In my Opinion: Chartered Management Institute

A high-performing board is vital for eliminating short-term thinking, argues Judith Isherwood, CEO of the Wales Millennium Centre and a Chartered Management Institute Companion.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The turmoil in the global economy and the spectre of a recession have sharpened the focus of managers working in the creative and cultural industries, both in the UK and around the world.

For many, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The best of times, for several reasons: the great progress made in recent years in increasing government and public recognition of the importance of the arts in people's lives; the huge opportunity that has been presented to the creative industries to showcase British culture to the world through the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad; and the opportunity to reap the benefits of the sector's investment over recent years in the development of cultural leaders.

But these are also the worst of times, because of the political, economic and social uncertainty that faces everyone. Many arts organisations have to operate with a small margin between success and failure. Such uncertainty makes the job of managing these organisations tougher, whether in regard to escalating operating costs or a decline in ticket sales, sponsor and donor income or government grants.

Multiple challenges face arts managers, many of which parallel the experience of managers in other industries. One of the biggest issues is short-term thinking. How do we plan for the long term when events here and now make immediate survival the priority?

For me, the role of the board and the relationship between the chief executive and the chair of the board are paramount. An effective, high-performing board is more important than ever. Having worked for charitable arts organisations throughout my career, I'm aware of the increasing difficulty in finding trustees willing to join the boards of arts organisations, or indeed any charitable organisation.

Trustees of such organisations are invariably voluntary, giving their time and expertise because they have a belief in, and passion for, what the arts achieve. Yet they assume quite significant liabilities under civil law, trust law, company law, contract law and criminal law. Sadly, I see an increasing number of potential trustees ask: 'Why should I take on the extra responsibilities when there's no financial reward?'

If we are to maintain the quality of our boards and ensure a steady supply of people with the requisite skills and a willingness to give their time, we must nurture a culture of civic service in tomorrow's business leaders, of giving back to the community, along with a passion for the arts.

A trial facing the creative and cultural industries is how to ensure the right mix of skills necessary for our businesses to grow and prosper. Key issues to contend with are many and varied: from the significant gaps in the amount of work-based technical and specialist skills available, and the need for a more diverse workforce, to the need for increased investment and commitment to staff training and development. In my own business, at the Wales Millennium Centre, we have embraced the concept of creative apprenticeships and are implementing programmes for developing the leadership and management skills of our workforce.

I'm also following with great interest the shifting public mood and debate in the UK at the way the London 2012 Games are shaping up. This is directly related to my first-hand experience of the 1993 euphoria of Sydney winning the right to stage the 2000 Olympic Games, the depths of cynicism and in-fighting that characterised the four-year lead-up to the Games, and the elation and pride felt by Australians following the successful delivery of the Sydney Games.

At the end of September, the four-year Cultural Olympiad associated with the forthcoming London Games was launched. I remain optimistic that this programme has the potential to bring great benefits to the UK, while recognising that this view is not universally shared in the arts and cultural sectors. Accusations of funding shortfalls or a London-centric focus are familiar outside the M25, but are self-defeating.

The Cultural Olympiad associated with Sydney provided an important counter-balance to the focus on sport, presenting Australian society as sophisticated, confident and proud of its cultural heritage.

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the potential to do the same for Great Britain. Hopefully, it will be the catalyst for new partnerships, collaborations and ways of thinking for the disparate range of cultural organisations operating throughout the British Isles.

As difficult as it always is to make crystal-ball predictions, I feel sure that at the end of the London 2012 Games and the associated Cultural Olympiad, the UK will have participated in a great success. People throughout the country will be proud of what it has delivered. The challenge for leaders will be to ensure that the concept of legacy becomes a reality and pays dividends. Maintaining momentum will be incumbent on everyone in a position to contribute to change for the better.

CV - Judith Isherwood is the founding CEO of the Wales Millennium Centre, a major new cultural centre in Cardiff. An Australian, she was previously director of performing arts at the Sydney Opera House. Isherwood has had a life-long interest in the development of the creative industries and is a member of the national board of the Creative and Cultural Industries' Sector Skills Council.

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