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Michael Day Interview

Change is a recurring theme for the CLP Champions interviewed for the Cultural Leadership Programmesí third anniversary.  Change inspires and motivates them, how managing change influences their own leadership styles and how foreseeable changes in the socio-economic landscape will create new leadership challenges for those in the cultural and creative industries

Michael Day, Cultural Leadership Programme Champion

Joining Historic Royal Palaces as Chief Executive in 2003 from the Jersey Heritage Trust, Michael Day, continues to be inspired by the relationship audiences can have with historic places, how the historic stories of those places can have meaning for today and help people make sense of the world around them.

Starting his career in Norwich in the 1970s before moving in 1983 to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum as Curator of Social History, Michael has been a member of the faculty of the UEA Museum Leadership Programme since 1994 and was co-director of the Nordic Museum Leadership Programme in Denmark inform 2001-07.  Over the last five years he has taught and lectured in New York, Bangkok, Barcelona, Milan, Vienna and Tehran, as well as at business schools in the UK.

Michael shares his thoughts on the significance of Ďwanting to leadí, the importance of choice, the leadership challenges ahead for the cultural sector and how the work of the Cultural Leadership Programme has influenced his thinking.

What inspires you about your work?
If inspiration has an element of making people feel positive, enthusiastic and wanting to do stuff, then itís that.  Thatís why I do what I do and itís why I keep on doing what I do. Beyond that, I am interested in the people I work with, learning from them and helping them to work better together.

Iím really interested in building great organisations as people who work in great organisations tend to do great work.  Equally if the organisation isnít good, people get easily de-motivated.  So, Iím interested in trying to create great organisations and particularly in this field. 

Iíve read that you had said that ďleaders are madeĒ so do you think leadership is nature or nurture?
I have to believe that itís possible for anybody to be a great leader.  If we believe that you are born a leader then, inevitably, it means that the capacity to lead is only given to a few and I just donít believe that. 

However, the thing thatís really central to the idea of people being leaders is them wanting to do it.  Nobody can lead well if they donít actually want to do it and many people have found themselves in leadership roles not really wanting to or at least they havenít worked out the answer to the question ďDo I want to do it?Ē  Sometimes theyíve realised they donít want to lead, but are too scared to say and for those people itís a terrible struggle and usually quite painful.

A test that I use when Iíve taught leadership is to simply ask people, ĎAre you able to say to yourself honestly, quietly and mean it: ďI am a leaderĒ.  You donít have to say, ĎI am a great leaderí, it doesnít matter whether youíre good or bad at it.  However, you have to be able to think of yourself as somebody who leads.  You have to ask yourself that question from the moment that youíre given any responsibility or you aspire to it.

Once people say ďI am a leader and I want to do itĒ then itís possible, whatever their natural tendencies are, whatever their personality is, whatever their character is to be able to help people to do it better than they might otherwise.

Do you have an ethos or rule of thumb about how you lead an organisation?Yes, I guess I do and itís based on several things.  Firstly, I absolutely believe that organisations have to be completely clear about some fundamental principles. The notion of organisational purpose or cause is right at the heart of my idea of leadership.  Organisations must know what it is that they do and what it is that they are for.  They should be very clear about what matters to them and they need to be really clear about the direction of travel that theyíre headed on. 

Secondly, it is based on a fundamental belief in the ability of people to do great work providing that they have an organisation around them that helps them to do that.  You need a lot of other elements as well, but without those first two itís pretty much impossible to do a good job.  Therefore, for me, one of the keys to leadership is helping your organisation work out its purpose and then constantly restate it and remind people. 

Then, thirdly, it is that there is an enormous amount of choice as a leader.  Itís not necessarily prescribed what you should do; you get up in the morning, you come to work, but nobody writes down a list: Ďhere today is the stuff you should be doing as the leaderí.  You have to work that out for yourself.   You have to think about what you should be doing or what would be most useful for you to do, how you should spend your time and the style with which you should do it.

