Do you have the word “leader” in your job title? Probably not. Few people do, and yet so many of us fall into a trap of thinking that we have to have a title that connotes authority to begin to lead. How many of us have stopped short of questioning something in a meeting, proposed a solution to an organizational challenge deemed unavoidable or offer an alternative to the course of a project? For young and emerging professionals, it’s critical to remember that everyone has the ability to lead in place—to effect positive change in our workplace and in our community. As City Manager Tommy Gonzalez is fond of conveying to staff, “leadership is a skill, not a position.”
Look around at where you currently work and really ask what your organization or business could be doing to be more competitive, or more efficient, or maybe be a place where employees really connect to the work they do and their community. Don’t just identify those challenges to your colleagues, boss or board—bring solutions as well. Be ready to take charge of implementing change. I often hear concern that there are not enough opportunities for college graduates in El Paso. But I also hear the concerns from colleagues hiring in all fields about the lack of applicants who display the real attributes of a leader or change agent.
Lastly, remember that opportunities to connect and learn aren’t always blatantly labeled that way. As an undergrad, one of my first professional positions was as an Assistant in the Education Department of the then Austin Museum of Art (now the Austin Contemporary). The museum was at the time in a period of great transition with a new director and in the middle of a major campaign to build a permanent facility. The director (my boss’ boss) one day called me up to his office and asked if I could assist on letters to potential major donors and research opportunities for him to personally meet with them in a strategic way that would connect to their interests. I agreed, but thought it was a routine assignment and “backburnered” it when more interesting tasks came up that week. After I had left for class at the end of week, the director came down and took the drafts back, working on them himself. I was not given tasks outside my own department again.
A few years ago, he and I were at a lunch during a national conference for executives in the arts and he shared that he had seen in me a genuine passion for the arts and community at that time—if not necessarily the skill set to do much yet. I realized that a director with his own assistant and a full development staff did not really need me to work on those letters and appointments. It was an opportunity he was offering for me to grow: to connect to those donors and see firsthand how courting support for a major initiative happened. He was extending an offer for an unconnected undergrad in a new city to lead in place. To show my value and to help move something forward that mattered. I missed that chance—don’t miss yours!
Ben Fyffe is the Assistant Director of the City of El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department (MCAD). Fyffe manages the portfolio of funding granted out to local artists and cultural organizations, the 2% for Public Art Program, the weekly Downtown Art & Farmers Market and the region’s biggest arts festivals. Fyffe received his BA in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin and his MPA from the University of Texas at El Paso where he is a member of Pi Alpha Alpha. He served a Wallace Foundation Fellowship at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a Fellowship at the Smithsonian Latino Center. Fyffe’s parents were not thrilled when he said he wanted to work in the arts at age five, but he is pretty sure they have gotten over it.