On Tuesday I was the keynote speaker at the national conference of ENYAN – the English National Youth Arts Network – at the Customs House in South Shields. This was a very suitable venue given the Customs House’s involvement in Creative Partnerships and now Find Your Talent. (The Customs House was the first RFO to run an ‘independent’ Creative Partnerships area, in North and South Tyneside – a model we had to work hard to convince people would work, but which is now more or less the model adopted across the country.)
I’d been set a topic which was possibly some kind of revenge for the kinds of questions young people get in exams, about policy and investment and the importance of ‘young leaders of the future’. I did address it but with a different emphasis. If I say I titled the presentation ‘How Soon Is Now’ that will give both my age and theme away.
Whilst there is a greater policy emphasis on young people and their leadership skills, and more investment there are three key themes I drew attention to. (You can read the policy stuff in ENYAN’s excellent publication Young Arts Leaders.)
Firstly that we need young leaders now, not in the future. (Apart from anything else, they’ll be older by then…) If diversity is a central element to a good leadership team (apply that as broadly as you want, organisation or sector-wide) and innovation vital, we need to develop a more multi-generational model of leadership. In my talk I skipped the research about the way in which Babyboomers, GenX and GenY and what I saw described as Gen@ interact, but it’s not uncomplicated bringing different generations together.
Secondly, ‘professionalisation’ is affecting how young people enter the workplace and their roles there, especially given how the workplace itself is changing. I did a straw poll in our office and the highest concentration of MAs, for instance, is probably at the more junior levels rather than the more senior levels. What happens when managers are less academically-qualified, but have more dirty-handed experience from the University of Life, running a theatre company from the back of a van or a poetry press with a long-arm stapler? We need to develop less hierarchical versions or visions of leadership.
Thirdly, the workplace demands this adaptation and diversification, but is arguably crowded with older folk working hard and productively. The management tiers are not emptying out to make room for talented young people. The leadership programmes are arguably struggling to cope with this, in bringing younger leaders through. The definition of young gets pushed up - sometimes as high as 40 as it was when I joined the British Council's UK -South East Europe Forum at the age of 39.9.
This means it is harder to be trusted and given the risky opportunity to run things, even small things, at a young age. I was 32 when appointed as Director of Cleveland Arts, my friend and predecessor Reuben Kench was just 27. One of my antecedents in this job – or perhaps ancestor is more the word, given he was actually running Northern Arts – Peter Stark was New Activities Co-ordinator in the Midlands for Arts Council Great Britain at 22 and Director of South Hill Park at 25, with 50 staff. Talking to both, we found it hard to think of recent examples of such trusting appointments of young people. There is less room in many senses perhaps.
The further question I was left with, after spending the morning at the conference, was might the recession create a bit of ‘clear space’ in which young leaders can carve out the chance to both fail and succeed - ie grow - in safe but not too safe circumstances?