The CEO of Bristol’s Watershed looks back on how “a jumble of opportunism and serendipity” has helped her avoid silos and find fulfilment throughout her career.
If we aren’t counting ketchup-tasting or bar work, I don’t have much of a career ladder since I’ve only worked in two places (albeit in seven different roles). A ladder suggests linearity, and in reality, my career has been a jumble of opportunism and serendipity, with a common thread of energy gained from working outside of silos.
The job that was someone else’s (1999 - 2004)
My first job after university was in fundraising for Cheltenham Arts Festivals. I have never regretted that I first and foremost learnt how to pitch, network and ask for money. I was thinking about moving on when the person setting up The Cheltenham Festival of Science failed to return from holiday and I was asked to step in – having precisely zero experience in science or producing, I of course said ‘yes’. I had the time of my life working during the first four years of its existence and embedding culture at its heart.
The fact that I was not already steeped in the world of science communication was a plus – our focus was on audience experience rather than title or stature. I learnt so much about the importance of a strong narrative in bringing order to complexity and the necessity of collaborative teams that have your back when you are doing something new. I learned from Famelab that simple ideas can be scaled and replicated, and later applied that to Playable City. I left Cheltenham because I needed to live in a city – but I hadn’t planned to move back to the one I grew up in.
The job I didn’t get (2004 - 2018)
When Aardman Animations co-founder David Sproxton asked to stay in touch after we met when he was on the interview panel for a job I applied for, I figured he was pretty busy and that would be that. A week later he introduced me to Dick Penny of Watershed in Bristol – and I found a place that would challenge and inspire me to this day. I left the security of Cheltenham for what was initially a series of rolling short-term project management contracts, working with Watershed and HP Labs to use animation to test the concept of cloud computing.
Slowly we built an art and technology programme that developed into Pervasive Media Studio – a space for creative ideas and cross-sector innovation – where generosity and disruption are still more important than money. In the early days, a lot of my energy was directed at building my own profile alongside that of Watershed and the studio. It often felt like a hollow and slightly embarrassing thing to be doing, but we needed to legitimise work that the more traditional funders disapproved of.
Advocacy, tenacity and openness meant we established a platform for early ideas, emerging talent and things that don’t fit into tick boxes. Today, the success and diversity of the community and the teams of highly skilled, highly collaborative creative producers make me incredibly proud.
The job I didn’t want (2018 - )
Three years ago, our Director Dick Penny began to talk about moving on from Watershed. Despite the closeness of our collaboration, it did not occur to me that I could – or should – consider myself for this role. I was having a really good time being Creative Director of Watershed: I was working internationally, joining up our programme, making technology more inclusive and exploring how to develop KPIs we actually believe in. I had leadership qualities but I didn’t look or act like a leader in terms of my gender, age, educational background and emotions. I was interested in thinking more about culture, values and structure but I doubted my abilities in financial strategy, risk and governance.
Input from wise friends and a patient board convinced me these things are not mutually exclusive and that one is not more important than the other. I took over as CEO in July 2018 and, supported by Dick Penny and an incredible executive team, have spent time building my confidence around the business bits. While I am looking forward to welcoming a General Manager to take on some of the load, it has been invaluable to learn the right questions to ask.
In the emotional sense, my premonitions were right – being able to openly share when I am upset or worried is important to me and something I ask of others. Colleagues appreciate emotional authenticity, but displaying it can be exhausting and testing amid the patriarchal structures of ‘proper’ leadership.
Perhaps more of a surprise is how leadership feels like it has diminished my power to act immediately. I have to be much more careful where I seek to make trouble or speak my mind. My role now is to empower others to do this – it’s difficult to learn but exciting and joyful.
I may not have climbed a ‘ladder’ in a way the sector understands, but I have supported many companies and been a member of many boards. This taught me a lot about how to thrive with different resources, capacities and timelines. Watershed’s cross-sector, cross-artform and cross attitude approach to doing things differently means I could not be happier or more fulfilled in Bristol.