For me, those choices start operating from the minute I get out of my car.  Iím making a choice about what route I take through the [Hampton Court] Palace.  I know that if I go certain routes Iíll probably bump into some people and not others.  When I see them I have a choice about what to say to them and how to treat them.  So, before Iíve even got to my office I could have made three or four good or bad choices and thatís before Iíve even started work.

Itís quite unlike, say, a tube train driver who has little choice at all.  He or she gets into their train and drives down the line, stopping at stations, obeying signals.  For a leader of a cultural organisation itís almost entirely the opposite, relatively little that you do is prescribed and therefore you have to make really good choices about what you do.

Being aware of the range of choice and exercising it wisely takes a lot of thought, skill and experience and we all get it wrong and right by degrees.  However, most people donít even realise they have that range of choice. 

Beyond that, as a leader, you have to take on the external facing role and do a lot of careful work in creating the bridge between the organisation and its whole operating context Ė the board of trustees, stakeholders, funders and others who might help or hinder you.

What do you think are the key qualities of leadership? What are the key personal qualities that you think someone needs to have?
The first thing to do is to make sure that your behaviour is congruent with your qualities.  For example, itís no good being a tremendously kindly,  sensitive and sympathetic person inside if you behave in you behave in a cold and detached way outside.  You mustnít say you value people if all your behavious suggests the opposite.

When thinking about a list of leadership qualities, you can end up believing nobody, other than a superhero, can have them all. Nevertheless, the qualities that people like or expect to see in their leaders has some consistency.  People want to see enthusiasm, passion, dedication and commitment from their leaders.   Integrity really matters as the person requires a level of honesty and consistency, but also consistency between what you say and what you do.  Itís no good saying one thing and doing another.  You need to be consistent across time as well; if you say something on one day, it doesnít then work if you say something different the next week.  People want to know what they are getting, and they want to know that on any given day theyíre going to get broadly the same thing. People say that a leader without integrity isnít a leader. 

Leaders need to be strategic - the ability to constantly ask the questions ďgiven this evidence, whatís going onĒ and ďwhat does that mean for usĒ and ďhow should we change the way weíre going to keep on looking forward?Ē  And leaders need to listen Ė the ability to sit, listen, analyse and to really feel whatís going on both internally and externally.

Also leaders need to display a degree of clarity and certainty about decision-making but coupled at the same time with a readiness to not know.  There is a bit of a paradox there, leaders are expected to be clear and decisive but at the same time leaders should be able to say ďIím not sureĒ, ďWhat do you think we should do?Ē or ďI must confess to being a bit in doubt here.Ē Leaders who say the above are often respected because theyíre showing a degree of vulnerability. 

Not caring, however, isnít an option, undertaking any leadership position as a detached job in a theoretical way doesnít work Ė certainly not in the cultural sector.

What kind of leadership development have you found most useful? What has worked for you?
As far as programs go, I did the Getty Museum Leadership Institute in California in 1993, which was an extraordinary experience Ė the most the profound four weeks Iíve spent in terms of professional development.  It was very intense and I learned so much. Extraordinarily, Iím still processing some of that learning today. 

Iíve also been part of a peer mentoring group, probably the first one that was ever set up in the Cultural sector, back in 1991.  It still meets every year and it has been an important group.  Elsewhere, certain individuals have been really influential, both people Iíve worked with, colleagues from other organisations and particularly consultants Iíve worked with on strategic planning.  Also, the [leadership] teaching that I do has become an important part of my continuing development - because every time you stand in front of a class of people who are doing it for real and are hungry to learn you have to really work out what leadership means to you and yet be ready to be challenged.

Has your involvement in the CLP influenced your view on leadership? Have you learnt anything unexpected or new from that association?

Yes I have - three things in particular.  Firstly, itís reinforced for me the notion that leading organisations across the cultural sector is a really valid one, That there is a particular set of attributes, qualities, things to think about in relation to cultural leadership as a whole.  I previously thought that museums and heritage organisations were distinct and people leading other sorts of cultural organisations somehow were in a different world, that we hadnít got much to learn from or to talk to each other about.  I now think thatís nonsense and the Cultural Leadership Programme has really helped to break down those barriers that used to exist within the sector.

