Organisational leadership in cultural institutions

Last week I had a really bad day at work.  I came home after running an event until 8pm and told (yelled at) my husband about it (he’s used to it.)  Then, as is not unusual for me, I awoke at 3am with an awful migraine.  After taking some tablets I lay awake in pain for an hour with two words going through my head: organisational leadership.

I’ll start personally.  I’ve worked in four arts organisations over the past 6 years, sometimes short-term contracts and one permanent job.  They are often amazing places to work.  But there’s generally one weakness that sometimes can undercut the good they do – organisational leadership.

Arts organisations are great at the vision thing.  They get crafting a narrative, storytelling, inspiring audiences and marketing and communication.  They are very good at communicating outward.

But a large part of running a successful organisation is internal operations.  I’m not questioning financial and operational capability here, but more organisational culture and internal HR processes.  While this could be seen as a criticism, it is driven by lack of understanding, capability and awareness of the importance of these functions. What arts organisation has a HR person? (Unless you’re a government body.)

My pet hate is the “This is the way we do things” culture that dominates many older arts organisations.  Given what I do I’m often tasked by the CEO to come in a explore new ideas.  But I’ve often found a level of almost belligerence from the staff around exploring new internal processes.  “It’s just not how we do things” is a statement I hear a LOT.

What could help? Understanding of the need for change management processes and establishing an agile internal culture.  Coupled with this is there is the lack of any formal, or informal,  feedback or performance management process so you are left with a sense of frustration and no way to communicate it.  I’ve watched staff pack and leave because they just can’t deal with the way things operate. And I’ve left myself.

This got me thinking about my research.

I have a mix of employment types in my data pool; employees, contractors, consultants and sole traders.  About 50% work in organisations and 25% of the total interview pool are managers. I’ve noted in my first chapter on reluctant leadership how there was a lack of focus on staff/peer/collaborator development from the leaders I interviewed.  I’ve written how they shied away from transformational leadership toward charismatic or great man theories.  There narratives constructed on leadership were all externally focussed – contributing ideas, inspiring the community, crafting narrative.  But nothing about creating sustainable, well run organisations nurturing future arts talent.

What I got thinking about last night was the lack of emphasis on managing organisational culture and staff.  I can easily name two interviews where this came up. Out of over 40.  This is a gap in our creative industries’ knowledge that should be addressed.  Sure this is an issue you can most likely attribute to many small businesses but the hiring, retention and development of arts staff is one that we’ve tended to neglect as a sector – why, because there’s always someone out there willing to take on a $40k job in the arts.

Imaging how good our, already amazing, cultural organisations could be if they got this bit right? As for my research this is something I’m going to explore more closely as I continue writing the data chapters.