"You can achieve great things if you don't care who gets the credit"

Shona McCarthy, CEO of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, on public failure, Brexit and calling yourself a leader.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2019

Childhood

I was born in Northern Ireland in 1968, the year the Troubles started. Conversations revolved around whether you were Protestant or Catholic, unionist or nationalist, so I grew up with an ingrained dislike of labels and tribes.

My dad was a bricklayer and my mum had her hands full raising eight kids. We didn’t have many possessions (we got our first house phone when I was 17) but we had an idyllic Little House on the Prairie-style childhood, climbing trees, gathering frogspawn, jumping on farm carts and playing on the beach.

We lived in the back of beyond, in a rural village in the Ards Peninsula in Co Down, so I didn’t have any exposure to the theatre but my secondary school teachers sparked a passion for art and literature. I wanted to be a journalist – there was no real careers advice at school and that was the most creative job I could think of – so I studied film and media studies at Coleraine University, which was three hours up the road. Having grown up in a small village in a society that was obsessed with itself and its own conflict, that felt like Outer Mongolia to me.

Early career

I’ve done all kinds of weird things. I’ve worked everywhere from Kentucky Fried Chicken to a kettle-making factory, with stints as a performing artist, a bookie and a trainee journalist for Ulster Tatler and Fortnight magazine thrown in.

My first "proper job" was as a programmer for Cinemagic, Northern Ireland’s International Film Festival for Young People. That really showed me the power of the arts to educate, motivate and inspire. When the festival was on the brink of closing down, I set it up as an independent charitable organisation, became chief exec and spent the next six years growing it from a local children’s film festival into an international brand. 

Failure

In 2001, I was contracted to lead Belfast’s bid to be European Capital of Culture. That was my first taste of a role with a public profile – and we didn’t win. The local press called it a "catastrophic failure" but I learned to ignore the noise and focus on the positives. The bid was publicly commended by the full Assembly in Stormont as the first public expression of an aspiration to bring down the (metaphorical and physical) walls in Belfast.

After that, I took a year out to look after my two young daughters, which was really grounding, and set up a consultancy called Rubyblue with an old colleague. We spent seven years working with clients such as Creative Partnerships UK, Film London, Channel 4, the BBC and the British Film Institute.

I loved being my own boss and it gave me a real insight into just how bloody tough it is running your own business. You do everything from pitching for work to doing the end-of-year accounts; it’s all on your own shoulders.

I went on to become director of the British Council Northern Ireland and led Derry-Londonderry’s year as UK City of Culture. Of course, the media was still fixated on the fact I’d failed in Belfast… 

Joining the Fringe

I’ve been heading up Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society since 2016. I wasn’t looking for a new job – but this is the greatest open-access arts festival in the world, it’s seen as this Mecca of cultural leadership. It generates £144m and 2,840 full-time jobs for Edinburgh’s economy, and £173m and 3,400 jobs for Scotland’s economy.

My objective isn’t to grow the Fringe, it’s to make it even more accessible, affordable, connected and relevant – to invite the uninvited. Last year, we put together the Fringe Blueprint: eight big commitments that will take us through to our 75th anniversary in 2022.

That includes initiatives ranging from freezing registration fees and reducing the commission we take on box office transactions from four per cent to three per cent, to giving out £100,000 of free Fringe ticket and transport vouchers to local charities and communities a year. 

Brexit

The Fringe has enjoyed a permit-free status for many years; people can take part without having to apply for a work visa. We don’t want to lose that. It has ensured the international diversity of our workforce and our performing artists: 62 different countries were represented on stage last year. Let’s just say that as someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I resent borders and geographic boundaries.

Leadership

I couldn’t sell beans. I’m only good at doing stuff I love; I want to get out of bed each morning and make a difference. I still struggle with the word "leader". It puts too much focus at the top. The way I see it, my job is to support, develop and enable others. It’s never, ever about me.

Somebody once told me: "You can do great things if you don’t care who gets the credit." That mantra has stuck with me. It’s so liberating. At the Fringe Society, we look for talented, motivated people who are passionate about what they do. I’m not bothered about academic qualifications. We stopped asking for degrees from applicants two years ago.


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Image: Shona McCarthy/Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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