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Althea Efunshile Interview

A delivery partnership between Arts Council England (ACE), the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and Creative & Cultural Skills (CCSkills) was formed in 2005 to oversee the investment in leadership development for the cultural and creative sectors.

Althea Efunshile, Chief Operating Officer, Arts Council England

‘Making a difference is what inspires me.  Having a sense that what I am doing is actually having an impact, especially to people out there.  That inspires me’.

Leadership is about providing the environment in which others can do the very best job they can.  It can be quite hard to define.  It’s about setting a direction and destination, and then clearing the path for your staff and sorting out the external environment.  Sometimes it is about coaching staff, enabling them to be clear for themselves about what it is they have to do and how they can best do it.  In a way leadership is about serving others, it is about making things happen so that others can do. 

As a leader, be clear about your destination. That destination might be, ‘This is where we are going to be in ten years’ or the destination might be, ‘This is the challenge and this is where we are going to be over the course of the next two weeks’.  Have clarity about where you are going but be prepared to listen, be prepared to take people with you and be prepared to flex.  You can’t lead if people aren’t willing to follow.  There’s no point in being out there and then turning around and it’s just you on your own!

Leaders need to have the long-term vision but you have to also ensure that you agree what the milestones should be along the way.  If you don’t know what the milestones are then you and your team won’t actually ever know whether you’re moving towards that destination or vision.   You can’t tick off achievements and you can’t look back, reflect and learn.

Being prepared to work with others, work with those you are leading to decide how you’re going to get to that destination.  Even though you might have an idea how the organisation or team will get there you will always find a better journey if you work that path out with others.

Leaders should get to know themselves.  Get to know what you’re good at, get to know what you can do, get to know what you’re not great at.  You might have to have some kind of external help, which might be a ‘Myers Briggs’ type analysis or an external coach or a combination of both. It is hard to know yourself without any sort of external feedback.  You need some sort of stimulus to engage with and reflect. Work with your strengths and, importantly, don’t beat yourself up too much about the things you’re not so great at, as you can’t do everything.

Act with integrity.  That is a big thing for me.  To lead you have to be trusted and people need to feel safe with you.  That means doing what you said you were going to do, and being fair.  It is not over-committing and it is being true and honest and clear.  Acting with integrity is really important. 

I recommend that you engage in leadership development activity with people from different backgrounds and sectors.   The most impactful leadership development experiences for me have been when I have been in mixed groups of people.  For example, I participated in the ‘Top Management Programme’ about eight years ago which is for senior civil servants and other leaders at equivalent levels from elsewhere in the public and private sectors.  Being with individuals who are looking at things from a different perspective and from a different experience base helps you reframe your own issues.  Also, a mixed group can help you re-think some issues that you had thought were unique to you.  Their feedback can be re-assuring when you realise that you’re not necessarily unique.  Finding out how others deal with similar issues can be very, very empowering.

There is always something you can learn so watch other leaders and ask yourself, ‘What is it I like about what they do?’ and ‘How could I do that?’  Not trying to copy exactly, of course, as you have to translate it into your own leadership style. I do that all the time.

Diminishing resources is an obvious leadership challenge for the organisations in the cultural and creative sector.  With the economic climate that we are in it doesn’t look as if there is going to be an increase in resources.  On the contrary, it looks as if there might be a decline for the long haul and arts organisations are going to have to think about how they can do the same with less;  and there may be a challenge to rethink existing business models.   The Arts Council is committed to a mixed economy of funding, and we should continue to have that commitment.  However, as we move forward if some of those legs on the mixed economy stool start to wobble then we will need to rethink the shape of that stool.  That’s also what makes public sector funding so important.

There are challenges in terms of entry to cultural organisations, and around the extent to which our leadership is sufficiently diverse.  The two issues are linked. How we decrease the barriers for entry to the sector so that we can achieve a more diverse workforce and how do we diversify our leadership at both executive and non-executive level. This is about race, it is about gender and it is probably about social class as well.  A diverse range of people will always give you a broader, richer base from which to make judgements and decisions. 

The Cultural Leadership Programme has raised the profile of leadership, put leadership on the map and enabled us to have a common understanding of its importance for the sector.  The programme has provided the opportunity for leaders across the cultural sector to come together and participate in innovative events and programmes.  The job is not done and it probably never will be.  Leadership development is like painting the Forth Bridge.  However, to have started on that journey is a real accomplishment.

Interview by Stephanie Haughton-Campbell, Independent Creative Consultant





"Making a difference is what inspires me. Having a sense that what I am doing is actually having an impact, especially to people out there. That inspires me."