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Sue Wilkinson 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.

Sue Wilkinson is Director of Policy & Sustainability, MLA.

It is a really interesting time to be in the cultural sector.  It is a time of great change and there are such huge opportunities for people to seize. We can carry on with our core role but we could help our stakeholders achieve their aims as well and that is what I find really exciting and challenging.

If you are a really good leader you are not someone who is out there alone with nobody coming with you.  It is hugely important that you are able to inspire your team, empower them, and encourage them to make decisions, feel ownership and feel responsibility.  Being consultative as a leader, listening and working with people is very important.  However, in the end you also have to be somebody who has a strong vision, who can make decisions and who will carry the can. 

Be able to take risks and rise to challenges.  I donít mean wild risk where you are leaping out over the edge. I mean considered and thought through risk.  A key moment in my career was when I left a fantastic, secure job that I really enjoyed to take up a role, which was a completely new idea.  It only had funding for a year and no other security at all.  It was a risky thing to do, but it was the best thing I ever did.  Considered risks take you out of your comfort zone and into something new.  It can make you very fleet of foot and entrepreneurial.   Change does not happen if you stay within your comfort zone; you only really grow and develop when you step outside it. 

As a leader, you need to have clear vision of where you want to go.  But you need to be open to different ways of getting there.  You have got to be prepared to see things in terms of opportunities and possibilities.  The interesting thing about a good leader is they promote really good people.  Good leaders are good to work for as they give staff lots of opportunities.  Poor leaders are the ones who see rising staff as a threat because they are terrified that they may take over.  Really good confident leaders do not have those sorts of fears.  As a leader, you should want your staff, in the end, to leapfrog you.

I belong to a leaderís network [Women In Museums Network] and that has been enormously helpful in terms of providing space and time both to think about issues you are facing and to draw on other peopleís experience.  It is really helpful sometimes to say, ĎI am just not sure what to do about this?  What do you think?í 

Mentoring an emerging leader is really interesting.  As you mentor somebody it makes you think about your own practice.  You are providing that space for them and at the same time mentoring makes you reflect on what you have done yourself and why.

The key leadership challenges, at the moment, are around a change in political situation and that we may be facing big budget cuts.  How do we maintain quality of service within those tough constraints?  Also, how do we do more?  What does it mean to run or lead a service if you are really trying to have that service shaped and developed around what your customers really want? How do you keep your leadership role and your responsibility for the service whilst at the same time recognising that that doesnít mean that you get to make all the decisions. Community engagement and letting communities shape the services takes time, it takes skilled people and it takes resource. How you do that and how you do it well?  These are big leadership challenges and it is going to make people think about their own role, new ways of working, new ways of delivering services and new ways of involving people.
Three key priorities for workforce development are; Political skills.  Certain leaders in the sector I work with are very good at focusing on their job; however some of them are not so good at the political role of building support.  Lacking the political skills to effectively communicate what their service is doing, about its contribution and its impact.  Leaders need to understand the wider goals of their stakeholders whether they are elective members, portfolio holders or whether they are trustees.  Partnership Working. The idea of doing everything yourself is long gone.  For example, if you want your organisation to make a difference to young people who have dropped out of all the mainstream opportunities, you donít start your own program.   You go out and find the youth organisations, Social Services, Probation Services etc, those who are already working in the area and who have particular expertise.  Then working in partnership you look at what your organisation can bring to their agendas to make it better.   Entrepreneurial Skills.  For many people change is seen as a threatening thing and can trigger a negative response i.e. ĎWe canít possibly deliver in that way.  We canít possibly have the commissioning of services.  We canít have volunteers running services.  We canít, we canítí.  Being more entrepreneurial is about saying, ĎWhy canít we?  Letís have a look at it.  Maybe, if we did this, but did it in that way we could make this workí.

The Cultural Leadership Programme has been a fantastic initiative and really successful.  I would want to see the Programme continuing and thriving as it has a lot of work still to do.  The leadership areas it has done really well, include; itís best practice work, the fantastic publications and raising the profile of cultural leadership. 

An area that we [MLA] are quite interested in is not just developing leadership in the sector, but actually going into the broader political landscape.  This could include involving Local Authorities, which is where many museums, libraries and archives are positioned, and including Directors of Cultural Services.  We need strong leadership in the sector, but also the Directors of Cultural Services need to understand the contribution culture can make and to build it into their planning and thinking.

For the future we need more of the same from the Cultural Leadership Programme and we also need to be thinking about the bigger landscape and expanding the focus beyond individual leaders.  I went to talk at Essex Local Authority, who has a leadership program for all its managers.  They trained all their senior managers and also identified and trained their aspiring and emerging leaders. This is an authority wide approach to leadership where they have said we need to invest in our staff because we want to be one of the best authorities in the country.  They have understood that if you want quality and excellence then leadership is important.  And if leadership is important it is no use having one person trained or two.  Actually, you have got to have 90.  That journey is the message the Cultural Leadership Programme ought to be taking out in its next reiteration.   Leadership development is actually bigger than sending one person on the Clore Leadership Programme.  It is saying that this type of development is authority wide, organisational wide or arts forum wide.  That is what you have to do.

Sue Wilkinson was interviewed by Stephanie Haughton-Campbell, Independent Creative Consultant.

"If you want quality and excellence then leadership is important"