What is it like to lead a large and complex organisation? Having just spent some time as an interim chief executive, Matthew Brown reveals what he’s learnt. 

Photo of Foundation for Art and Creative Technology Liverpool

Not many of us get to become a Chief Executive, but due to some unexpected circumstances I have been given that honour. For the last eight months I have been the interim CEO at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), a visual arts organisation in Liverpool that produces and presents art that embraces and explores creative media and digital technology. 

As my time in the role comes to an end and I prepare to hand over to Nicola Triscott, FACT’s new permanent CEO, I have been reflecting on what I have learnt from the experience. 

A leader’s primary purpose is to get the best out of their team – to produce more leaders, not more followers

Lessons learnt

Being Chief Executive is very different from being a functional director or head of department. Suddenly you have responsibility for everything. Whereas before you may have had departmental objectives to achieve and you would compete with other departments for resources and attention, now it’s the other way round, with different departments competing for your time and attention, and for the organisation’s resources. 

Sometimes every decision feels like a trade-off. To invest time supporting the marketing team means paying less attention to the finance team, and vice versa. To survive this, you have to take a holistic view and spread your attention across all departments. Having an organisational vision, with defined aims and objectives, really does help to shape your focus and to prioritise what you need to do.

Be clear about the purpose of the organisation – define it, turn it into some sort of mission statement, create a vision document, or any other route that is helpful to get there. Without a clear focus on the mission, you cannot prioritise the many demands you face. Arts organisations have to focus on their artistic outputs and the audiences they are aiming to reach. But often over time some sense of self-preservation creeps in, with pet projects undertaken and structures and activities created that perpetuate an organisational status quo. 

Being the interim leader has made it easier for me to look at activities without bias and the attachment of history, and to truly question their value in achieving FACT’s purpose. We have reviewed every activity using a four-option framework: stop, continue, grow or reconfigure. This has led us to make some tough decisions to cease some activity, but it has given us a clearer focus. 

You need different leadership styles for different circumstances. Also called ‘contingent leadership’, you sometimes need to be coaching and supportive, at times you need to be democratic and build consensus, and at other times you need to set the pace. Then there are times when you need to paint the future, and just occasionally you need to tell people what to do. Your leadership style will always reflect your personality and personal values to a degree, because the two are so intertwined. But perhaps the good thing is there is no right or wrong leadership style, just different styles. 

You have to trust your team – and you can’t be an expert in everything. I would never see myself as an expert in programme, but I had a great head of programme who was an expert. By recognising the skills and talents of my team and trusting their judgement wherever I could has made so much become possible and allowed us to achieve more together than we could have imagined. 

Nonetheless, as Chief Executive you still hold the ultimate responsibility for all departments, so you must hold your teams to account – agree and set targets and objectives with them that fit within the overall plan, provide support and resources as needed, and constantly monitor and check in on progress. 

You’re in charge of making the big decisions, so make sure you invest the time to call them correctly. Hasty decisions can be badly thought through, so it’s important to take the time to consider key decisions from all angles. If you can ask those around you, you will get a diverse set of opinions that can help to clarify and triangulate your thinking. 

And just as importantly, keep out of the smaller, operational decisions wherever you can. It’s far too easy to get bogged down in the detail and run out of headspace for the decisions that really matter.

  • Be as transparent as possible. Admit that you don’t know everything and can’t change everything. Ultimately, being transparent is about saying to people that you trust them.
  • It’s lonely at the top – there are many things that you just can’t share. Find mentors and trusted colleagues or friends outside the workplace you can talk things through with. You’ll find it essential for your own mental health.
  • Praise and positivity go a lot further in creating change than criticism. 
  • You don’t have to have an arts background to be an effective leader in the arts sector. You must have some level of understanding, and therefore an interest in what the organisation is doing and trying to achieve, but you don’t need to be an embedded expert. 

As an accountant with no arts background, perhaps I’m bound to say this. What I have tried to do is create some sort of underpinning decision-making framework, ensuring that we collectively think about organisational purpose, budgets, contracts, health & safety, operations, staffing, resources, partnerships, stakeholders, brand and reputation as every project develops. But within this framework, I have very much given individuals the freedom and responsibility to initiate and develop projects, ideas and new ways of doing things.

The concept of leadership is changing. There is still a traditional view that dominates, which sees leaders as visionaries who can impose and demand excellence upon an organisation from above. But this style is increasingly untenable in a world where we embrace the concepts of equality, diversity and inclusion and make them part of our organisational culture. In my view, a leader’s primary purpose is to get the best out of their team – to produce more leaders, not more followers. To do this, power and decision-making has to be distributed and shared as much as possible, although always within an overall framework so that effort is aligned and coordinated.

A stronger future

I have been honoured to have had the opportunity to lead FACT. While it has been challenging, it has been satisfying to bring about changes that will hopefully leave the organisation in a much stronger position to face the future. I’m proud that despite this period of uncertainty and change, FACT has continued to deliver a world-class exhibition programme throughout. 

Matthew Brown runs a financial management consultancy practice.
www.adding-value.org

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