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How the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme is helping senior professionals to prepare for a bright future in the arts and culture sector

The Oxford Cultural Leaders (OCL) programme was set up in 2014 by Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM). The programme offers an immersive exploration of senior leadership within the arts and cultural sector for those who seek to shape and redefine their vision for their organisation. And, as Academic Director Paul Smith explained when he sat down with MuseumNext, the skills and knowledge gained from the programme are more relevant to leaders now than ever before.

Over the course of the past eight years, OCL has gained an enviable reputation for creating strong connections and a growing network of alumni amongst high-level leaders in the cultural sector. As one of the original founders of OCL and recently appointed Academic Director of the programme, Professor Paul Smith is well placed to comment on the evolution of the course and the leaders it has upskilled in that time.

Paul, who is also the Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, explains that, initially, the goal of the programme was simple: to create a distinctive and useful programme, making a genuine contribution to the wider arts and culture sector. He says,

“The sign of a good training programme is that different people get different things out of it. That is very much true of OCL. We generate connections and help people develop new support networks amongst differing types of cultural institutions. Our teachers inspire confidence and help to develop entrepreneurial skills which might not have been tapped into before.

“More than anything, we aim to change cultural institutions and those that lead them by encouraging a more dynamic and agile approach.”

The Oxford Experience

The OCL residential programme takes place in Oxford each year with the cohort staying in student accommodation and using the University’s museums, botanic gardens and colleges as seminar and dining venues.

“For a city the size of Oxford, we have a very complete cultural landscape right on our doorstep. We really wanted to use the physical landscape of Oxford to help steer how the course is delivered.  We don’t just sit within an anonymous magnolia training room. We take all of the course attendees out and about through the different, wonderful institutions we have here in Oxford and they can learn within some quite inspiring environments.

“The course attracts participants from the UK, the US and around the world and they all really enjoy being based in the historic centre of Oxford. We give them an opportunity to take in lots of cultural spaces they might not have been exposed to, such as the Botanic Garden and Arboretum or the Bodleian Libraries.

“In fact, the feedback we receive frequently from attendees is that our relationships with institutions beyond museums is one of the most valuable aspects of the course.  It means our attendees get a really broad mix of learning and insights.

“It was important to us that our programme was not just a leadership programme from people in the museum sector – it had to be more diverse than that and our location certainly helps bring that variety.”

Gathering knowledge from beyond arts and culture

There are, of course, a number of other benefits to OCL. When designing how the programme could provide a level of distinction to the sector, Paul and his colleagues saw great potential in bringing in the globally-recognised executive training expertise of the Saïd Business School in Oxford. Their perspective has proved invaluable to senior leaders by comparing and contrasting an arts and culture approach with the work of leaders in commercial settings.

“The research undertaken at the Saïd Business School has such an impact on how we deliver our course.  So many of the things that matter to commercial leaders matter to the culture sector.

“Professor Michael Smets from the Business School, in particular, delivers a wonderful piece of research called The CEO Report.  He interviewed CEO’s across the globe in commercial settings and we were able to adapt this approach for the museum sector to create the Museum Leaders’ Report. The results really resonated with us about what we look to achieve at OCL.  We discovered that for cultural leaders, they are focused on being dynamic and innovative, spotting opportunities and running with them. For this generation of cultural leaders it is also important to know when and how to drop ideas or strategies quickly when they aren’t working.

“This need for organisational agility is something that we promote on the course and we explore how this can work across cultural and commercial scenarios as part of the programme. Personally, I’ve learnt a great deal about this fusion of commercial sector leadership in my own approach and we use Google-style agile team working to complete projects at the Museum of Natural History.”

Paul is quick to point out that courses like OCL have an important role to play in reshaping industry trends and questioning what has gone before. He says:

“When we first designed OCL, the real buzzword in the industry was ‘resilience’. This approach is defensive, suggesting you had to learn to withstand everything thrown at you. We wanted OCL to take a different direction. We show how you can be creative and achieve progress through a positive, proactive and ambitious approach.”

In supporting cultural leaders to achieve their own personal development, Paul explains that the programme creates plenty of time for reflection, as well as plenty of collaboration time between participants through workshop and networking formats:

“We encourage people to be introspective and to really try to understand their character and style of leadership. This soul baring lends itself to the residential format we deliver the course in.  Attendees develop a group ethos that we foster during our informal social events and we have now added a final dinner with alumni from previous years in response to the wonderful network we’ve created.

“While OCL alumni are dispersed across the globe, working in senior roles across the sector, they maintain a strong connection with other OCL alumni, one of the benefits of the programme. The alumni like the opportunity to return to Oxford, and this multi-year connection is hugely beneficial to the arts and culture sector. It’s an element of OCL that we’re justifiably very proud of.”

Preparing for a bright future

For most senior leaders in the arts and culture sector, the past two years have been a time of survival. In many instances, strategic long-term planning has given way to short-term goals and rapid changes to new ways of working. But with so much learnt over the course of the pandemic, now is a critical time for senior leaders to re-focus and redirect their organisations towards growth and innovation – something OCL is perfectly placed to help shape.

“As we come out of Covid, there is a more immediate question of ‘how have audiences changed?’” Paul suggests. “At the Museum of Natural History, we’re now at 92% of pre-pandemic visitor numbers but they are not the same visitors as before, either demographically or in terms of mindset.  Our new audience has very different wants and needs. In many ways that presents us with opportunities.

“One of the things we are really focusing on in OCL is what did we learn during the pandemic. We were quick to pivot to digital to retain audiences but now that our visitors have greater freedom we’re in a phase of learning what they want from us in the future.

Paul continues: “As a senior leader, I try not to focus too much on challenges and the damage done by Covid. Instead, the goal should be to try to look at the positives of what institutions have achieved in recent times. Those learnings can help to inform how we continue to be innovative and agile for the future. A healthy organisation with a core of good leaders will thrive by always trying to get on the front foot in the face of difficulty, despite the economic climate.”

As a sign of the Oxford Cultural Leadership programme adapting to the times, it is now available in both a residential and online format. Introduced during the pandemic, Paul explains that the online programme will continue because it allows those unable to commit to a longer residential course to take part:

“Digital courses help those who are restricted by personal commitments from attending a residential course to still access the programme.  It really helps to diversify the type of senior leaders OCL attracts. So, based on feedback, we will continue offering an online programme.”

The 2022 Oxford Cultural Leaders residential programme will take place in Oxford this September. Applications are now open and due by 27 June 2022. The next online programme will take place in spring 2023. Find out more here.

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