Lara Smith

By Matthew Terrell

For many years, I would joke with Lara Smith that she was one of the “Great Leaders of Our TIme.” Although you may not immediately recognize her name, Lara has been the managing director, aka: the business brains, behind Dad’s Garage Theatre for close to ten years.

In my role as communications director I’ve seen firsthand how much Lara has done to build up Dad’s Garage, and the greater Atlanta arts community, while also overcoming many obstacles to success. After many years in her role as managing director, Lara will be stepping down this August to pursue full time consulting work with the firm Purpose Possible. I’d like to take some time and celebrate this amazing leader, and how much she has done for Dad’s Garage and our community.  

A lot of people often wonder what is the secret to our success at Dad’s Garage. How have we been able to grow from a small and scrappy improv troupe in a dilapidated building, to one of the fastest growing and most recognized theatres in our region? Truly, I believe Lara’s brilliant management skills are central to our success. In her time as managing director, we have doubled our budget to $1.9 million (pre-pandemic); bought and renovated an old church to be our “forever home;” increased gender, racial, and LGBT+ diversity at all levels of the organization including board, staff, artistic, and volunteers; and done it while still maintaining our brand image as a youthful, free-spirited, and positive improv troupe. 

None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Lara’s hard work at the helm of this organization. To celebrate Lara’s departure, I’d like to share with you some of the secrets to how Dad’s Garage has thrived so much over the last decade. 

Here are ten things I learned about Leadership from Lara Smith:

  1. “Be aware of the story you tell yourself.” Probably one of the first leadership mantras Lara told me… quite often… was that your outlook and interpretation of the world will influence how you experience life. It’s the difference between paranoia (feeling like people are out to hurt you) versus pronoia (feeling like people are out to help you). 
  2. Birthdays matter. Especially in small organizations like ours, it’s important to celebrate your teammates on their birthday. Lara kept a list of everyone’s favorite birthday treats like doughnuts, key lime pie, and pistachio baklava (mine) and made sure to bring it to that week’s staff meeting. And, as cheesy at it sounds, we would usually go around the room and say what we appreciate about the birthday person. This is a great way to build bonds amongst coworkers. 
  3. “Being a leader isn’t about having the best idea, it’s about being able to recognize the best idea in a room and support it.” This one originally came from Kevin Gillese, our former artistic director, but it’s one that Lara quotes him on. I think that also speaks to the truth of the quote—and how important it is to see the wisdom others around you can offer. 
  4. Celebrate wins and fails. The start of every all-staff meeting at Dad’s Garage is a celebration of wins and failures—it’s a chance for us pat ourselves on the back for jobs well done, and take a moment to openly discuss our oopsies and how we can do better next time. Since failure happens to all of it, this approach takes the fear away from failure and actively turns it into a positive lesson to be learned. 
  5. “We assume good intentions and act with them ourselves.” This is written at the top of every agenda and is one of our guiding principles as an organization. 
  6. When necessary, call a “Beer O’clock.” This usually happens on frantic days leading up to opening a big show or putting on a massive fundraiser—times when the theatre feels full of anxious, nervous energy. It’s at those moments Lara would get on the intercom and ask all staff to meet in the lobby for a refreshing beverage and some cookies from a local bakery. 
  7. Book a foot massage for after the fundraiser because self-care is important. Our “BaconFest” event was a long, tiring day of entertaining thousands of patrons with improv and serving a literal ton of bacon. To prevent pain and burnout in the nonprofit world, self-care is key. Even a foot massage is vital to longevity of leaders. 
  8. Support others by sharing your platform and skills. What many people don’t realize about Lara is that she is a tireless advocate for the whole of the arts community and has spent hundreds of unpaid hours ensuring other arts organization have the support and resources they need to succeed. We’re all in this together, as Lara would say. 
  9. Be ready to pivot. We’ve succeeded at Dad’s Garage over the pandemic due to our ability to pivot as an organization. We switched all of our offering to digital within days of shutting down. Lara pivoted to becoming a specialist in ensuring our artists and workers would have access to unemployment, emergency funding, and vital resources to make it through a shut down. A good leader can pivot to do the work that needs to be done. 
  10. “Friends” is a great word. It’s a positive, gender-neutral term that can always address a wide group of people. Probably Lara’s most used word. 

So there it is, ten secrets to our success at Dad’s Garage as demonstrated by Lara Smith. I hope that folks reading this might take away a few lessons to their own workplaces, or anywhere they provide leadership. 

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.