Time to rethink beliefs around ‘cultural fit’

Amanda Parker, Issue 119/05, 01.05.2019
There's renewed focus on leadership, but are we missing those in the middle?
Arts Council England’s new Transforming Leadership Programme received almost 200 proposals in five weeks – almost double what it expected. This showed a huge appetite for investing in leadership. But while it’s great that there’s funding for increasing diversity at a leadership level, there’s also a challenge that goes far beyond making arts leadership more inclusive.

We need to look at who works where, what roles diverse employees occupy and what qualities we consider to be a “good fit” for leadership positions. If we cannot rethink our assumptions around “cultural fit” in the workplace itself, then we’ll fail to make the arts sector truly inclusive.

While there is renewed focus on who’s at the top (leadership), and increasing numbers of entry-level initiatives, we’ve missed those in the middle.

There are experienced professionals with protected characteristics in heritage roles, but often they are languishing without adequate career development opportunities. Diverse freelancers are frequently brought in when there’s a cultural fit with a particular programme, such as an LGBTQ season or a disability-awareness campaign, but somehow aren’t considered a cultural fit for the workplace environment, so don’t become part of the permanent workforce.

Let’s lift another corner of the rug on the other unspoken bias that renders diverse staff invisible, or not “leadership potential”. How many are in roles that put them in good stead to progress to senior leadership positions? How many work in partnership management or fundraising compared with outreach or community engagement? How many are given opportunities to lead their teams in high-profile initiatives, where their skills might be noticed beyond their usual role?

We should look closely at long-serving, diverse staff whose careers have stalled. Sector leaders must ask whether their workplaces can be creative enough to see individuals in roles other than their usual ones. And care must be taken to ensure that the working environment is flexible enough to give truly alternative leadership the support, and space, to thrive.

In terms of skills assessment, the heritage sector is cautious: it’s assumed that staff need a degree and often a master’s specialism to occupy managerial roles. Contrast this with the trend in non-arts sectors to dispense with qualifications-based recruitment, and to judge potential through a creative and practical assessment of skills. Do you really need an MA to curate an informed and engaging programme? What if incoming talent from another sector is already equipped with marketing, stakeholder or logistics skills? Couldn’t leading institutions develop on-the-job training that provides the additional expertise required to take careers further?

There are fundamental skills common to mid-career roles in every workplace. We should be able to identify the relevant transferable skills, and augment the knowledge required to deploy these effectively. Such a lateral approach would make speedy improvement to sector diversity. Focusing on mid-career skills also supports entry-level opportunities. It can take five years to see the fruits of early-career development – in which time many leave the sector as they are disillusioned, with no one immediately above them who is like them, or to whom they can relate.

Some of our solutions lie in nurturing the diverse talent that exists, albeit in insufficient numbers. But we can also think radically, and create a fast-track at mid-career level. This would involve attracting mid-career professionals from other sectors, welcoming their proven transferable skills, and providing sector-specific development. It would enrich the sector with fresh perspective and talent, giving an inclusivity injection that’s so chronically needed.

Amanda Parker is the founder of Inc Arts UK


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23.05.2019, 15:03
I agree with you that we must nurture the diverse talents that exist and not focus purely on paper qualifications. But I do also think that it's often not those factors which prevent progression to a higher grade or to become part of the permanent workforce, it's because the jobs aren't there any more. The workforce is shrinking, with increasing redundancies, and doubling-up, to squash what were two or three full-time jobs into one. There is less opportunity to learn 'on the job' in these circumstances, less time to bring on a talented younger colleague with potential but less experience. The workforce is stretched to breaking point in many cases.

At the same time many museum posts, for everyone, are increasingly not permanent or fulltime but short-term, part-time, dependent on temporary, precarious, project-related funding. That of course discriminates in a different way, on grounds of the employee's access to another income which will allow them to take on such an insecure job.
02.05.2019, 13:32
I agree wholeheartedly with this article. The sector is far worse off because of prejudice towards talented people from different backgrounds who have not followed the standard, accepted educational routes, work experiences or possess particular social & professional networks, for many very good reasons often linked to early life experiences. However, if you challenge what is essentially a powerful & institutionalised prejudice towards ‘outsiders’ dressed up as ‘required specialisms’ you absolutely need to understand the power & the fury of the backlash you will face, because you are daring to question & to challenge current power structures built on decades of privilege.