Elspeth McBain joined Lighthouse as Chief Executive in 2009, moving from London where she had worked as Director of Theatre Management at English National Opera and Head of Programme Planning, then Project Director, at Southbank Centre. The first arts venue she worked in was Fairfield Halls in Croydon and before that she had been an Entertainment Officer at Lambeth Council, responsible for the Borough’s firework displays, funfairs, Circus and the Lambeth Country Show, booking large scale arena acts, horse shows and also traction engines – many of them trundling slowly (very slowly) through Brixton all the way from Dorset!

Today, on International Women’s Day, in a wide-ranging interview she reflects not only on her 12 years at Lighthouse, but also on the state of leadership in the arts and how it’s different for girls…

:: What makes a leader of a nationally significant arts organisation?

Along with the usual business acumen, vision, drive and determination required to lead any large organisation, an arts organisation is totally about people.

Artists, audiences, colleagues, suppliers are all of equal importance and arts organisations have to be able to work with a really diverse range of people – highly creative performers, tough negotiating promoters, regular attenders who always like the same seat and, of course, a dedicated workforce. Being a good people person along with a sense of realism and pragmatism, are all required.

I also think that knowledge of and love for the sector, and an empathy and appreciation of all the roles and individuals who make the organisation sing are vital too. It’s a real vocation, not a 9-to-5 job, and it takes resilience and tenacity as well as very good management skills.

:: Does gender make a difference to those qualities – are there specifically masculine/feminine traits, or is it about authenticity?

I don’t think gender makes a difference to the qualities required but there are certainly differences as to how the qualities are delivered.

I can only speak from my own experience – women seem to take a more holistic and personal approach, but can also be rather less forgiving perhaps when things aren’t delivered well. Men seem more able to detach themselves emotionally from tough decisions. I think women leaders beat themselves up far more than men when they have to make difficult decisions that impact people.

Authenticity is vital regardless of gender – your team will know when a leader is not genuine, or lacks the experience to back up their plans. Your work force needs to feel confident that you know what you are doing and they are in safe hands. That doesn’t mean that the decisions you make are always ‘safe’, but that the reasoning behind it is reliable and thought through.

:: What challenges do women face in attaining and keeping leadership roles in the arts – and how have you overcome those challenges?

My experience is that the arts sector actively supports women in leadership. I have not met with any obvious discrimination during my arts career, although it was very prevalent in my first management role as supervisor of a warehouse, just after I graduated. I learnt quickly and the hard way that you need to show that you are willing to do what your staff have to do – in this particular role it was driving a forklift and unloading lorries in all weathers – and are fair and personable.

I am quite forthright and down to earth and have worked in some great women-lead teams, with clever and fabulous women – and I have never thought for one moment that my gender would be any type of barrier to success. I know that’s not the same for everyone though.

For me the biggest issue that women leaders have is if they chose to have children. Most leadership roles require huge time commitment and continual energy, drive and responsibility. Juggling child care, school communications, cooking meals, while running management teams and boards and often travelling away is challenging to say the least and often women have to decide on one or the other, as it is incredibly tough to do both and to feel you are doing either parenting or work well.

I still have guilt about staying in full-time work after having both my children and my health certainly took a bashing when they were younger and I was working extremely long hours in a pressured environment.

If I had my time again, perhaps I would have done it rather differently – I don’t know many female leaders in the arts who work full-time and have children. It’s really hard and often fairly lonely.

:: What is your style of leadership?

I like to think that I am open, democratic, collaborative, a bit random and maybe unconventional at times; and definitely a shaper rather than a completer/finisher – but perhaps the team should answer that…

:: How has the pandemic affected your leadership?

At the beginning when the whole world had no idea what needed to happen and no one had answers to anything, it was really important to lead the organisation with clear and confident plans. It was important to stay positive and focussed and to keep really clear communication and openness with the whole organisation.

Despite the uncertainty, fear and trepidation, the responsibility for not just surviving, but for surviving well sits with the leader of any organisation and I was determined that we could look back on this period of time and be confident we made good decisions.

