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Sian Prime Interview

As well as sitting on the Cultural Leadership Programme Board, Sian is an academic, trainer, facilitator, coach and consultant.  Having previously worked for IIMB in Bangalore, the Arts Council England, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and for the Cultural Enterprise Office in Scotland, Si‚n is currently lecturing on the MA Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.

Si‚nís motivation to do what she does is being able to see other peopleís potential, see a particular perspective on it and make sure that potential bares fruit.  ďItís likely that in every day that I get out of bed somebody will trust me with an original thought and I think thatís extraordinaryĒ

Do you have a philosophy on how you work with people and how you lead?
I work either one to one or in groups, so my leadership, as such, is through good listening.  I always listen out for the things that people donít quite know they have said.  While I would define my key leadership skill as being able to listen, it is also absolutely about activity.  Iím not interested in something that is only a think tank or a sounding board.  Iím interested in doing, in change.  My leadership is around moving people from comment to action. 

What are the main challenges in terms of leadership for a cultural or creative organisation at the moment? 
Particularly at the moment many people feel quite powerless.  I think, actually, we are at a time when we have never had so much power in our lives.  If we donít do something about the economic, environmental and social problems then we are really in trouble.  I think we are really at a tipping point. 

As a leader, it is that thing of being without fear.  Being courageous and doing things that other people might see as being brave, but you just see them as the only way of doing things.  Thatís where I think somebody is a real leader.  Also, as a leader of a cultural organisation or an individual creative leader there are so many perspectives to what you are leading.  You are leading an organisation, individual teams and an art form.  You may also be leading the way the public engage with the art form.  Those perspectives can feel quite weighty and they are all really important and exciting.  At anytime of the day you need to be able to lead from any of those perspectives.

At the moment, one of the real challenges is not to be scared of losing funding or income streams.  That may sound like a silly thing to say, however, if you sit there, worry and try to please funders then you might well lose the funding.  You have got to be out there doing what you do, the best you can do it and exploring where income could come from.

Is it possible for one person to encapsulate all the skills, traits and qualities needed to lead in this type of environment?
Perhaps, but the best leaders Iíve seen are the ones that realise they donít do it all.  And then get a really great team together to do that bit of leadership.  That is fantastic, because the minute you moan about one of those leaders you can look at their team and you say ďYes, but she does that or he does thatĒ and see that all areas and communication styles are covered in that team.

There are a few people Iíve met along the way that do have many of the skills and qualities needed to lead. However, there are only so many hours a day to work.  So actually, yes you can have them all, but donít try and do them all you as you are never going to be 100% brilliant at all of them.

Leadership should go throughout an organisation.  Leadership itís not just for the few people at the top it has to go all the way across an organisation?
Yes, partly the nature of some of the paper thin organisations that we represent.  I think half the reason we get into a pickle is we are not listening to people who actually have more ideas and more opportunities to transform organisations.  Unless you give people personal responsibility and reward for coming forward with ideas, with ways of transforming the organisation almost on a daily basis, then you are stuck.  This supports Cultural Leadership Programme thinking about an organisation where everybody has responsibility and everybody can lead.  If we do not develop individual leadership then I think we are not really going to be the most powerful society that we can be.

What leadership advice would you offer a mid-career or established leader?
My advice would be, firstly, unless you are working as a brain or heart transplant surgeons remember that really nothing is that important.  We sometimes get so caught in responsibility and the impact that we could make that we actually donít look after ourselves.  We can become physically, mentally and emotionally weaker and then we canít lead effectively.  Leading in the cultural and creative sector is important and it does transform peopleís lives.  I canít underestimate how powerful creativity, creative thinking and the arts is.  I really value it massively, but you can only do it when you are well. 

Secondly, I would say do try out some hard core business advice and translate it into the language you need.  For me, the sort of straightforward stuff that Jim Collins writes really eloquently about , is do the thing that you are the best at, do the thing that youíre passionate about and the thing that generates money.  If you can balance those three elements then you are doing pretty well. 

Then I think itís a marathon.  It sometimes seems that weíre addicted to adrenalin in the arts and creative industries.  We like a deadline.  We like pulling it off.  Sometimes itís healthier to realise that some bits of work require a different way of working.  If you are in mid career you are probably beginning to do things that actually need a slower pace.  You might be at your most creative best at five in the morning, but you are not at your financial management best at five in the morning, nobody is.

The other thing I would say is talk to somebody and listen to what they think you have told them.  Usually, itís not what you think you have articulated.  They either donít hear you correctly or what they play back is likely to be more original and extraordinary than you know.  If youíre losing courage, talk to somebody and get them to tell you what they think it is that you are talking about. 

Finally, there is a piece of advice from Peter Brookís memoirs.  He talks about being in a rehearsal and itís the best piece of advice Iíve ever heard.  There is a rehearsal and it was going really badly.  It was a really difficult rehearsal process, leaden, hard and everyone was depressed.  He started off a rehearsal by saying, ďLook itís difficult because itís difficult.  Letís just accept itís difficult, put that on one side and get on with itĒ. 

