Misty McPhail loves her work!

I met Misty McPhail through my volunteering at the SWF and, hand on heart, like most volunteers who spin into her orbit, would do almost anything Misty asks. During Festival week, she directs 250 volunteers across 400+ events with humour, grace and encouragement that creates volunteer magic. If Misty had responsibility for running a company's employee engagement, that company could rule the world! But the Arts grabbed her soul, and for that, the volunteers (and patrons) of SWF are enormously grateful. Here's what she shared with me last week ...

Tell us about what you do?
I'm the Volunteer Coordinator for the Sydney Writers Festival, which I've been doing now for three years. I come on board at the beginning of each year to recruit, train and manage a team of 250 volunteers for the Festival in May. I work with 32 volunteer supervisors, many of them have been with SWF much longer than I have, and we all work together to plan how the team will roll out across more than 400 events during the week.

Once the Festival is underway, my job is to ensure that along with doing a great job (which they all do), the volunteers enjoy themselves. People do a better job when they enjoy their work, so I want to make sure they’re happy in their positions. There are always last minute roster changes and role switches – but I also get to walk around the Festival and see the volunteers and patrons having a great time.

Why do you love your work?
When it comes to Festival time, I'd say the reason I love it is because of the people I work with – there's something intrinsically wonderful about working with people who are giving of their time. There's also the buzz of the scene and the satisfaction of knowing I've had a hand in generating the festival atmosphere. Also, seeing some of the same volunteers come back each year feels like being at a reunion with old friends.

Festival week is only 5% of my work time – I’m with the SWF team from January to June. It's a project, and I like project work. I like throwing myself into all the challenges associated with pulling it together, then seeing it all come to fruition in that one week – I feel a sense of gratification witnessing the results of a job well done. And then I get to fall in a heap afterward, take the next six months off and come back the following year.

How did you move to your SWF role?
My partner and I moved to Sydney from Perth five years ago for university. I'd previously worked overseas teaching English as a second language and had developed a passion for language and literature, so started studying it here.

I like working on events and have experience organising teams and rosters, as well as hosting events. When I first heard about SWF, I thought ‘I want to work there.’ I approached SWF for an internship; there wasn't one available, but that got me into volunteering. During my first year, I met a lot of great people, including the Volunteer Coordinator at the time, Jennie. I asked if I could assist her at her next event, to learn more about how festivals are run. The following year, SWF asked me to join as a contractor, in a short-term Artist Liaison/Front of House Manager role. A year later, when the role for Volunteer Coordinator position came up, Jennie put my name forward. 

I was pleased that in my first year as Volunteer Coordinator I was able to develop the internship program for SWF; we now offer six internships to university students from Sydney – I get to run the program in the way I would have liked it to be there for me all those years back.

What work did you do before joining SWF?
After I finished High School, I started a Multimedia degree at Uni, but dropped out; I wanted to travel the world. I spent time in the US, Italy and then landed in Slovakia, where my family is from. I worked at a language school in Košice – before then, I wasn’t really aware of the impact language can have on peoples’ lives; that language is a valuable commodity. During my time teaching others, I learned and improved on what I'd previously taken for granted.

When I got back to Perth, I worked with a promotions agency, organising rosters for people working across multiple venues. I was the Office Manager, so learned a lot about how to run a business, including financials, sales quoting, managing teams, business cycles, and the importance of customer feedback.

Then I worked at a Pilates studio for a couple of years, reworking their sales packages and talking to customers about their experiences. I'm good at figuring out what people want, and I like reorganising things so clients (and businesses) get the results they’re looking for. So when I came over to Sydney to study and eventually joined the SWF team, I took all that organisational knowledge and applied it to a creative field, in events, and I found it worked quite well.

Can you remember what you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
I remember I wanted to be a zoologist or marine biologist, and I did some work experience at the zoo and an underwater aquarium. But I realised pretty quickly that there were a limited number of jobs in the industry that I really wanted, and the five people in Perth that held those positions at the time weren't about to quit any time soon. 

What was your first ever job?
I got a job at a themed restaurant called Lone Star. I was a host – I'd greet customers, take them to their tables, ensure they had a good time and say goodbye as they left. We had to line dance – I thought that was fun; I got to dance in the aisles while I was working. Then I worked in a theme park, which I guess started a theme in my working life – I’ve always sought jobs that I enjoyed, that make me feel like I’m dedicating time to things because I want to do them, not just for the sake of money.

Can you tell us about your formal study? 
In 2010 I started an Arts degree, majoring in English, Text and Writing, which crossed over into linguistics as well as literature. I did Honours, which was a year of post-grad research; I wrote about how authorship is constructed through contemporary writers’ festivals. I was interested in the effect social media was having on the way authors were presented on stage; festivals themselves have become more social, and the way we relate to author identities is also more social than before. 

