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Adaptive Leadership: Creating a Climate for New Ideas

Robert Thorpe and Lucy Shaw that today’s cultural leaders need to have the insight and ability to uncover the hidden talents and qualities of their colleagues. An ‘adaptive leadership’ approach can be effective when a situation or challenge arises that is outside the current leadership / management toolkit or repertoire.

Arts Council England (ACE) has stated its ‘commitment to leadership development, exploring what constitutes excellent, honest, courageous and adaptive leadership’.(1) But what does this really mean for museums and their leaders? Museums are operating in a highly challenging environment – economically, politically and socially. The sector needs leaders who can respond to these challenges and who are prepared to experiment and take risks with new business models and ways of working whilst supporting and creating a climate for new ideas.

An ‘adaptive leadership’ approach can be effective when a situation or challenge arises that is outside the current leadership / management toolkit or repertoire. It can bridge the gap between what an organisation wants to achieve and what it is currently capable of achieving. Closing this gap requires looking beyond the current expertise and procedures that are in place – it means taking time to reflect and identify where the gaps are so the process of closing them can begin.

This can be a genuine challenge, as identifying opportunities for change can require significant transformation in the way people work and think. Supporting and encouraging the development of internal staff, and balancing this with recruitment of staff from outside the sector, will create an environment which stimulates new ideas, skillsets and experiences – it will facilitate adaptive leadership.

But great leadership is nothing without great management. There is no point in having an innovative vision if you haven’t the skills or expertise to help deliver it. Strengthening leadership and management and the development of business, enterprise and entrepreneurial skills, have been recognised as key sector needs in the updated Cultural Heritage Blueprint.(2)

In this ‘age of austerity’, with pressure to reduce reliance on public funding, not-for-profit organisations have to develop and demonstrate their commercial acumen and ability to deliver successfully new business models. The temptation, particularly in tough economic times, is to play it safe. But this approach won’t lead to the development of the new ways of working or generating and diversifying income.

The recently published, Working Wonders: an action plan for the museum workforce calls for ‘museums, funders and strategic agencies to recognise the challenges that museums and galleries currently face and support workforce and skills development to meet these challenges’.(3) Sector leaders need to take heed and respond by ensuring they have staff in high-level roles that understand business, and who have excellent people, and financial management skills.

Leadership in the museum and wider cultural sectors has seen significant investment through programmes such as the Clore Leadership programme, amongst others. But arguably there hasn’t been big investment in developing the skills, knowledge and behaviours required for creating new business models or in supporting leaders to make complex (or even some basic) operational decisions.

Today’s leaders need to have the insight and ability to uncover the hidden talents and qualities of their colleagues. They have to understand how developing and encouraging new ways of thinking, changing behaviours and acquiring new skills will help their organisations adapt; enabling them to become more sustainable and resilient. They have to be excellent, honest and courageous and prepared to engage in measured risk-taking. Part of this process has to include recognition of the organisation’s limitations and a willingness to accept that the ‘business as usual’ approach isn’t enough.

Adaptive leaders need to start with the ‘self’, questioning their own individual behaviour as a leader, reflecting on their vision, values, impact, perceptions, behaviours and attitudes (including to risk) – if a leader is open and adaptive themselves, then people will follow. The temptation is to jump in and ‘do’, and this may be required depending on circumstance, but that key moment of reflection, followed by preparation and planning, developing the people skills and characteristics required, will deliver a more robust and resilient solution to the challenge ahead. In essence, adaptive leaders need to take charge of themselves, then their team, and then the task in hand. They need to be able to take the pulse of their organisations – constantly re-evaluating, reflecting and asking questions: what are we doing, what do we need to do and, how can we achieve this?

The current environment in which we are operating means that diversifying income streams and thinking more entrepreneurially are key to organisational sustainability. When faced with cuts it can be difficult to take risks that involve letting go and thinking in terms of investment and return. The challenge is in convincing others of the need for significant financial investment in order to achieve the necessary return for ensuring organisational change and future sustainability.

There are plenty of positive examples of museums and galleries changing their organisational cultures to embrace this new commercially minded world. However, through Oxford ASPIRE’s work with partner organisations and the wider sector, we are aware that many organisations are in need of advice and guidance to help them develop greater confidence in taking such risks.

