Development priorities

Rhian Hutchings: leading from within

by Kim Evans

Rhian Hutchings is an experienced opera producer and director who went on to become a senior manager of WNO MAX at the Welsh National Opera.  Being part of Leadership Unleashed offered Rhian an opportunity to reflect on her own practice as a leader and explore new tools to help in her leadership role within the company.  She found spending time with people from other sectors illuminating, and feels that her leadership journey has now begun in earnest.

Rhian Hutchings is the director of WNO MAX at Welsh National Opera.  She is also a producer and director who is passionate about commissioning contemporary opera.  She has been a head of department at WNO for over two years and is a member of the senior management team.  She describes her role as maximising the resources of WNO and connecting the company to the community. She also challenges herself and the company to explore what opera is and can be in the 21st century. 

Rhian signed up for the Cultural Leadership Programme’s Leadership Unleashed programme to give herself the time and space to consider these challenges. She’s been able use the skills and techniques she learned back at WNO. 

I was encouraged to bring my learning back to the Senior Management Team.  I’ve used techniques to engage more people in our team discussions and we’ve tackled some difficult issues together.  I feel that I am braver now and more confident within my own organisation and I’m developing new partnerships that I really hope will make a difference to the sector as a whole.

Rhian is an experienced opera producer and director who in the last few years has become a senior manager.  She has a very supportive line manager in Peter Bellingham, Managing Director at WNO.  However, until recently she’d had little formal leadership training.  That does not surprise her. In her view, training doesn’t filter down to artists and producers.  She was pleased to see the Cultural Leadership Programme beginning to address the gap through its programmes that are aimed specifically at that part of the sector.

She sees parallels between her role as a manager and her work as producer and director. 

Working with a team and line managing people, is similar to the way I work in the rehearsal room.  I’m used to managing creative processes, working to a timetable and delivering outcomes.  I have spent the last two years in my post of head of department feeling my way as a leader. I guess I rely on my instincts a great deal and do my best to empower my team and give them the confidence and knowledge they need to make things happen.

One of the challenges she faced was that her department (WNO MAX) had a mission to hand creativity over to the participants it worked with, which is very different from the mission of the rest of the organisation.  Rhian wanted to erode those boundaries and introduce opportunities for discussion at the Senior Management Team about how the company as a whole could become more open.

Rhian wanted to find some new tools to help her develop her leadership role within the company and reflect on her own practice as a leader.  Earlier in her career at WNO, she had done a short, emerging managers’ course in London.  It had been useful but after five days it was over and she was on her own again.  She then looked at the Clore Leadership Short Courses but, as the mother of a small child and with a very busy schedule at WNO, she wasn’t able to take two weeks out. 
The Cultural Leadership Programme recognises the challenge that emerging and mid-career leaders often face in ‘managing up’ and it supports flexible programmes that provide the resources and reflective space to address the issue.  Rhian applied for Leadership Unleashed, a leadership development opportunity that challenges conventional thinking, stimulates new ideas and builds powerful networks that stretch well beyond the cultural sector.  It’s spread over nine months but is a modular programme that requires participants to take a limited number of full days out of their schedule.  They work together in small groups to seek out best practice, share ideas and create new models of working that will address the core leadership needs of artists, entrepreneurs and business people.

Leadership Unleashed builds on four key leadership themes: curiosity, passion, insight and courage. Using these four principles, participants work together in varied groups to benchmark their current practice, investigate how a re-evaluation of these ideas could impact upon their leadership and implement new strategies for leading change.
Rhian found the course valuable.  ‘The main thing it gave me was time to reflect. My work life and home life are complex and busy.  I have made my way to my current position through my passion and being in the right place at the right time.  Now is the time for me to take control of where I am heading in life.’   During the programme she decided that she needed to be more courageous in WNO’s Senior Management Team meetings and start asking the questions that really mattered. 

She found spending time with people from other sectors, particularly the business sector, illuminating.  She used some of the business techniques that were shared to help her in her own business planning at WNO.  She has also introduced some of the techniques from the programme to the Senior Management team, with the encouragement of her line manager.  This is already creating more room for debate.  Rhian has been brave enough to ask some difficult questions about the future of opera and was delighted to find that her peers on the team responded positively to the challenge.  She was particularly keen to ensure that more voices were heard in the team’s discussions and she successfully used the brainstorming technique from the programme’s curiosity session to encourage this.

Rhian feels that her leadership journey has now begun in earnest.  She has kept in touch with the coach on Leadership Unleashed and plans to set up some one-to-one sessions with her in the future.  She is putting together a submission to become a Pathfinder Consortium as part of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Arts Work Scheme.

I realise now that I have a responsibility to do more and to deliver partnerships that will make a difference.   The Arts Work Scheme is there to fund a small number of collaborative pathfinder partnerships to develop innovative proposals addressing the training and continuous professional development needs of artists working in participatory settings.

In the future Rhian wants to be an artistic director and head up an organisation.  For now, she is enjoying the debate and collaboration she is helping to shape within WNO and its partners. She feels that the opportunity to reflect on her style as a leader and issues she faces has fed back into her artistic process and the creative management structure that she uses for her projects at WNO MAX.

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