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Shreela Ghosh Interview

A Board Member of the Cultural Leadership Programme, Shreela Ghosh was appointed Director of Free Word, an international centre for literature, literacy and free expression in July 2009.  Previously, Shreela was responsible for the opening of the Rivington Place, the Visual Arts centre in Shoreditch and has also worked at the Arts Council England, the Esmťe Fairbairn Foundation and at Tower Hamlets as Head of Arts.

Making a difference working in the arts is a key motivator for Shreelaís work, ďI am driven by the need to change the world. I have been a performer, I have been a journalist, I have run arts organisations and I have been in the funding system.  Itís all about wanting to make a difference.Ē

Do you have a philosophy on how you lead in an organisation?
I think, a philosophy might be too grand a word, but I have an approach.  I think part of what attracted me to this [Free Word] Centre and, perhaps why I was chosen, is because this Centre is trying to develop a new way of working. 

Within the Centre there are nine resident organisations and they are very much a stake holding group.  I donít feel in any way constrained by the fact that there are nine organisations that I have to liaise with.  In developing things in collaboration with them, my approach is that we individually donít have all the answers. 

Collective working requires patience. Iíve always been good at partnerships or I like to think Iíve been good at partnerships.  Partnerships when they work are fantastic. However, partnerships take a lot of time.  Itís that age old dilemma about do you just get on and do it yourself because itís easier.  Or can you communicate what you want to happen to a wider group of people and have other people contribute to that?  Can you listen?  Can you change your mind? 

How do you work on a solution together?
Itís about answering a need.  That is everything that I do and in all the places that Iíve worked it is about wanting to make a difference.  Whether itís at Iniva [Institute of International Visual Arts] or Free Word, it was answering a need out there.  And therefore, the mission, the why is very important.

Have you undertaken any kind of leadership development during your career and if you had, which one works for you?
Iíve been very fortunate in recent years.  Not only to sit on a number of Boards of really excellent organisations trying to do new things, like the Cultural Leadership Programme, which is a form of peer learning undoubtedly. 

Iíve benefitted from coaching.  It is a very skilled job to be a coach to CEOs.  Iíve tried to explain to people who donít believe in that kind of interaction that itís not psychotherapy, psychotherapy is something different.  Coaching is being able to discuss in an open, honest and safe space your own vulnerabilities.  Effectively my coach was such a skilled person that she made me feel that Iíd come up with a solution myself.  I know that she has a great alchemy process going on there.

Also, I have been very lucky that over the last 18 years or so other people have developed me.  Iíve had some great mentors along the way and some great bosses who have challenged me to rise to a situation that I didnít know that I could handle.  It has been the case of ďGet in the deep end and do thisĒ, sometimes without any warning and thatís how you develop your strength.

I feel a great responsibility about the next generation, in spotting talent and being that empowering friend that others have been to me.

What do you think the qualities of leadership are?
A particular Chair that Iíve worked with very closely has gravitas, has humour, has humility and has supreme authority without ever having to raise his voice.  There are people who Iíve seen in action who are practicing leadership and you can see the joins, you know itís a bit clonky.  I wouldnít want to say that itís entirely nature and not nurture.  I think that it [leadership] can be learnt.  Technique is important.  However, there are some innate qualities there too.  Or at least that is what I believe; inner strength and wisdom.

What are the leadership challenges for a 21st Century organisation?
Adopting new ways of working, creating great collaborations and convergence against a background of scarce resources. The context in which we work is about how to maximise the resources we have.  I genuinely think that going it alone is not really an option.  Itís my kind of philosophy of life, if you like.   The individuals and organisations that are going to survive will not be those who build fortresses around them, but organisations that are flexible and permeable.  That is why you need a different kind of leader for the 21st Century as it is no longer a matter of ďI command and you followĒ.  Leaders need to be able to listen and shape an organisation that is more of a circle and less of a pyramid.

The Cultural Leadership Programme delivers a range of core activities.  Are there any other areas of leadership development they could be looking at?
I think weíve done a fantastic job really across many different levels. Recognising that leadership is not an elite thing, itís a process.  It is not just about the individual, itís about organisations and therefore about society.  

I wouldnít want the programme to do more as it could be too much, but I do think that one of the key areas is globalisation.  The Cultural Leadership Programme has been working at a national level and a little bit on the international side.  I think it needs to do more on the international level, so when we talk about the Ďjoining upí it shouldnít just happen in a national context. 

What do you feel have been some of the key accomplishments of the programme to date?
I think whatís been achieved over three years is fantastic.  That sounds very much like complacent drum beating and I donít mean it as we do need to be self critical.  But Hilary is a unique dynamo and the energy in the way that sheís got it out there is fantastic.  So, absolutely hats off. 

I mentioned this to the evaluators of the programme, that the way that cultural diversity is embedded into the programme, embedded into the practice is quite a remarkable thing for the British arts sector.  Despite 20 - 25 years of equal opportunities and diversity policies I havenít actually seen an organisation practice it in the way that the Cultural Leadership Programme has.  I would mark that out as a key achievement.

The delivery model, a collaborative model of working between the Arts Council England, MLA and Creative & Cultural Skills has been good and a learning process for all concerned.  Overall, I think the fact that the Cultural Leadership Programme was set up at slightly arms length and is independent is a good thing.

Finally, the programmeís research and publications as those benchmarking studies are really important but, of course, thereís no point in doing them if youíre not going to look at it in five years and ten years time.

What does the future hold for Cultural Leadership Programme?
Again, I think back to the scarce resources I mentioned earlier in the interview, cutting back on arts.  Cutting back on the Cultural Leadership Programme would be a huge mistake because as the research, the report ĎMeeting The Challengeí demonstrated that compared to other industries the spend on leadership development has historically been so low [for the cultural and creative industries].  Although, the level of expenditure wouldnít make a meaningful difference elsewhere, it makes a huge difference to the cultural sector.  It has a multiplied impact.  It may sound like a plea to Gordon Brown, however, it wouldnít make sense to leave a project half way through is how Iíd describe it.


Interview by Stephanie Haughton-Campbell, Independent Creative Consultant

"I've had some great mentors along the way and some great bosses who have challenged me to rise to a situation that I didn't know I could handle."