Resources Article

Claire Antrobus, Clore Fellow and Contributor reflects over 21 Years of Clore Leadership

Clore 2009/10 Fellow Claire Antrobus is a coach, consultant and trainer with 30 years’ experience as an arts professional. She has previously worked with organisations including Leeds City Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Arts Council England, Tate Liverpool and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In this article for Clore Leadership's 21st Anniversary she reflects on her own leadership journey, the impact Clore Leadership has had on her, and her hopes for the future.

Tell us about your own leadership story or journey in arts and culture.

The Fellowship was a turning point in my career which started as a curator. When I undertook my Fellowship in my mid 30s, I had two young children and been forced into freelancing so I could work part-time. I was also struggling to find roles that suited my strengths in the gallery and museums sector. And here were also only a handful of role models of women gallery directors with children.

Clore Leadership helped me figure out what would suit my passions and strengths, meet role models, develop the skills and networks I needed to progress and encouraged me to forge my own career path in an absence of off the peg options.

Through peers in theatre sector I discovered the Executive Director role. I used my Fellowship to research these roles in theatre and I shadowed one of the only two people who were doing that role in the museum sector at the time, Andrea Nixon. Another gallery director, working parent and Clore Fellow, Maria Balshaw challenged my assumption that I’d have to choose between being a parent and having a leadership role by offering some candid advice.

With support from my mentor, Sir Nicholas Serota, I also developed wider networks in the UK gallery and museums sector. This helped me secure interim leadership roles first at Tate Liverpool, and later at mima. I used my training budget to develop coaching, facilitation and change management skills which were invaluable in those roles.

By the end of the Fellowship I realised that being a parent could be part of my leadership experience, not an impediment to it. Granted I faced additional challenges having a young family, and working part-time, but I also realised I’d learned a huge amount about myself and leadership through parenting.

What key developments /impacts relate to your learning with Clore Leadership?

The Fellowship sparked my interest in co-leadership, diversifying leadership and creating inclusive workplaces, areas I now focus on in my work.

I’m particularly proud of the work I’ve done to promote co-leadership. My initial research explored co-leadership in theatre. During the following decade I was contacted by many leaders, including Sara Wajid who’d found my research useful in becoming, with Zak Mensah, the first co-CEO of a UK museum. But I also heard from many others wanting to co-lead but lamenting their Board were a barrier to change.

I’d always imagined co-leadership could enable a wider range of leaders progress into senior roles so when the opportunity arose for further research funding via Clore and AHRC Sandeep Mahal MBE gave me the push I needed to apply (and invaluable advice). Many other Clore alumni contributed as interviewees including Matt Peacock, Moira Sinclair, Bryony Robins, Gaylene Gould, Amanda Parker, Ciara Eastell OBE, Claire Hodson, Jamie Beddard and Justine Themen.

Through the research, the practical guides and case studies I’ve published on I’ve increased awareness of what co-leadership is, the many benefits it offers organisations, and clearly demonstrated it can make leadership positions more attractive to global majority, disabled and female leaders.

My Fellowship also enabled me to invest in developing new skills as a coach, facilitator and change management specialist. I now share what I’ve learned from my experience in leading change in different institutions on Clore courses including Emerging Leaders and Pulse.

Also, training as a coach completely transformed how I work with others across everything I do. Enabling others leaders to develop a coaching style of leadership is another passion that stems from my Clore Fellowship and I am privileged to run various courses on this topic with Clore alumni Isabel Mortimer and Sarah Fox.

What advice/message would you give to cultural leaders of tomorrow as a result of your experience?

When I completed my Fellowship, I had to write a report summarising what I had learned about leadership. I explained, I’d only read one book during my Fellowship and I’d learned most from other leaders I’d met.

I still believe you can’t learn leadership from a book, or even a brilliant course like Clore Leadership offers. Books and courses are useful, but most of what I’ve learned as a leader over the past 15 years has been from observing and talking to other leaders, and my direct experience.

Once as a school governor, we interviewed candidates for a Headteacher role and asked: ‘Does the headteacher need to be the best teacher in the school?’ One candidate replied, ‘No, but they do need to be the best learner in the school.’  I’ve come to believe that both learning and teaching are key responsibilities of every leader. Good leaders are generous in supporting others to learn. Personally, I’ve benefitted hugely from other leaders in the Clore Leadership network sharing their experience with me in various ways.

Leaders also need to be brilliant learners, open to new ideas and adept at finding opportunities to learn through their work. So my advice would be to find ways to learn that work for you, that are low-cost (time and money) and relevant. Action Learning and shadowing/ informal mentoring are both methods that have worked well for me.

But you might need to make the first move. As we say up North ‘Shy bairns get nowt’ so don’t be afraid to ask. What’s the worst that can happen? I have found people are very generous with their time. If Andrea Nixon hadn’t said yes when I asked about shadowing, I would never have become an Executive Director, done my co-leadership research or landed a senior role at Tate.

What change would you like to see in the world of cultural leadership in the next decade? 

I believe brilliant leadership is diverse and inclusive. Sadly, we still have a long way to go before our workplaces are inclusive and our workforces reflect the diversity of our society.

In particular, our employment practices too often lag behind our good intentions around diversity, equality and inclusion. As Cat Sheridan and Jo Verrent have written, ‘the cultural sector’s engrained overwork mentality is fundamentally ableist’. This means we are missing out on the talent of disabled workers, particularly in leadership roles. In Arts Council England’s 2020/21 survey of National Portfolio Organisations only 7% of employees were disabled, compared with 23% in the working age population.

Sadly, my own research into co-leadership included a survey exploring attitudes to leadership which confirms how deeply ableism is ingrained in our attitudes around leadership. 75% of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘everyone works beyond their contracted hours in the cultural sector’. When workloads are unrealistic nobody thrives, but it impacts most keenly those who are likely to require part-time or flexible working arrangements: including many disabled people.

I think we need to stop over-working and realise that when we tolerate it – as employees, managers, funders and Trustees – we are excluding many people from the workforce.

I hope in the near future we can stop assuming we have to work excessive hours and take responsibility for creating strategies which are ambitious and also realistic for the resources we have.

I’m encouraged that many leaders and organisations are focussed on care and developing inclusive working cultures and I look forward to seeing (and supporting through my work) a step change in this area over the next decade!

Themes 21st Anniversary Alumni Journeys Coaching & Mentoring Governance