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When picturing a leader, you might have a clear image of how they look, their age and the size of their company. But Lynn Blades thinks diverse talent is subverting the idea of leadership entirely. 

A Black woman speaking to a mixed-race woman at a social event. The Black woman is wearing a tartan dress with her hair in a tight bun, while the mixed-race woman wears a white top & skirt and has her hair down.
Creative Access celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Rory James

Having been at the forefront of working with diverse talent for a decade, I know how important it is to offer career-long support – particularly when changing people’s perceptions of leadership - to empower and ensure those traditionally excluded reach their potential. At Creative Access, our mission is to make the creative industries more accessible and inclusive for people from communities under-represented in the sector. 

At the centre of everything we do is our community who we nurture throughout their careers from their first internship or entry-level role to providing a mentor, development training and networking opportunities as they progress. The creative industry thrives on originality and innovation so it’s vital employers are building open and inclusive workplaces in which this creativity has space to flourish. 

Made up almost entirely of microbusinesses (95% of the sector) and with a third (32%) of the workforce freelance, the creative industries are very different from other sectors and demand a different approach to and concept for leadership. 

A leader in a creative business is more likely to be running a small team and to be an expert in their creative field first, a business leader second. This produces a different view of what’s important as a leader and requires us to expand our understanding of what leadership means.

Leading might not feel natural

Too often, a typical image of leadership does not include, and actively pushes out, marginalised groups - namely women, those from Black, Asian and ethnically-diverse and/or lower socio-economic backgrounds and disabled people. Instead, it favours the most privileged. 

But not everyone wants to embody this outdated, narrow view of success, and success isn’t always linear. It does not speak to a freelancer without a team to lead but still having to navigate leadership expectations and in need of leadership skills to negotiate, communicate and gain new clients. Nor does it speak to the owner of a small business with only a few employees, who relies much more on collaboration than a hierarchical top-down approach.  

Diverse creatives progressing to more mid- and senior-level positions are carving out their own paths for what leadership and success looks like. Leading might not always feel natural. The stereotype is to think of leaders as confident, self-possessed, strong, dominant. 

But strength and confidence do not have to be domineering, didactic or intimidating. There are leaders across a company, not just at the top. This is why people should develop their own style and way of leading and why motivation, collaboration and delegation are crucial.  

Training provides a non-judgemental space

Leadership and freelance training are an important part of Creative Access’ development programme, tailored for individuals from under-represented backgrounds in the creative industries. Through this, we aim to ensure that these individuals have equal access to training; have the confidence to advocate for themselves in the workplace for pay rises and promotions; and, crucially, see themselves as leaders so that others will do the same. 

In leadership training, participants have a non-judgmental space to learn which leadership style they can embrace, draw on their key strengths, practice skills such as handling stakeholder conversations, and learn about the importance of listening to feedback.  

There is real value in investing in leadership development. Feedback from participants showed they value shared peer experience and that learning to embrace the challenges of becoming a leader gives them confidence. One participant wrote: “This is the support I think a lot of people from diverse backgrounds would really benefit to really help them grow within their field and push beyond their own boundaries of success.” 

With terms like ‘great resignation’, ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘career cushioning’ dominating conversations about the workplace in 2022, it’s clear that our work expectations have shifted massively over the past few years. 

In a report last summer, we found that ‘generation post-pandemic' valued an employer’s reputation, employee wellbeing, and training opportunities over salary. Meanwhile for 71% of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse young people, diversity of the team ranked as the most important factor when looking for a job.  

Today’s workforce expects support

During this period of immense social and economic change, workers need to trust their leaders can see them through turbulent times and respect their needs – or they will find a workplace which can. Mental health and wellbeing are now huge priorities, so how do people want their leaders to act on the desire for more progressive and inclusive workplaces? 

Now more than ever, workers need and expect to feel supported in the workplace and, through investment in their development, feel valued in their work. Good leadership recognises that the culture of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ needs to end.  

By contrast, leaders need to ensure that perceptions change and that talented people who don’t quite ‘fit’ into outdated expectations are taken seriously and reached. How will you show your employees that you want them to thrive and that you want to nurture their progression? 

Bespoke training and mentoring have long been inaccessible and reserved for the elite. Research shows that mentoring helps people progress further in their careers than those who do not have the support of a mentor. By making mentoring an available option for all, those from under-represented groups can also access and receive tailored advice and discover what leadership looks like for them. 

Commitment to breaking down barriers

Inclusive leaders are committed to breaking down the barriers that make the creative industries inaccessible. Importantly, they work to facilitate, encourage and celebrate the many routes to career progression. 

It’s crucial to develop your own understanding of other people to become a good leader. One such way is through not only facilitating training and mentoring for your employees, but also through looking inwards and undertaking training yourself. You might be looking to improve the diversity of your team through recruitment, but it’s vital that you develop your skills in retaining those workers. 

Through training on class, race, disability, equity and neurodiversity in the workplace, you can move towards a better understanding of your colleagues and their experiences. Such an approach enables better management and signals to your workers that you’re willing to embrace their identities.  

Changing your own perceptions and taking steps to create an inclusive company culture is vital. To be a good leader in the creative industries, you need to be aware of people from all walks of life and use that knowledge to lead with empathy, championing every employee no matter what their background or identity. 

Lynn Blades is a Leadership Coach at Creative Access.

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I love this article Lynn and so important that you mentioned the role of freelancers.