The pandemic has required a practical, clear response and a measured plan that all of the organisation can get behind. My priority was to ensure that the organisation survived and taking tough decisions to reduce staffing costs was the worst part of that process.

However, I discovered that my survival instinct is strong and I am resilient and positive. I took the decision very early on that we would do what we could do and not wallow in what we couldn’t. We have taken things one step at a time and tried to ensure that our team’s welfare has been a priority.

More than ever this situation has highlighted that leadership of a national arts organisation also brings with it a responsibility to support the sector, not only locally and regionally but nationally, and advocating for the arts sector at government level and talking to the national press has been a surprisingly positive process.

:: What responsibility do you feel to inspire and even instruct the next generation of leaders in terms of standards and how you go about your business? Is that responsibility greater for women leaders?

I have always looked to my bosses and other organisation leaders for inspiration and expertise and regularly consider what they would do in any given situation – good or bad. I draw on the way they dealt with issues and situations, even when I didn’t think they were right and now as a leader myself I can see that they were!

Offering opportunities for up and coming leaders to learn how to lead is surely the responsibility of all leaders, regardless of gender. Inspiring people by making good decisions, taking the right level of risk, doing things well and having high standards is part and parcel of doing a good job.

Leadership can be learned academically, but experience and observation of good practice and what makes a good leader is essential. Having the opportunity to learn from mistakes is also important – although not too many major ones hopefully! I still cringe at some of mine….

:: What have you learned about yourself as a leader at Lighthouse?

That I need to trust my team – and when you have that trust the organisation can be more democratic and embrace a less top down approach. Bringing in the right people in the right roles is vital, and all leaders need a team of fabulous people to support them and deliver the actual work!

That I am practical and calm in a pandemic!

:: Three leaders you admire and why…

  1. If I can chose a man, Michael Lynch – ex-CEO of Southbank Centre

Michael was a really inspiring boss who took on an incredibly tough job and managed to transform the Southbank Centre site. He was always friendly, positive, fun and had a clear expectation of what was needed. He placed women in top positions and had an irreverence and mischievousness that I much admired. After an illustrious international career, he is now retired from taking on the world’s biggest venues and is back in Australia.

  1. Caroline Miller – CEO of Birmingham Royal Ballet

Caroline and I started our careers at the Southbank Centre on the same day and I have admired how she has taken on one of the largest dance companies in the UK and retained such a personal approach to all that she does. She is positive and her enthusiasm and sense of fun are infectious.  The work that the company has undertaken both before and during the pandemic has been inspiring, ambitious, and uplifting. She is a real tour-de-force… and has fabulous dresses and shoes too! 

  1. Catherine Mallyon – Executive Director of Royal Shakespeare Company

Catherine is a wonderfully understated leader who often is quietly running the show behind more public facing artistic directors. She is super-clever with a way of enabling and supporting decisions, listening to the people around her and staying calm and focussed. Even difficult decisions are taken only after great thought and with such grace that if you are on the end of it you feel it’s the right decision – as with Catherine it is.

*If I was to chose someone from outside the sector – it would be Pip Hare the British sailor based in Poole who has just completed the Vendee Globe round the world non-stop, solo in her boat Medallia.  What an inspiration to everyone of any gender.

:: Three pieces of advice for young women aspiring to leadership roles in the arts…

  1. Learn everything you can – and use what’s available to you do so. It’s helpful to have an understanding of all areas of the business if you can. Be inquisitive and helpful, curious and interested. Be a great colleague – and learn to relate to many types of people. Understand how they like to work. You can be professional and fun.
  1. Work hard. Long hours are likely to be required and you have to be tenacious, resilient and want this. Take on new challenges and don’t always play it safe. Muck in if you need to – it’s all a learning opportunity.
  1. Be confident. You can and should apply for that next role you know you have the expertise to do – you aregood enough. Be ambitious for yourself – you CAN do it. But be tough skinned and keep applying if recruiters decide that’s not the right role for you after all. Think widely about your transferable skills. A really positive attitude and ability to learn are everything.



Published 8 March 2021