Work based learning

Delia Barker: moving on, moving up

by Kim Evans

Delia Barker is Co-Director of the English National Ballet School. Her Clore Leadership Short Course and Powerbrokers International Leadership Placement offered her the time and space to step out of her comfort zone, and the courage to step up to her leadership potential. Delia was chosen as one of the CLP’s 50 Women to Watch in March 2010, an affirmation which supported her confidence in achieving her current position,  a role around which she has built a portfolio of work including business development and mentoring emerging leaders. 

Delia Barker is one of the associates who used the opportunity offered by the Powerbrokers International Leadership Placement to make a step change in her career. Delia has 20 years experience in the cultural sector. Her specialism is dance. She has worked with artists, venues and partners in a wide range of cultural contexts. However, until recently she didn’t think of herself as a leader.

When she applied for the Cultural Leadership Programme placement in Barbados in 2009, she was a Senior Dance Officer at Arts Council England. The placement was testing but she came back knowing that she could hold her own as a leader.

‘It taught me to stop being mid-career and recognise that I was there now.’ A few months after her return to the UK, Delia became one of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s 50 Women to Watch. She is now Co-Director of the English National Ballet School.

Delia knew she was a strong communicator with good people skills. She had built up extensive experience of the dance and broader cultural sectors. Early in her career she had been awarded an Arts Council training bursary. After that, it had largely been learning on the job. She had found it relatively easy to exercise leadership in the smaller organisations she had worked in. She felt that her cultural background - her parents are from the West Indies and she had a strong knowledge of black and contemporary dance - was a strength; and she had some positive female role models.

Midway in her career, Delia moved to Arts Council England, working first in the national office and then as Senior Officer for Dance in London. This was a more visible position in which she was in an influential role, assessing grant applications and informing policy. In a sector where there are still pockets of professional male power, Delia sometimes found her position as a black female, a less comfortable one. It was also difficult to rebrand herself in an organisation where she had moved from a junior to more senior role. By 2007, she had concluded that, ‘I’m a foot soldier and a pretty good one. And that is where I will probably stay.’

Others, however, saw her leadership potential. Sarah Weir, then Executive Director of Arts Council London, encouraged Delia to apply for a Clore Leadership Short Course. 'It blew my mind and put me in a network of peers I didn’t know I belonged to. I realised that 99% of my fears were shared by other people.'

Although she now thought that she might have leadership potential, Delia didn’t yet have the tools to fully realise it. She applied for the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Powerbroker International Leadership Placement in order to ‘test my boundaries and find the potential in myself’. The placements are three-month international residencies aimed at mid-career leaders from black Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. One of them was in Barbados, at the Errol Barrow Centre for the Creative Imagination (EBCCI), part of the University of the West Indies, in Barbados. The task would be to work with the Director, to create a five-year cultural policy for the island. It was the focus on governance and policy that attracted Delia. These were the areas in which she felt less confident. ‘I felt I had to prove to people that I had the policy as well as the people skills.’

The placement came with a budget to cover expenses and additional leadership resources such as post-programme coaching. There was also practical and pastoral support before and during the placement, from Maureen Salmon of Freshwaters Consultancy. The support around a placement is a key element of the Cultural Leadership Programme’s investment. In the sessions before she left for Barbados, Delia had confirmation that her strengths were people skills and influencing. She was now to put these to the test in a new environment, outside her comfort zone, working in the area of policy development.

Just a few days before she set off for Barbados, Delia made a critical decision about her future. She decided not to apply for a more senior position at the Arts Council and instead she said she would be resigning from her job in March 2010. She describes taking this decision as a ‘massive risk’ but one that she felt instinctively was right.

Within four days of arriving in Barbados, Delia knew that a cultural policy could not be achieved within 12 weeks. Her experience told her that EBCCI needed to win the confidence of the broader cultural sector and this would require extensive consultation. Her strategy was to persuade her colleagues that her placement would be better spent developing a cultural strategy that would sit comfortably alongside Barbados’ existing strategy for citizenship. After ten days of discussion, she had achieved this.

She quickly recognised that her focus of influence needed to be the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development. She successfully established a relationship with staff at the Ministry and met the Minster for Culture. Just before Delia left Barbados, the Permanent Secretary agreed to her proposals for the cultural strategy consultations.

One of the aims of the international placements is to enable the associates to network and build a legacy of relationships with artists, governments, cultural agencies, business and cultural industries leaders. Looking back, Delia says she felt that she achieved this. In particular, the placement taught her about influence and power and the importance of recognising the context in which you are operating. On a small island, where you are never more than two steps away from the Prime Minister, Delia was able to identify her circle of influence and use it.

Within the University, her challenge was a different one. She was considered unusual because she didn’t have an MA or come from an academic background. Her task was to win the confidence of the Director and her colleagues. She also wanted to influence their thinking on cultural policy. In retrospect, Delia thinks that the task to develop a cultural policy within three months was unrealistic. However, she takes pride in her quick assessment and reconfiguration of the situation. She describes her legacy as influencing the focus of the University. She enabled them to ask new questions about the impact of culture and education and to look at the links between culture and tourism, stretching and enhancing their thinking about cultural policy in the process.

Delia arrived back in the UK on the 31 December 2009, knowing that within three months, she would be unemployed for the first time in her life. But she came back with a new confidence, knowing that she could hold her own as a leader. This was reinforced by the post-placement coaching sessions for which she had set aside part of her budget.

Her leadership abilities were given further endorsement when, in March 2010, she was selected as one of 50 Women to Watch. This initiative from the Cultural Leadership Programme, designed to coincide with International Women’s Day, was an opportunity to celebrate emerging to mid-career leaders who had already made a noticeable impact within the sector and are rising ever higher – a kind of Who’s Who of Who’s Next. For Delia it was an affirmation that others saw her leadership potential and it provided her with an address book that included senior leaders in the sector, in government and in the media.

Just before leaving the Arts Council, Delia came into contact with the English National Ballet School. The organisation was looking for a new CEO and Delia and a colleague recognised that between them they had the skill set that was required.

They approached the Chair who encouraged them to put in a joint application. They have been join co-directors since May 2010. The role is part-time and Delia has built a portfolio of work around it that includes music organisations, businesses development and mentoring some emerging leaders.

Delia looks back over her leadership journey saying: 'I hadn’t set out to work part-time or in ballet but it has turned out to be the right thing for me. My bravery in not taking the obvious route is down to the groundwork I did with the Cultural Leadership Programme before going to Barbados. If I hadn’t done that placement, I wouldn’t have had the courage to step out and up. The time and space away took me out of my comfort zone. It confirmed my existing skills and helped me identify and develop new ones.'

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