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In conversation with Elizabeth

Elizabeth - Executive Coach

I think Leadership is a by-product of what you want to do - at least that’s how I ended up in a leadership position. I didn’t say ‘I want to be a leader’ - it was based much more around the fact I could see a need and an opportunity and I could see that I would be successful in it. I think that’s in contrast to people that I see who say ‘I am a leader’. I was never the person who said ‘I’m going to be the team captain’. I waited to be picked but once invited I was very much on the team. So part of the motivation for me is by being driven by the need. Once I can see the need for something to be done and that I have the skill to fulfil it then I’m in!

For example - being a School Governor - I wanted to be involved because I wanted to be able to influence things that are important to me and the community of children. So that’s a match - a reason for me going to give my view. Over time there was the question of someone needing to be in charge of the board - ‘who is going to be the Chairman?’ It was one of those moments and there were people that said ‘Of course Elizabeth you are going to do this’ but I wouldn’t have said ‘I’m going to be Chairman of the Board of School Governors - I have a big vested interest in this as my daughter is going to go to this school, I live in this community and I want to make a difference through promoting myself as the leader’. For me it’s much more an emergent thing.

I think the influence with that is my parents. That’s how they behaved. They would see needs for other people - I’m talking about their domestic life and their life within the community. They would say to my brother and me ‘go towards things if people need help’ and they were great role models for that. My mother for me as a woman wasn’t a particularly great role model - probably even the opposite. She would say ‘don’t push yourself forward, don’t draw attention to yourself’. She was much more a just do it quietly and walk away type of person - don’t make a fuss! She was probably quite uncomfortable with what I went on to do. But I don’t think she appreciated that I wasn’t doing it from the perspective of wanting to be in charge but actually that I got there incrementally because I want to make a difference and to help.

I think if you had asked the question of me 20 or 30 years ago I wouldn’t have given you that answer. I think that it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and the fact that one of my parents isn’t around anymore - and I’ve become a parent myself so I have an understanding of what it means to be a parent and what you can give to your children in that regard. I’ve been a manager and I think that being a manger and a leader has been influenced by being a parent. The basic rule of leadership is lead by example and isn’t that what you do as a parent? How else do you learn! But that’s not a very long book on management or leadership!

In my commercial experience I did an Art Foundation Course and through that identified Theatre Design and Costume Making as an area of interest. So that’s what I went on to do in terms of qualification. I went down that route but didn’t find it as fulfilling as I thought it would be. After qualifying I took some time out and did some travelling and during that time I decided to go into the administration side of theatre. I went in at the lowest level to climb the ladder but all the time seeing that I could make a difference. I thought ‘I could learn that - I could do that’ and I was fortunate enough to have brilliant bosses who were very generous with their skill.

There were some big characters within the theatre world and I don’t mean in terms of performing people or directors but within the management structures - the Executive Directors or Chief Execs. As my career progressed I got to know those people more and I got to be included as one of them. What was quite interesting for me was a realisation that a producer of show looked like that or a founder of one of the biggest theatre groups in the world that looked like this. That’s how you behave; that’s how you conduct your social life. I hadn’t grown up with a theatrical family and it wasn’t where I had come from. So it wasn’t particularly a recognition of what does good look like, but rather, what is the norm. I learned both good and bad habits - not all role models are great! I think the other thing that sticks with me doe so because of my educational route. I didn’t excel academically. I found that I was mixing with people who had had a far finer academic experience than I. What I mean by that is these were people who were Oxford and Cambridge Graduates. They have a way of carrying themselves; a particular way of being. Particularly when I was a Director at The Arts Council, as a national policy maker in the Public Sector I found myself sitting alongside someone who had done far more than I had academically. I learned a huge amount by watching how they operated; how they processed things; how they could take on new information or a brief or challenges and so on. There was a little bit of envy that it hadn’t been my path but I learned so much from it. I’ve always been really good at taking an idea and interpreting it for me. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery!

I think in the Arts world more broadly, and specifically within the theatre world too, Leadership is driven by a sense of purpose. I think that’s why I was drawn to it in the first place. Things need to be explored; things need to be said; voices need to have a place; ideas need to be shared; collaborations need to happen. The overriding purpose that there is transformational power; the transformational power of the Arts. There’s a connection - you can move people emotionally and people can see the world differently and there’s a connection. That is part of theatre making - of arts making. Everyone around it and involved in it has that sense of purpose - nobody questions that. People may be in the Arts because they have a sense of vocation - if I had a pound for everyone who, when asked at interview ‘why do you want this job in the theatre or the arts?’, said ‘I’m passionate about theatre!’ I’d be rich. But genuinely they are! They are drawn to the environment - it’s a process that is very consuming and it draws you in and provides a whole community in itself. If I think about the leadership in that environment, because there is this purpose, there are egos but I think possibly less than other environments because the focus is on what you are doing rather than who you are. It’s about what you are going to create, enable or facilitate and your ideas. People don’t set themselves up, rather they emerge as being the best in what they do - the best director, or actor or manager or producer. They emerge and earn their position through focussing on what they are doing.

In contract sometimes I see people that I coach differently. Because my life in the theatre has been driven by the sense of purpose I can see a more transactional dimension in business. This is ‘I’ve got great ideas - I’m driven enough to realise them and get me and people around me to work with them - I can make money out of this - and then - I can get out of it.’ There’s a lot of talk of the getting out of it bit and what I’m going to do as my reward when I do get out of it. That’s very different to the theatre world. People don’t really talk about retiring. It seems as if individuals’ reasons for doing things in business are different. Take for example a discipline which is common to both worlds; a marketing specialist who works in business; a manufacturing business for example, and a marketing specialist who works in the theatre. The theatre marking person will consider themselves an arts marketing professional and they will have a career in Arts Marketing - they are selling tickets to shows, they are selling the things that are produced and they are passionate about theatre - they love it, think about it in good terms - sell persuasively and sell what they need to sell. It’s highly unlikely that they will ever go and work in a boot factory and sell boots. But it seems that the marketing person in a shoe factory may move to a chocolate factory and sell chocolate, or somewhere else, but they are very unlikely to make the move into the Arts.