That, for me, is the best piece of advice ever.   Things are difficult, but if you get caught up in the difficulty of it being difficult and you go into all the shoulds of ďWhy isnít this working?  And, ďI should be finding this easy.Ē and ďIím normally so fantastic at thisĒ then you get lost in that internal process.  Rather than, giving yourself a bit of a break, acknowledging that what you are doing is really hard and say ďActually what we do is really difficult, letís just get on with itĒ.
Do you have a sense of the Cultural Leadership Programmeís impact?  Or is it too early to say?
I mean, good sense tells us that you canít really see the impact of something until ten years on and I know lots of evaluators would say that.  However, I do get a sense of people growing in confidence.  They can articulate what it is theyíre good at.  What it is that theyíre less good at and what they need the support for.  Also, I get a sense of people being okay about the rocky road of it all. 

A change in the diversity of leadership, this area is so tricky because we are still such a relatively un-diverse sector, is progressing well.  Where the Cultural Leadership Programme is going to be really useful, via collaborations with other people and in particular with the Creative Choices˚ website, is if we can transform the diversity of people wanting to enter the profession.   I can see what the Cultural Leadership Programme team aims to do and Iím really proud of them.   Theyíre not just looking at people already in leadership roles, but also looking at linking and encouraging people to come in to the sector.

The job isnít done by any means but the foundations that they [the Cultural Leadership Programme] have put in place are really sensible. 

Have you learnt something new or unexpected from your association with the Cultural Leadership Programme?
Yes, it has made me more clear about the different aspects of leadership.  Itís not just the leadership of an organisation, the leadership of people it is also the fact that you are leading an art form, a sector.  That is the bit that is so different about cultural leadership.  Everybodyís constantly developing the creative possibilities and it requires a different form of leadership development to the conventional leadership training.

I was a bit sceptical that it is possible to develop fully rounded leaders.  Through the range of people Iíve met through the Programme I have got better at identifying what particular skill or ability a leader has.  I have got better at identifying somebodyís real star quality.  I have moved from being slightly cynical about the notion of leadership to really seeing the difference between being a good manager and being a leader.

What do you feel have been some of the key accomplishments of the programme to date.
What Iíve really observed happening with placements and the coaching/training facilitation; when people that have gone through those development experiences together they keep in touch with each other.  They become really strong networks in which they can be really honest with each other about what they can and canít do and what they are scared of.  Being the head of an organisation can be quite a lonely role.  Of course, they also talk about what excites them and what has gone well.  I think that is fantastic.  The Cultural Leadership Programme not only is a great quality experience, but itís creating some really good network for the individuals who participate.

Another thing that the Programme is doing well is the research that theyíre accumulating via their publications is just incredible, in terms of providing evidence and giving us a collective vocabulary.  Both those things are really exciting.  Finally, they have an amazing ability to be responsive to need and they are extraordinary at listening.

What does the future hold for the Cultural Leadership Programme?
More investment, I hope.  I used to work at NESTA and we said that if we do our job really well [on the Creative Pioneer Programme] then we would be redundant.  With the NESTA programme we had made the change that we needed to make, created the models and the materials. Once that work was done, we then needed to get off the stage and allow other people to come on.

There are a lot of initiatives that should be time based; however with the Cultural Leadership Programme I see it very differently.  People are always going to need leadership support and development at different times of their career.  They are going to need different interventions to up skill, to regain confidence and to refresh their knowledge.  The issues of constantly developing an art form in practice as well as the general leadership skills is why investment in leadership is always going to be needed and is always going to be different.

A very particular sort of leadership intervention is needed for this sector and we should never see it as job done. We may reach quotas, but thatís not enough.  Diversity in thinking is required to ensure we have new solutions to new problems.

In terms of the future, I see the programme as always being special, always being needed and something that other countries are going to want a piece of.  My Goldsmiths work has taken me to quite a few different countries and, originally, I believed that we [the UK] werenít so great at building leaders as in other countries.  Actually, I think weíre now pretty brilliant at it.  Other countries are looking at what weíre doing.  There is a possibility of a consultancy model for the Cultural Leadership Programme. 

Also, I can see an extraordinary network of leaders supporting each other, rather than competing.  Still being competitors, but acknowledging that some of their competitors can be befriended.  I can see these networks happening through the Cultural Leadership Programme, allowing leaders to learn from each other and to support each otherís journey.  There is room for all of this and itís much needed.  That is, I suppose my big vision.  I canít see the Programme ever not being needed. 

Finally, the Cultural Leadership Programme is supportive, provocative and independent.  Iím really proud of it and I realise how lucky we are to have this support.  Iím proud that there is government investment; as with all the things that public money could go in to, it is absolutely right that investment going into the development of the cultural and creative sector.

"Being courageous and doing things that other people might see as being brave but you just see them as the only way of doing things. That's where I think somebody is a real leader."