When the Shit hits the Fan: Reflections on Governance and Leadership

By Charlotte Jones, ITC's CEO

I have just returned from a 150 mile walk along The Atlantic Coast of Portugal. Apart from sun, sea, fresh air, bracing exercise and a few minor blisters it gave me an unusually good opportunity for reflection. My thoughts turned eventually to leadership questions; How do we support leaders in the sector? What are they main challenges they face? Why do some fail? and how do some survive? What is the role of governance?
I was reflecting on some of the challenging issues I have been working on recently with CEOs, Boards and managers of ITC companies. Many have faced tough times and bleak choices and I have been particularly inspired by their instincts towards good practice, integrity and genuine desire to do the right thing.
In stark contrast most of us would struggle to invent the cartoon-like, toxic embodiment of ineffective leadership offered by Boris Johnson.

He, at least, is a benchmark of behaviours to avoid.

  • Communication: a stream of contradictory lies and bluster which confuse, obfuscate and inflame emotional reactions.
  • Personal responsibility: take none and blame everyone and everything else. Make and break preposterous promises whilst giving way to temper and puerile gestures of defiance.
  • Values: Stand for and care for nothing beyond personal ambition.
  • He is impatient and dismissive of detail and facts. For him leadership is about posturing and threatening. Negotiation is about bullying and, when things don’t go his way, he throws his toys out of the pram. Whoever heard of a Prime Minister threatening to go on strike?

So, at times of crisis and uncertainty what do people need from a leader (apart from none of the above)?

Decisions
Many of our ITC companies are facing difficult financial and organisational challenges requiring major change. Budgets have to be scaled down. Projects have to end. Teams have to be restructured with inevitable redundancies. At such times people need decisions to be made and they need to feel confident that those decisions are based on rigorous examination of the facts, open-minded consideration of a range of options, astute analysis of the situation, consideration of the impact and outcomes, a realistic timescale, coherent plans. At the same time there is likely to be intense time pressure to resolve the issue. The biggest challenge for a leader under these circumstances is finding the right place to test their thinking and build the confidence to make those difficult decisions.

Decisions take an enormous amount of mental and emotional energy and are hardest to make under pressure and alone. This is when the relationship between CEO and Board is so important. Leaders need to know that they will be properly supported and constructively challenged by their Boards. They need to be able to use them as an effective sounding board which involves good listening and helpful open questioning. They need to be confident that the Board act as custodians of the values of the organisation and can offer a moral framework and trustworthy benchmark for decision making. They need to be sure that the board will respect confidentiality (absolutely) and enable difficult, honest discussion. CEO’s need to do the difficult thinking and take responsibility for their actions and decisions making them in partnership with the board neither deferring nor abdicating the process of deciding to them.

Communication
Having done the difficult part (making the decision) leaders often fall down on the communication. The failure frequently arises from a place of good intentions and a desire to ‘sweeten the pill’. In the end, however, honesty, clarity and promptness of communication are the simple answer. In my experience many leaders are too concerned with PR, spin and public opinion. Social media has exacerbated this problem. A few negative ‘@mentions’ can make it feel as though you are in the eye of a Twitterstorm. Responding and defending will simply fuel the fire of public commentary. Leaders will go too far to try to appease and the integrity of the decision gets lost. There is a mistaken belief that everyone has the right to know everything, to comment with impunity and receive an instant response. In fact, decisions need to be communicated first and most carefully to the people they most directly effect. Confidentiality has to be respected. People need to be protected. Boards have to play an important role in maintaining consistent communication, backing the leadership of the organisation and being prepared to answer difficult questions. For this they need to be in possession of all the facts and constantly reminding themselves of the organisation’s core values.

Responsibility
Leaders need to expect to be held to account and to be ready to take responsibility. People need to hear that old mantra ‘the buck stops with me’ and trust that it is true. The best leadership is not all happening at the front with Churchillian stances and bold promises. Good leaders need to be prepared to bring up the rear making sure that no-one is left behind and that everyone has the chance to catch up and be on board. It takes patience, humility, calm and a level of generosity. Most of these behaviours will go unnoticed too so leaders should not expect to be thanked.

Empathy
Leaders need to be constantly ready to recognise the constraints that others face and to acknowledge and respect the efforts they are making. They need to have high expectations and provide clear direction and reasonable boundaries. All of these behaviours need to be built on a foundation of kindness and compassion – yet, despite all this, they should not expect to be liked. I was discussing management issues with an HR Director the other day on one of our courses who said she had lots of little signs around her office and one of them said ‘Its’s not all about you’ – she said ‘that one is a personal reminder to me’.

It is important that Boards are aware of the loneliness of leadership and formalise proper support for their CEO. I have worked with so many of our ITC CEOs who regularly appraise their staff but have never had an appraisal themselves. Boards can learn a lot from the process too especially if the Chair actively seeks confidential feedback from staff and stakeholders before conducting the appraisal.

I was working with one of our CEOs recently helping her to process a particularly difficult HR issue that she and the company had been through. The board had done their best to support her, but she still felt extremely isolated and had lost her confidence. She was surprised to discover that so many small arts organisations had faced similar challenges and was also unaware that ITC exists to help in these situations – we do!
ITC has extensive experience of supporting the leadership of our member organisations with a wide range of issues relating to employing people, planning, strategy, problem solving, negotiating, dispute resolution etc. We are here for Managers, leaders and boards (wherever the leadership responsibility falls). If the buck stops with you, we are here to help. ‘When the shit hits the fan’, we are a good place to start looking for assistance. There is no limit to how often members can pick up the phone to consult us. ITC is also a community of leaders and we find that members are very keen and willing to support each other. We learn a lot from problem-solving with our members. Obviously, our advice and support are always confidential, but it helps us to do our work better if leaders involve us when things go wrong.

We know that decisions are hard and require a safe space to explore the implications. We know the real stories behind the public communications, and we have the greatest respect for the integrity and good motivation of the leaders who have had to manage challenging situations. Leaders in small arts organisations are very exposed, have huge expectations and responsibilities placed on them. You don’t have to do it on your own. Make good use of your board. Help them to help you. Make good use of ITC. Everything we learn from working with members is used to strengthen the leadership of the sector.

Finally, for anyone wrestling with the vicissitudes of leadership I would like to strongly recommend walking 150 miles beside the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal!