MMM recently filmed Russell Willis Taylor (President and CEO of National Arts Strategies based in the USA) interviewing Sir Vernon Ellis (Chairman of English National Opera and the British Council) about what good governance looks like in these changing times from the perspective of someone who is chairing a relatively large arts and cultural organisation but who has established and been a board member and chairman of much smaller organisations.
In Vernon’s view, organisations need to pay attention to both short term issues and long term strategy. Compliance is important but should not dominate. If boards spend the majority of their time on compliance, board members will not be engaged.
He explains that a particular dilemma for him is balancing fiduciary duties with being supportive to management. On the one hand his instinct is to defend management from criticism and on the other he knows that he has a responsibility to be objective and that certain things need to be done or achieved by the organisation.
On the issue of risk, Vernon says that the environment for arts and cultural organisations has changed, they were more confident about taking risks when there was a prospect of public sector bailouts. Times have changed. He agrees with Russell that boards need to continue to be courageous and take risks whilst acknowledging that some artistic experiments will fail. In his view risk taking needs to be inculcated into boards, without them going so far that they propel their organisations into bankruptcy. His advice is to be bold but have plans in your back pocket designed to avert disaster.
Vernon believes that arts and cultural organisations need to develop ambitious plans and then stick to them, resisting being blown off course. These plans need to be rooted in their core values – which need to be articulated.
In his view there are three behaviours which high performing boards exhibit and which should be encouraged:
Engagement: board members need to be engaged with the organisation’s artistic work; they need to be provided with opportunities to meet management and contribute outside board meetings and be encouraged to deploy both their networks and their wider experience for the organisation’s benefit.
Joint responsibility and accountability: it’s easy to be in critique mode on boards and to be negative but what’s required is joint agreement and collective buy in.
A focus on long term plans, including a focus on the assets of the business and how they could best be developed and deployed, often boards do not think enough about nurturing their assets.
See also Governance for greater impact Russell Willis Taylor (President and CEO of National Arts Strategies based in the USA) and Tesse Akpeki (facilitator and coach) in conversation about how boards in the arts and cultural sector might achieve greater impact here.
And, Recognising Realities, presentations from an MMM event held on 27th March 2012 considering “What kind of governance and what kind of leadership do we need for these changing times?” here.