For the Arts industry, Covid raised multiple difficulties.
Recognising the difficulties that Covid presented, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport created a culture recovery fund, offering grants to cultural organisations to enable the sector to survive. The Place received a grant under this scheme and wanted to invest the monies in a way that created positive change.
From Covid emerged multiple unfamiliar and unknown issues which tested their teams. This included; pivoting to online delivery for recreational, vocational and HE teaching at short notice, restructuring due to theatre closure from March 2020-Sept 2021, and a phased reopening of the building adapting to new covid protocols. They could also see the value of building resilience and the ability to navigate unknowns. Building their capacity in this area would help The Place with problems they hadn’t even imagined yet.
Many cultural institutions were historically created by one visionary individual. For The Place, their Founding Principal Robin Howard had a belief that ‘dance could transform and enrich lives’. Ambitions like this can naturally create a parental culture with a drive to protect and take care of artists. Whilst positively intended, a parental culture can have unintended consequences of slowing down the organisation’s ability to cope with unknowns. With the intention of being helpful, it can inadvertently take away responsibility from managers and undermine the people working for them and their capacity to resolve problems for themselves. This culture encourages guidance giving, and focuses on keeping teams happy. For employees there is a ‘pay off’; you do as you are ‘told’ and hence don’t have to waste time thinking for yourself and can then blame those above us when things go wrong, rather than having to look at yourself.
The Place could see the opportunity to modernise how they managed their teams, enabling their teams to be more resilient and to cope with unknowns. Working with me, we created a management skills programme which we rolled out across The Place.
Typically in cultural organisations, managers pick up their management skills on the job, having previously been successful as teachers, performers, researchers or producers. Therefore, we focused on building management skills that enabled learning, giving feedback, inviting responsibility in others and asking questions to get others thinking. All of these enable a shift in culture towards an “adult to adult” environment where staff are invited to think for themselves, see opportunities for improvement and are open and honest about their ideas.
Aligned with the Arts Council investment principles, we used the management programme to explore what quality management looks like for The Place. Rather than a top down definition, we invited the managers to create this for themselves.
We ran this learning in small peer groups, focused on live management challenges rather than abstract problems. The peer groups met for short, monthly circles allowing managers to practice their management skills with each other and get live feedback, as well as exploring what they had been learning and how they could apply it with their teams.
Research using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) framework suggests that as a whole, organisations tend to value and reward people with particular personality preferences over and above other traits. For example, people with a preference for Introversion tend to be less well-regarded and are less likely to be promoted than those with a preference for Extraversion. Given that equality, diversity and inclusion is a foremost consideration for The Place, we included the MBTI tool to help raise awareness of behavioural preferences, and how we can adapt to include people not like us.
Having rolled out the programme, The Place have been able to see positive signs of change, with increases across the board when managers rated their own skills before and after the programme. The Place are pleased to see the highest increase being in their manager’s ability to, “reflect on how they are managing, in order that you can experiment with opportunities and access support when you need it”. This element was important as it highlights their managers’ ability to keep learning as the future unfolds.
We have now evolved the programme to support the development of the in-house producing team. This covers a group of differing levels of experience from Trainee Producers to Lead Producers. The themes of building psychological safety, managing difference and giving feedback are common with both groups and it gives the team an opportunity to reflect on their practice both as a team and individually.
The Place continue to explore how they can positively influence their culture to encourage wisdom across the organisation.