In the Initial Stages of Your Career in the Heritage Sector? Advice from a Practitioner Who is Still Learning!

Policy Letters of Advice - Debate 2023

Dear Colleague,

In my experience as a leader, and before that as a follower, the greatest single success factor in any organisation is good-humoured empathy between the people who work there. When people see each other as part of the solution, the resulting teamwork creates positive energy that multiplies and bubbles magically. Change is a natural state, and people can choose to be the change – to lead for better, working together, winning – or have change imposed and feel like victims, losing.

The task of leaders is to create an environment in which people are helped to win, enabled to do more than they think they can. Every day, ‘ordinary people’ can do extraordinary things. Leadership to achieve success comes from within an organisation. The tone is set from the Board, the CEO and senior team members, but the leadership exists everywhere, at every level.

A critically vital element of the ‘tone’ is the creation of a ‘learning culture’, in which – at the heart – there is a ‘no blame’ rule, proclaimed (and lived) from the very top. I learned about the importance of ‘no blame’ early in my professional life, working under a manager who was an ill-tempered bully – nothing was learned, except how to evade him. My takeaway from that job: when ego intrudes, bigotry is not far behind. Unhappily, I have experienced that more than once.

‘No blame’ is the same coin as ‘trust’. Key leaders have many tasks in setting the ‘tone’, but above all they need to communicate a vision, drive the organisation and operate in a trusting manner. Trust includes focusing on outputs, not inputs – on the work done, not the working hours; building a climate that encourages delegation, invests in the capacities of individuals and teams, and sponsors innovation and collaboration.

Leaders at every level need to be risk-managers, clearly understanding that risk is never zero. Mistakes happen, good ideas fall short, stuff sometimes fails. The trick is to manage risk with integrity and sound judgement, and with respect and tolerance.

When being interviewed for a role, be sure to interview the interviewer. What are the values they believe in; do key leaders appear to have a vision; does the organisation have a ‘learning culture’; is there empathy in the workplace; what is the organisation’s attitude to risk; how do they manage performance, and deal with setbacks and failures? If you decide to take the job, good humour helps! But above all bring your integrity to work; be the change, love those who work there … and/but call out inappropriate behaviours at any level.

A footnote – to be a leader from within, be true to your own values; adopt your own personal learning culture; learn from your mistakes; and know that it is never wrong to invest in you! Make time for yourself, learn something new every day and be generous – empathetic – to the team. You won’t always succeed – none of us does – but it will be fun trying.

Oh, one more thing … my experience is that these principles work in any organisation, anywhere. Don’t let anyone gaslight you to think that ‘heritage is different’.

Good luck!

Roy Clare, Trustee, The Heritage Alliance