Then secondly, highlighting diversity as a particularly important issue within cultural leadership is something that the Cultural Leadership Programme has really pioneered. Literally through the leadership of Hilary Carty and others at the Programme Iíve really embraced diversity as a very important consideration and a fundamental part of our understanding of what leadership in the cultural sector is about.  This work is beginning to help me to refashion, yet again, what I think matters within leadership.

Then the Programmeís work on governance chimes very much with my own work in this field.  Iím really glad that somebody else is taking up this debate as Iíve been banging on about it for about ten years and nobody seemed very much to be listening.  Now lots of others are and the Cultural Leadership Programme has given people a way to think about improving their organisational governance.

In a wider picture, what do you see as being the leadership issues for cultural organisations in the next year or so?

Thatís an interesting question.  I guess anybody who didnít say the economy and the challenges of that would be ignoring what is really fundamental out there.  Coupled to that, political change at Government level looks more likely than not over the next couple of years. 

We have been working in a cycle which started about 1995, as the Lottery created the beginnings of a great expansion, and then with the arrival of New Labour in 1997, there was a massive change to the cultural landscape.  Suddenly it was about culture not heritage; all the Cool Britannia stuff and free entry into national museums etc.  The whole social agenda for culture, which didnít exist previously, is seen as an opportunity to make society better. The landscape within which weíre working today is therefore utterly different from the landscape before the mid 1990s.  We might be coming to an end of this particular cycle.

The elements definitely ending are the amount of money available within the Lottery and the likely arrival of a Conservative government after the next election, who will have different values and priorities.

Inevitably after the amount of money thatís gone from the public purse into the economy during the recent recession, there will be swingeing cuts in public expenditure.  Most cultural leadership has been predicated in the last ten years on how to grow organisations, develop them, open new things and do projects based on reaching out to new audiences and finding new ways to have impact within society.  That sort of mindset is going to have to be replaced by one that is about survival, focus, sourcing different income streams, building different partnerships and learning to talk a new political language.  All this might not be especially natural for many current cultural leaders.

Theyíre going to have to be ready to take some really tough decisions.  For example, if youíve spent the last three or four years appointing lots of bright young talented people to work on your Renaissance-funded program in your regional museum  what are you going to do when the whole thing gets carved up?  Youíre going to make those people redundant and youíre going to probably take out of your organisation the most talented and energetic people in it.  Thatís not a nice, easy or satisfying thing to do.  If you have spent the last ten years expanding your organisation, spending the next ten trying to make it smaller; firing people, without the excitement of building a new wing or putting on new programmes and having to find alternative sources of money, itís going to be really tough challenge for people. Iím not sure that we as a sector have yet come anywhere close to grasping what thatís going to feel like. 

Although Iíve painted a bleak view, I actually believe in the capacity of people in organisations to work stuff through, sort things out.  Most cultural organisations are highly resilient, resourceful and adaptable. The challenge for leaders will be how are we going to create a sense of hope and belief; thatís another characteristic of leadership - to create hope for their organisations Ė and it will be much needed. 

What for you do you feel are the stand out accomplishments of the Cultural Leadership Programme to date?

Well, the first one was getting this kind of investment from the government. That was amazing so hats off to those people who achieved it.  Hilary particularly deserves an enormous pat on the back for making that happen. 

Then to make coherent a quite random and disparate set of ideas and to be able to position it as something that people will want to aspire to and really benefit from.   To build great partnerships, the Programme has been skilful at funding other people to do specific pieces of work and not to necessarily feel the need to do everything itself.  That is a hard call as there are such neat decisions to be made in all of that. 

Finally, to put diversity very high on its leadership agenda. It would have been easy to say that the diversity agenda is a separate thing from leadership and therefore somebody elseís concern. I think that was brave.  It was absolutely the right thing to do and it made people, like me, think differently, which is good.

Now we have something in the CLP thatís widely valued, we must make sure that itís here to stay, and funded accordingly, for the long term.