The Word on the Street is one of Toronto's biggest, oldest, and most beloved literary festivals, and it has recently undergone big changes on the staff side. Festival Director David Alexander announced he would be leaving, after shepherding the festival through the difficulties of the pandemic, its expansion to a two-day event, and its move back to its popular Queen's Park location.
With a leadership vacuum, WOTS looked not to an executive search but to the strong resources it already had: a dedicated and experienced senior staff. In consultation with the board of directors, a decision was made that WOTS would do something new and different: a diffused leadership model in which three senior staffers would come to together to re-jig, re-organize, and share the Executive Director role as well as their previous duties. Meant to empower and engage existing expertise, avoid bumpy transition periods, and create a resilient organization, more and more is being written about this kind of evolution around traditional workplace dynamics.
We're excited to speak with Haley Richardson (Director of Communications), Sarah Mosher (Director of Community Engagement), and Sienna Tristen (Director of Programming), who will serve as co-Directors of the nonprofit in place of hiring a single Executive Director. They tell us why and how they decided to move ahead in this fashion, why it's a great time for the lateral leadership model to spread to other workplaces and industries, and what they're looking forward as WOTS continues its growth.
Tell us a little bit about how your innovative new leadership model will work at The Word on the Street.
Sienna, Sarah, and I will each be leading our respective departments, while sharing duties and responsibilities as co-directors.
Sienna is now our Director of Programming, shaping the festival’s annual program of readings and author talks. Haley, now our Director of Communications, is crafting the festival’s identity and digital strategy. And as Director of Community Engagement, I will be spearheading our fundraising initiatives and cultivating the WOTS community.
While the three of us will be sharing executive power and collaborating on the overall vision for the festival, this isn’t an us-three-against-the-world situation. We’re eagerly anticipating expanding WOTS’ team to include a Marketplace Coordinator, a designated Project Manager, and other supporting roles such as our seasonal staff. And of course, Rebecca Diem will be returning to us in August next year!
Why was this the right time to make this change for WOTS as an organization?
COVID brought unusual challenges to the arts and culture ecosystem and we are seeing, now more than ever, art and culture festivals starting to feel the impacts of these changes (precarious funding structures and decision fatigue are two that come to mind).
David Alexander has led WOTS through those critical five years, and when he announced his departure to the team it led to a conversation about what type of leadership would best serve WOTS moving forward. This model allows us to take on more responsibility, without having to leave our departments behind.
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What are some of the advantages you foresee in this new model? What are some challenges you’ll be navigating?
There’s an increased cohesion in a lateral model like this that I’m personally really excited for. This kind of shared leadership allows for us to spread the administrative load of running a festival across several minds, rather than placing the brunt of it on a single individual. That spells a much more manageable workload for any one staff member – even though it sounds like a paradox, given we’ve all stepped up in our responsibilities! I think it’s time to foreground the fact that nobody accomplishes any great feat alone; it’s an immense resource to just know you have a couple someones to share your proposals and your plans with, and to make room for collective input. I foresee this model being a great antidote to overwhelm and burnout. I also see it as a pathway to personal agency – which is something you need when you’re less than half a dozen people building an event for more than 100,000 to attend!
The clearest challenge ahead is, of course, the very newness of the thing. Everything is an experiment, and we need to be willing to iterate and refine as we go. David Alexander has left us plenty of documentation around the logistics of running a festival; that’s actually the easy part. The real adventure, in my opinion, is learning how we fit together as leaders.
This seems to represent a progressive and quite unusual model for leadership in an arts organization. Why do you think WOTS will be able to utilize this effectively? Do you see a scenario where other arts organizations could benefit from a similarly dispersed leadership model?
WOTS’ staff has always worked closely and collaboratively. We highly value each other’s input and there is already a lot of trust, respect, and communication between Sienna, Sarah, and I. We have new responsibilities, but at its core WOTS is formalizing the work culture it’s been cultivating for years. We’re stepping up, and WOTS is investing in us so that we can invest in WOTS.
Luckily, lateral leadership is emerging in many sectors. While we may seem like the first ones out of the gate in the world of arts nonprofits, there are plenty of people out there doing something like what we’re doing.
Absolutely I could see this leadership model working beyond WOTS at arts organizations with similarly small teams. I think in the arts, collaboration and adaptability are already part of the ethos, so again, formalizing and acknowledging the impact and input of team members isn’t a huge reach.
What is next for WOTS? Where do you see the festival going in the coming years?
I’m personally excited to expand upon our digital offerings throughout the year, including a set of virtual writers’ workshops. I’m also really looking forward to continuing to develop and collaborate with our vibrant influencer community!
Going off Haley’s point, I am really excited to continue to increase our community collaboration. Our volunteers, donors, influencers, etc, are what make WOTS, WOTS. It is important to all of us to celebrate those who help us along the way and shape our identity as a community event.
From a programming standpoint, audiences are hungry for interactive experiences more than ever before. Without sacrificing our traditional panel talks and readings, I’m looking forward to including more of that experiential content, from site-wide scavenger hunts to literary cabarets. I’m also keen to continue building our genre-focused programming – especially after the rousing success of the Romance and Mystery stages at our 2023 event!
Sarah Mosher (she/her) is a lover of artistic storytelling. She enjoys diving into book-to-film adaptations, romance novels and feminist texts. Anewcomer to the CanLit world, Sarah is excited to expand her literary taste buds!
Haley Richardson (she/they) is an artist and creative who moved to Canada from the US in 2019. She enjoys reading an endless amount of romance novels, crocheting, birdwatching, playing cozy video games, and cheering on her hometown Carolina Hurricanes.
Sienna Tristen (they/them) is a poet, author, cultural worker, and perhaps secretly also a prunella plant! They love stories that feel nourishing and discussions that brighten the mind. Sienna’s had a hand in every WOTS department, but now calls Programming home.