Interview: Hilary Carty; Director, Clore Leadership

Hilary heads up Clore Leadership – the first initiative in the UK aimed at developing and strengthening leadership potential across the cultural and creative sectors.

We were delighted to spend time with Hilary asking her about the needs of cultural leaders right now and the main barriers to change and growth for organisations at the moment.

Could you outline for me, in your own words, how you got to where you are in your career now, and what your current role as Director of Clore Leadership involves?

As Director of Clore Leadership, I work with a team to try to assess and respond to the needs of leaders in the cultural sector. 

That is both existing leaders who are dealing with a range of issues across managing organisations, managing teams, managing people, managing programmes, but also aspiring leaders who are keen to develop and hone their leadership skills, and are learning how to do all of those things. 

We deliver programmes that work across the spectrum; performing arts, visual arts and into the creative sectors. We work with leaders, and we support organisations by making sure that leadership development is happening at a governance level. 

In terms of my career, I started out in dance. Dance was my passion. That’s what brought me here in the first place, it essentially expanded from that. I wanted to learn how to have an impact on dance provision, and that was through dance policy. I shifted into that. From dance policy I thought, actually dance policy is part of a wider context of arts and cultural policy. I’d better get into that field. 

I expanded out and worked at the Arts Council, in the East Midlands office. Then I was Director of Dance for Arts Council England, and then Director of Arts in London, including two years at the Olympic bid, and we won – which was amazing; a really fantastic, stimulating time. 

From there, I went back to the arts and intercultural leadership, which had always been something that I’d been interested in. In 2006, I was really fortunate to be able to bring those two interests together and run the cultural leadership programme, which was a 22 million pound investment in leadership for the cultural sector. Then I worked independently, running my own business, in cultural leadership and organisational development change. 

And then came here to Clore Leadership in 2017. So that’s me, in a nutshell!

What does a day in your life look like (if such a thing exists)?

There’s no one typical day.

But in general I’m always looking for different ways of listening to what’s going on in the sector, and trying to be part of that – to get the intelligence, to see what the shifts are in cultural practice, and what leaders are having to do to respond to that. And then I look at whether we have the right components within our training programmes to equip leaders to be effective. I need to assess whether we need to make any shifts in all of that.

But alongside that there’s management and admin, we’ve got to get the programmes designed, developed and out the door. That involves running the team and supporting them to develop creative ideas and approaches. So it’s a mixture, but it’s a nice mixture.

You mentioned that a lot of your work is about working out what the needs of cultural leaders are, how has that changed over the last two years?

I think what we’re really picking up on is the different forms of resilience that are necessary now, and the essential requirement to have a bank of resources built around resilience. That means personal resilience; managing your time well, having networks of people that you can breathe out with, or explore ideas with. But you’ve also got enough resources in the bank to be able to identify when and where you have a problem. 

I think the thing that the last two years have brought into sharpest focus is the need for self care in leadership, because leaders are very much having to absorb what’s going on, reflect, collaborate, and lead… and then it changes again. And then you have to do the whole exercise again. Leaders today have to think through plans A, B and C… (and have D in the ether!) and be flexible enough to move through those plans with as little resistance as possible, and as much openness as they can muster. That means that their teams, and the people that they’re working with, understand that they are working through a series of consequences, rather than striding blindly forward with plan A. 

Times change so quickly. Flexibility, adaptability, resilience – those are the key qualities that the last two years have brought into sharp relief. 

Have the last two years changed how you’ve developed programmes as well?

I think it’s more a shift in emphasis than real change, because we’ve had to have those elements in there, they are core elements of leadership. It’s a change in emphasis and a case of finding examples that demonstrate what these leadership qualities look like today. It’s about finding examples of people who have used this current situation to be perhaps more creative, more entrepreneurial, more decisive, or more open. That’s what leaders are really looking for. They’re really looking for examples that match today’s environment.

From your perspective, as a cultural leader, what do you see as the main barriers to change and growth for organisations at the moment? 

I think one of the biggest barriers is accepting the uncertainty and volatility that’s in the environment – accepting the fact that we don’t know. It can make you feel unstable, as the things that you can actively control are much reduced. That’s a barrier to productivity. It’s easy to end up thinking there’s no point doing anything, because it’ll change in a minute. That can stunt creativity, it can stunt innovation, it can stunt ambition. You need to – somehow or the other – be able to grip the agenda. 

But it worries me when people talk about returning to the way things were. I’d rather go forward – I’d rather take the elements that have been constructive from the experience of the last few years, and build forward, rather than build back.

What do you think are the positive things that the disruption of COVID and Brexit have brought to the way we work in the cultural sector?

I’m not being foolhardy about the difficult experiences of the last two years. But there has been innovation, there has been creativity, there has been a stopping of some of the old ways that weren’t serving us. 

We can now think, do we need to go back? Can we work from here; harness the good things that we used to have, and channel those forward? If you think back to two years ago, we didn’t know what a breakout room on Zoom was. But actually – if you’re doing transactional type of meetings or sessions, it works perfectly well, and it’s quite efficient. It’s not the only way, because you do need more discursive sessions as well, where the face to face interaction is more helpful. But that hybridity of forms is something that we should build into our practice now going forward, rather than seek for the opportunity when we can close our screens.

For me, there’s a sense of trying to work out what’s the opportunity in this shift? What can we do more efficiently using technology than we were doing before? I can bring in speakers from all over the world into a session. And I’ve saved on airfare, I’ve saved on them leaving home, which means that we can be more connected with a wider range of people. 

Within the sector, I’d look to some of the organisations who’ve shifted their business models – who’ve stopped relying so heavily on subsidy and have shifted into more commercial, more entrepreneurial activities. 

What do you see is the biggest opportunity for the cultural sector in terms of making the most of the moment we’re in now?

I think the big opportunity is to go forward. There’s no point going through the absolute horror of the last two years if we’re not going to learn from it. We need to think, what can we do differently? How can we make things more equal for those for whom it wasn’t equal? How can we make inclusivity part of the way we are as opposed to some aspiration on a policy paper somewhere? How can we really be as embedded in our communities and what they want, as we were during the pandemic? I think there’s a great opportunity going forward, as long as we don’t try to brush off the last two years and pretend they didn’t happen.

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