We are working with colleagues to facilitate a shift in thinking, to enable them to recognise the importance of encouraging staff to develop a greater commercial perspective beyond their obvious remit. In the museum context this may involve, for example, subtly changing the perceptions of curatorial and exhibitions staff to recognise the value of commercial spin-offs, and developing quasi-sales roles for front of house staff.

Case study: Thinking commercially at the Ashmolean
Following the extensive £60 million redevelopment of the Museum, the leadership decided a step-change was needed to create an organisational culture which could embrace commercial enterprise, alongside academic scholarship, interpretation, collections care and engagement. Visitor spend through retail, catering and venue hire had potential as a lucrative, and much needed, income stream. But to achieve this shift the leadership accepted that it needed to look outside the organisation and delegate a significant degree of authority and trust to someone with the relevant experience.

Jeremy Ensor, Commercial Director at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, was previously Head of Retail and Licensing at the Natural History Museum in London and had a proven track record in senior roles within high-end stores such as Heals and Selfridges. Jeremy was appointed in 2011 to a new post within the Ashmolean’s senior management team.

Although commercial activity was running to a good standard, Jeremy felt there was room for improvement in existing operations, as well as new opportunities to be explored. For example, a quarter of the retail business was through selling cards, but the Museum had been using the same supplier for 15 years, without question or consideration as to whether this was the best option available. A significant saving was instantly achieved after Jeremy put this side of the operation out to tender and increased volume via a new supplier. A quick win was thereby brought about by questioning the status quo and taking positive and timely action.

Seeing the retail experience integral to the overall visitor experience has also had an impact on deciding where change has been needed. Visitors’ desire for products unique to the Museum, but at a good price, has heavily influenced the decision to use the Ashmolean’s collections to inspire and develop products.

A bigger ambition is to expand the Museum’s brand onto the high street. Future growth, in terms of a larger scale shop or café, is limited because of available space so other opportunities, such as licensing images for use by other retailers, offers exciting and very attractive alternatives for growth.

A change in mind-set has enabled the commercial impact of temporary exhibitions to become intrinsic to the fundraising activities at the Museum. Visitors to temporary exhibitions at the Ashmolean are three times more likely to buy something in the shop than casual visitors. Therefore, the Commercial Director and Head of Development sit on the exhibitions committee to look at opportunities for commercial enterprise and fundraising within the temporary exhibitions programme.

The key to success has been ensuring that different people, with different perspectives and ideas, have the opportunity to be heard outside of their usual spheres of influence and activity – ideas for products and commercial activity frequently come from curatorial departments for example. Likewise, commercial and fundraising colleagues understand the need to get the right balance between academically stimulating exhibitions and blockbusters with mass appeal and income generating ability. Commercial enterprise works at the Ashmolean because the whole team is involved.

At Oxford ASPIRE we are constantly asking ourselves questions and evaluating what we do – an ethos which has shaped the Oxford ASPIRE programme of events. We have looked at what we do well and what would be useful to share through a consultative process with colleagues across our region. Commercial enterprise, fundraising and philanthropy, managing museums and digital thinking for museums are the four themes within which we offer a range of knowledge sharing workshops to sector colleagues from across the UK.

We are also developing mentoring relationships with sector colleagues which aim to develop leadership skills, confidence and motivation, and spark new ideas. Our ambition is to explore ways of working with, supporting and partnering sector colleagues, to enable them to become ‘excellent, honest, courageous and adaptive’ leaders.

Robert Thorpe, Operations Director, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford – and Lucy Shaw, Oxford ASPIRE Manager, University of Oxford

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. Arts Council England (2010), Culture, Knowledge and Understanding:
great museums and libraries for everyone

2. Griffiths Caitlin (2012), The Cultural Heritage Blueprint – a workforce development plan for cultural heritage sector in the UK, CCSkills

3. Museums Association (2013), Working Wonders: an action plan for the museum workforce, Museums Association

Oxford ASPIRE is one of the sixteen Major Partner Museums funded by Arts Council England through its Renaissance funding stream. A consortium of the Oxford University Museums and the Oxfordshire County Museums Service, Oxford ASPIRE is taking an outward-facing leadership role in the cultural sector at a regional, national and international level. For more information on Oxford ASPIRE, including how we can work you and your organisation, please visit:

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