights, our world would transform. Some scientists, some economists, even some world leaders have imagined this as possible. But, artists help us witness the possibilities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “Change is the only constant.” Somehow in a world based on entropy and chaos, we humans are obsessed with structure and patterns. I try to remain fluid in the face of the unexpected, though this is a challenge. I am often called a “change agent” even though I perceive I am actually just setting new patterns and bringing new structure.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@nctheatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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