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Research about co-leadership in the arts mostly focuses on sharing the executive function between artistic and operational roles. Pippa Warin thinks it’s time to consider sharing the role of chair of the board.

two women discuss their work

Amy Hirschi

What does good governance look like in a modern cultural organisation and how can it improve? Boards have often been associated with hierarchical models with an emphasis on personalities, egos and charismatic individuals, especially the chair. 

Developing governance is a key priority in ACE’s Let’s Create delivery plan so the sector is increasingly going to be measured on its governance practice. Boards will be expected to be active in ensuring the Investment Principles – dynamism, ambition and quality, inclusion and relevance and environmental responsibility - are embedded in working practices. 

Jonathan Mayes argued in these pages for a shakeup of governance in the sector - only 3% of trustees are under 30 and 92% are white, calling for a greater diversity of voices. And Clore’s Achieving Good Governance by Hilary S Carty, David Bryan and Anne Murch says: “Boards are responding to an unprecedented climate of volatility… compounded by decreases in public funding.” 

This spotlight on boards is welcome and part of a necessary change. But trustees may think this level of engagement is more than they, as volunteers, can offer. Amid all the imaginative, innovative and unsung work that is going into rethinking governance, I want to focus on the role of the chair and to provide some good practice examples and insights around co-chairing.

While working with emerging leaders in the museums and galleries at Engage, I found many were interested in part-time work and in ideas about collective leadership, but they had little theoretical or practical guidance. Even less about co-chairing. 

Advantages of co-chairing

Shared responsibility. Being a chair is onerous. Sharing the responsibility makes the work more enjoyable and companionable and offers “a chance to dream together “.

Recruitment, succession and finding new voices. Advertising for co-chairs brings different people into the frame, often younger and with more diverse backgrounds. Co-chairing can also create opportunities for people to explore the role, build confidence and to step up. 

Getting buy-in and setting out the terms. The support of the whole board is vital. The rationale for co-chairing – that it’s practical and communicates an ethos of collective leadership and teamwork – should be clearly proposed and agreed on. 

Workload, skills and resilience. Sharing the chair brings different skill sets, backgrounds and personalities, each taking responsibility for different areas. This can contribute hugely to the sustainability and resilience of the organisation, mitigating the risk of burnout. 

Challenges. There are challenges of course. The chair-executive relationship is critical and co-chairing should not double the exec’s workload. Efficient communications are necessary to avoid duplication or stuff falling through gaps.

Leadership perspectives

Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director and CEO of Northcott Theatre identifies gains in having co-chairs - both practically, sharing the workload, and strategically, developing ideas with a broader range of perspective and challenge. 

Likewise, Paula Orrell, Director CVAN England and lead for Visual Arts South West welcomes the “work across networks [which brings] plural ideas and perspectives into our programme and thinking… I am a great advocate and champion that two heads are better than one“.  

And Freeny Yianni, co-chair with Melita Armitage at Somerset Art Works, describes how two women sharing the role has brought about gradual cultural change in the governance. She emphasises that co- chairs have to do the right thing together, rather than stamping their individual personalities and interests on the organisation. 

Co-chairing also helps develop understanding of leadership in a radically changing environment. By its very nature, it embodies and models a relational and distributed way of working. This feels particularly appropriate in the context of huge societal and global problems. 

Adaptive, collaborative leadership put value on relationships and partnerships. It keeps egos in check: celebrating the entity rather than the celebrity; listening to and empowering new and diverse voices; being able to hold a space and to be present, working with uncertainty and not necessarily having to come up with answers; and valuing informal power as much as formal.

‘Inclusivity is not an abstraction’

Theories of leadership abound, but they are mostly predicated on there being an individual leader. But a fascinating article - Co-Leadership: lessons from Republican Rome – described a successful system of co-leadership that lasted over four centuries, extending from the lower levels of the magistracy to the top position of the consul. 

Lessons included trustworthiness, a unified voice, making collaboration visible, power balance, inclusivity, reciprocal lack of pretension and communication between leaders. They have much to teach the contemporary world. Many forms of collective leadership are now emerging with artists are speaking out, taking actions and challenging existing structures. Boards need to respond to this.

Co-chairing speaks to adaptive, collaborative leadership, an ethos particularly resonant in the arts and voluntary sectors. It’s a supportive way to welcome new or first-time board members. 

Becky Chapman and Ben Qasim Monks are co-chairs at Northcott Theatre. Using Open Space methods, they have shifted from an ‘oversight’ model to an emphasis on ‘insights’, valuing better conversations. As Becky says: “Inclusivity is not an abstraction, it’s the way you are and the way you relate to people and ideas. The co-chairing arrangement helps to embody this ethos, perhaps helping contribute to more humane empathetic organisations and a more humane empathetic sector.”

It would be exciting if these innovative examples of co-chairing were shared more widely and received more serious attention in leadership studies. Co-chairing is a more dispersed, generous and relational model of leadership, fitted to our uncertain and changing times.  

Pippa Warin is an independent consultant and coach in the arts and cultural sector.


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