It seems that business produces a mercenary skillset that is obviously transferable and can be used in another industry. I’m not saying that with the theatre or the arts it’s exclusive - I know that there are other industries that require you to be ‘of us - to understand us to work here’ but it seems to me that a big difference is that in business there is this feeling that I can get out of this industry/ business when I want to and go and work somewhere else instead. Which raises the question of ‘what are you really committed to then?’

If I think about the big life lessons I’ve experienced - the first would be when I became a parent - which for me happened a little later in life when I was well established in my career. One of the things that had impact on me was the realisation of how close management and leadership and parenting are! The basics of setting boundaries and parameters, trying to nurture and create development opportunities, leading by example - it seems to be all the same! The only brake I would put on that is remembering not to patronise - where what I’m saying doesn’t work is where there is a need for a different type of Transactional Analysis - not a Parent Child interaction! But even though it’s about equal relationships in business, largely it is still about the same type of thing - about setting boundaries and leading by example.

Another lesson would be linked to how I’ve chosen to be. When I was doing the role at the Arts Council and I was talking to my boss about the future and what I wanted to do I had a realisation. I’ve always been keenly aware of who has preceded me and what their legacy has been. I have always had a great respect fo that - I’m not one to come in and say ‘ well that was a load of rubbish - we are going this way now.’ That’s partly because I’ve been lucky enough to follow some greats who were big thinkers, and innovators. When I was talking to my boss I found myself describing my sense of stewardship and desire to create a legacy. I found that has steered me. I didn’t know that I was going to say that - I hadn’t ever thought of it before. But the idea that I am here for a period of time, I can do what I can do and I hope that people can build on what I achieve, value it and take it on their journey, it struck me. I know that I have an inbuilt humility - even though I’ve had all these opportunities and done things, I know I’m not everything and it’s not forever. There’s a bigger world than me and other things that matter more and it’s keeping my sense of proportion. So this concept of stewardship is that you aren’t going to be doing this forever, at some stage you leave it and let it go and let the next person do it and after a time hand it on to the next person. However, whilst you have responsibility for it you care for it as a steward would. It’s like those people who live in stately homes and describe themselves as stewards because yes , they can affect things but the thing they are caring for is greater, bigger, older and will last much longer than they ever will. So that’s how I see myself - and again it’s a parent thing too - keep yourself in proportion. It’s probably a little bit of the ‘don’t make a fuss about it - don’t draw attention to yourself’ upbringing - but it is knowing that you can make a serious contribution but just ‘let’s be’.

It’s interesting for me when I work as a coach with entrepreneurs because the concept of stewardship isn’t something they seem to think about at the moment. Their desire and drive is about being in a new space and being original and driving something until they have enough from it or they become bored with it. Maybe they are concerned by legacy but in my experience it seems to be quite a different thing. There seems to be a difference between being employed as a leader as opposed to being a self employed leader.

I think over time I have become more mellow about people. Naturally I’m quite a shy person but when I’m in my space and when I’ve got the permission to do it, the mandate to do it and my subject, then I’m not shy. Connecting to other people has always been a big challenge and so in the past that would manifest itself in impatience. Why can’t they be different with this? Why can’t I be different with this? And over the years I think I’ve mellowed with that. It might be because I’m proven and I’ve become more confident with what I can do so I’m more tolerant of others who are on that part of their journey. I can see perspective. And I think that’s why I’m doing what I do now. I’m very happy to be the facilitator for others. I’m not worried about being at the front or first out of the gate but I’m very happy to support other people. It’s probably an result of me doing what I’ve been doing - I’ve been visible but ultimately I’ve always been in service of something. But I’m much more so now and I find that very comfortable.

In these turbulent times I think people find it hard to know what to tag to. You can’t trust a politician, you can’t trust a bank manger and the last one to go down is you can’t trust a charity! So many of the big pillars in society are crumbling and I see people struggling to know what to tag on to. But of course the whole coaching thing is about self reliance and finding the answers for oneself. Which of course it always was. However ,that certainty in some areas would give you guidance and allow you to develop that self reliance so I guess without that it’s becoming more difficult. I think that’s why coaching is helpful because it’s useful to have someone to talk to - a process to trust. People are also coming up with some pretty nutty answers which can take up time and energy but it’s understandable because if you don’t have any of these foundations or pillars delivering for you then why wouldn’t you?! I wonder what it’s going to be like for my daughter’s generation. Where is that generation going to hang their trust?

There are so many changes - and you can make choices about how you face them. It’s about having the strength to be drawn into something, or ignore it, or put it into perspective.

In terms of characteristics for great leadership in my view would include passion about what you are doing. A sense of humour is so important. Sometimes things can get incredibly serious and convoluted and knotted and unpleasant. When that happens we lose any ability to be creative to innovate to do good things. I think there is something about humility and through that, approachability. Being a real person is important. I’m not sure I do it particularly well but I think its a really important thing in the context of what we’ve been talking about, what you are going to trust. I think the need for people to be real and to be approachable and human is really important because that’s how you can create a connection and trust. Also being reliable and consistent and fair. Which is sometime difficult because you’ve got to consider whatever you are trying to do and aim for and yet people make mistakes. Stuff happens and it’s important to remain human and be fair.

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