THE WORD Easing the stress for new arts leaders

Next month the first recipients of Arts Council England’s new Transforming Leadership Fund will be announced. Here, ACE’s executive director of communication and public policy Mags Patten discusses how talent training can ease the strain on emerging leaders

Economists call people, and all the wonderful things we do, “human capital”. It is a dismal but useful term. It reminds us we are important and as worthy of investment as our buildings and technology.

Here at the Arts Council, as part of preparing our new strategy, we have gathered evidence about the cultural sector’s workforce that suggests we all need to invest more in our people. We need to look after them so they can fulfil their potential, and we need to create attractive opportunities for new, diverse talent. If we fail, the most exciting future leaders may take their capabilities and their ideas and flourish elsewhere.

Over an economically challenging decade, the cultural sector has responded with extraordinary resilience. With reduced public funding, organisations and individuals have adapted, finding new income streams whilst continuing to make exciting work. Our evidence, from Consilium, CFE Research and the former director of the Clore Leadership Programme Sue Hoyle in collaboration with King’s College London, shows that the talented people who have made that happen are under strain, fighting to keep the show on the road. 

It is part of our job at the Arts Council to support development of the talent pipeline all the way from schoolchild to chairperson. We face significant challenges around who gets to work in our sector and how, once they are in, they can build a successful career in safe work environments that supports their creativity and their wellbeing.

It is, of course, people who will create these places and spaces, which is why we are placing a particular focus on leadership in all its forms. Leaders may be both established and emerging. They can be found in and outside of organisations. They may not define themselves as leaders, but they are visible role models with either the potential, or the power, to make positive change happen.

It is they who can shape the culture of work, making it fun, creative and safe. They should be encouraged to find the time they need to reflect and learn, especially when they are expected to deliver transformational change. 

The research findings by Sue Hoyle and King’s College London help us understand more about what strong leadership looks like, and the best methods to develop it. The report reveals a lack of support for leadership development. It explores the barriers people experience to their own development including time, confidence, encouragement from line managers, and lack of opportunities to apply learning in the workplace.

It points to the particular challenges for emerging leaders and the freelancers who make up half of our workforce. They are vital makers of change, but they lack support for their professional development. It is a rich trove of examples of development approaches for leaders both in the cultural sector and beyond. 

In particular, it highlights the benefits of shared learning with peers as well as building relationships with leaders in other sectors. It calls for a change towards more inclusive organisational cultures, demonstrating how this can transform outcomes around staff retention, workforce diversity and effectiveness.

We are using the findings to inform how we support leadership development, and in January launched the £6million Transforming Leadership Fund – our largest investment in leadership for over 10 years, introduced to ensure arts and cultural leaders are appropriately skilled to support the sector’s continued growth and sustainability.

But we can always do more. For the longer term, consultation for our new strategy identified outcomes around the diversity of our workforce and the capabilities of our leadership; we would urge you to read a draft of the strategy and share your thoughts through our online consultation.

Back in 2006, the government and the Arts Council established the Cultural Leadership Programme to help our sector retain its global competitive advantage for generations to come. Between austerity and the need to keep the show on the road, some of our vision and ambition from that time has got lost.

Now we must redouble our efforts to imagine a cultural workforce for the 21st century that looks like contemporary England, that thinks creatively and entrepreneurially, and feels happy, safe and inspired. 

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