I got the Dean's Medal, took a year off, then started my PhD.  Now I'm researching festivals again, but this time, I’m linking community, belonging and the construction of identity with how we engage in online social spaces. I’m looking at how to construct an online literary festival and how we might create a festive experience online. 

How do you stay on top of your professional development?
Lots of seminars and workshops – mainly related to Arts development, and structuring timeline projects. I also do a lot of networking within the industry. I’ll go to anything that fits in my schedule. 

In the off-season, I help my partner run a community film festival for Western Sydney film makers; it’s a passion project, and we spend the final 4-months of the year planning the event. A lot of the professional development I do is aimed at helping me do better on that project as there’s a lot less support – we don’t have a team of people to handle each department – but we love running it. The festival is called Made in the West.

What’s your standout proudest career moment?
Walking into the wrap party at the end of this year's SWF – I was a little late, but when I walked in, everyone cheered. I got feedback that the whole team was on point and that the volunteers had been better than ever before – that was the best feeling!

But I always remember, in my first year at the Festival, when a few volunteers came into the green room on the final day, and they really wanted to go off to see their favourite authors. We were organized and everything was running smoothly, so I was able to cover them. When they got back with their signed books, they were all just so excited. It made me proud that my work could give others such rewarding experiences.

Do you have a mentor?
Unofficially, yes. Jennie Bradbury who did the SWF Volunteer Coordinator role before me. She invited me to intern with her when she ran the Woollahra Festival in 2012, and it was just her preparing everything from ticketing to volunteers to marketing for the entire festival. I liked her work ethic, the way she dealt with people, and the way she encouraged others to get excited about the work she wanted to do. She's a great project manager, very thorough – though she laughs when I call her my mentor! She is a good human being. 

I’m on the lookout for another mentor now. I think they're important when you're trying to forge a new direction for yourself. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are inspired by similar things because you can lose sight of what’s possible when you start to think that what you’re doing is difficult. It’s nice to be reminded that the work has been done before; it’s likely that someone has already found a solution to your challenges. Talking to mentors helps you stay on track and overcome challenges much more quickly. 

At SWF, in the Arts Exchange building with all the other arts organisations, it’s easy to get swept up in that inspiring space – you know what’s possible, and you’re constantly learning from other people. One of the challenges with running Made in the West Film Festival is that there aren’t many locally based mentors we can connect with to help inspire us to rise to new heights each year, but we’re working on that. 

How do you unwind?
I laugh. And listen to music. I like chatting; I enjoy bringing people together. I like cooking for people. I enjoy discussing philosophical ideas and life with my partner; we’ll often sit opposite each other and hash out our ideas about the world. And trivia – we love trivia! He has just discovered ‘Jeopardy’, and we’re always calling each other with pop quiz questions – we’ll take any opportunity to stump one another – we even play trivia on plane flights.

What would you like more of in your career?
An assistant! Which is good, because I’ve just got one. My role is task heavy and quite demanding, and I put my heart and soul into so it does take over my life a bit. I'm in the process of redesigning the role to include an assistant position and next year I’ll have someone on board, so that will be wonderful.

And less of?
Data entry. And travel time; It’ll take me over an hour to get to the city most days. 

Can you finish this sentence: ‘If you knew me well, you’d know …’
that I’m more shy than I let myself be. 

What kind of impact do you think you have on the people you work with?
I’d like to think that I inspire them to be better versions of themselves – by encouraging people to trust in their abilities and believe that they can try new things and succeed. I enjoy watching people come away from the Festival feeling proud of their achievement – nervous 20-somethings who are shy booklovers but get excited about the fact that they’ve just worked among thousands of people. A 65-year-old volunteer told me he’d previously thought he was ‘past it,' until he realised how much he was valued for his contribution at SWF. That was so wonderful to hear.

What’s important to you?
Feeling recognised. Feeling appreciated. And I guess that translates to how I work with others.

Outside of work, what do you love about life right now?
I’m enjoying thinking about the world and am learning my perspective is worth putting out there. As I get older, I understand that the way that I see things is unique, and that I needn't be scared of disagreeing with people or presenting my view of the world. I'm loving my research and working with our local writing and film communities. I love planning a future with my man, and spending time with loved ones, especially my family. 

And finally, a quick pop quiz!

Favourite song or piece of music? Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain 

Favourite book? The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

Favourite movie? Thelma and Louise

Favourite piece of art? The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt

Favourite place? Venice 


If you enjoyed reading about Misty's career, here's the link to interviews I've done with other people who love their work