Just because you don’t have Project Manager in your title doesn’t mean you are removed and immune from the challenges of managing projects (and the people working on those projects). That’s why the Coax team is talking to people from all sorts of different industries about how they manage their projects (and what we can learn from them). This is the latest addition to our popular Coax Q&A series.
“I would say that the dirty secret of most Artists who are succeeding today is that they are extremely adept managers. Bohemian lifestyle be damned! Talent will get you out of the gate, but management takes you to the finish line.”
Tell us about your current role. What kinds of things do you do every day? What does your job usually entail (for those of us who might not know much about it)?
I’m an Artist, Publisher, and Creative Hustler, meaning that I wear a lot of hats and every day is different. Depending on the day, I can be found painting a mural, running my art subscription Papirmass, working on the nuts and bolts of my art practice, or possibly travelling to a residency, giving a talk, mentoring other young artists, or working on a design for a client.
It’s an exciting life, but it’s also challenging. Sometimes I really crave structure and routine. Still, I have the best job in the world, because I wake up every day and get to focus on my passion. I’ve been a full-time artist for 10 years now, and am living my dream.
How much are you managing projects and people? What kind of projects? Give us an example.
Both Papirmass and murals require serious project management. Each runs on a tight deadline and there is little room for error, but plenty of room for unforeseen circumstances to crop up. And with each, I am relying on a lot of other people to come together and make the project happen.
As many an introvert will attest, management didn’t come easy. It’s a skill that develops with repeated use, and some lessons are learned the hard way. As I transitioned from being a studio artist (working alone, on my own things and at my own pace) to running a team at Papirmass and overseeing assistants on my murals, I had to develop a host of management skills.
The single biggest thing I have learned is that without clear communication and organized systems, you are setting people up to fail. How can anyone perform at their best if they don’t understand the parameters of the game? I realized early on that I had to have a clear filing system, an organization chart that lays out responsibilities, well-articulated deadlines and goals, and a clear timeline on which the project should advance. I do not excel at this side of a project, but I am continually striving to improve and I know that I’ve advanced leagues since I began.
What’s your approach to managing projects and people? What works when you need to move things forward?
I try to be an affirmative manager. I give a lot of positive feedback so that when constructive criticism inevitably needs to be delivered, it’s understood within a context of me respecting their overall work and rooting for their success. I try to treat my staff as equals, and indeed I do learn a lot from them. In many ways, I prefer the idea that we work together, rather than they work for me. I have purposefully sought out people who have different skill sets than I do, and as such we really are all essential components of the team. My staff are always more strategic, organized, and tactical than I am. I have the big, messy, creative ideas, and they help make them happen.
This being said, as we grow (Papirmass brought on 3 new people in the last year), I have realized that I will need to step back and become more of a leader. Being on the same footing works great with a team of three, but larger groups need more decisive leadership (and I’ll need to be able to deliver feedback more efficiently). So I expect that over the next few years my approach to management will change.
Art from Papirmass
How has your background, education, or past experiences informed the way you manage projects?
Luckily, I come from a family of managers and my step-dad is a small business owner. I think that a lot of the dinner table talk in my childhood prepared me well for entering this role.
Still, I didn’t start out wanting to run a business. In fact, I initially viewed Papirmass as an art project. Being a full-time artist was really hard in the beginning, but I was buoyed by how much I was learning. I can say unequivocally that my education, a BFA, did not prepare me for project management at all, which is a shame. One of the major downfalls of a BFA is the lack of training in how to utilize your skills once you’re out of school. It’s very sink or swim. I jumped in and started to figure it out.
Amazingly, this naïveté had a huge benefit: despite the low profits in the early years, I did not quit. I think that most MBAs never would have stuck out something with such a low return. However, with art, each year is exponentially easier than the one before. As your reputation grows, your skills solidify, and you add to your team, the work becomes significantly more manageable.
When it comes to managing projects, what do you wish you were better at? What do you wish you knew more about?
Like many women, I struggle at times with assertiveness and giving negative feedback. I see a lot of advantages to a team-based mentality and a positive style, but there are times I wish I could say what I need to with less hemming and hawing. I’m getting better every year, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me.
I also wish that I was better at seeing the big picture. I’m great at focusing on the short to middle term, but things become too fuzzy down the line. One of the reasons we recently expanded our staff at Papirmass was so that we could create a proper Director of Operations position, which includes project management as a core responsibility. As I said earlier, I can have the big ideas, but I really benefit from someone else breaking them down into concrete and manageable steps.
Follow Kirsten on Instagram and check out all her dope-ass murals
What’s your best tip or an approach to projects that works for you? Why do you think it works? What’s one pitfall you’ve learned how to avoid?
In general, breaking big projects down into small tasks is essential. I particularly find that if I am procrastinating, a great tactic is to focus on one tiny step I can take to get started.
I’ve used a host of techniques over the years to break things down and manage my to-do list. Currently, I’m utilizing Asana to manage my team, and post-it notes to keep my attention on track for the most important tasks of the day. I’m also experimenting with a “Stubby List”: allowing myself a to-do list with only 3 items on it. Focusing on the three most important tasks of the day has been helpful.
A third tactic that I am experimenting with is engaging with email less. This has its ups and downs. On the one hand, I am able to focus on my most important tasks far more readily without feeling the call of other people’s priorities. Before, I felt at times that I could be an artist who simply answers emails all day long as their practice. There simply wasn’t enough time for actually making things! But of course, when I inevitably do sit down to conquer the inbox, there are far too many messages piled up, and I realize how remiss I’ve been in respecting other people’s timelines. It’s a very difficult balancing act and I have certainly not perfected it.
What’s one thing the average person doesn’t know about the kind of work you do?
Being an artist sounds very romantic, but the reality is that I spend a great deal of time on managerial and administrative tasks. For every romantic highlight posted to Instagram, there are grants to write, budgets to balance, job candidates to evaluate, paint orders to place… There is a perception that artists are lazy fun-loving hedonists, but please understand that most successful artists in today’s day and age have worked incredibly hard to get to where they are. In fact, I would say that the dirty secret of most artists who are succeeding today is that they are extremely adept managers. Bohemian lifestyle be damned! Talent will get you out of the gate, but management takes you to the finish line.