Choosing the scholarship
In February 2022 I look on the role of director, production & events at the iconic Sydney Opera House. I had started in October 2021 working on the preparation for the 50th birthday in 2023.
Production and events is one of the largest portfolios at the House, with 250 staff across staging, lighting, sound, AV, recording and broadcast, venue hire and event operations and planning. Shows, events, concerts, talks and corporate sponsor events are facilitated by my team. We are the team that takes the plans and artistic vision and makes them a reality.
When I was lucky enough to get the director’s role, I realised that although I was ready for it, it was the biggest job of my career to date, and I should invest some time into being the best leader I could be. By chance I was in a meeting with a CEO of one of our resident companies and she suggested I apply for a scholarship through Chief Executive Women (CEW), the preeminent organisation representing prominent and influential women leaders from the corporate, public service, academic and not-for-profit sectors in Australia. I applied for three scholarships and was lucky enough to be awarded the Hansen Executive Leadership in the Arts CEW scholarship. This scholarship offers one Australian woman working in the arts an incredible opportunity to study an executive-level course of their own choosing anywhere in the world. And so, my search for the right course began.
Living in Australia is a wonderful thing, but it is also an awfully long way from all of the international courses that I found as I searched for an executive leadership course. As I downloaded and read the various courses in the UK, US, France and Switzerland I was drawn over and over again to the Strategic Leadership Programme at Oxford. It was simply different. The way that the brochure talked about the interactive experiences, tours of Oxford, the tutor groups, the business school tucked away to offer an immersive experience, the fact that there were no case studies or pre-reading, homework, or onerous tasks to complete made it a clear winner for me in my busy role. There was just something about the way the programme was described that drew me in and although I looked at lots of other programmes, I kept coming back to the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.
Having grown up in the UK and only visited Oxford occasionally I was really looking forward to experiencing the University and the promise of a tour around the city and a glimpse into life at Oxford was exciting. I really had no expectations about the programme, I wanted to arrive with a completely open mind as to what I would learn, who I would meet and what the experience would be like. I know that I am at a point in my career where I need to make decisions carefully as they will set up my career in its mid to final stages. At the age of fifty, you realise that you only have 15-20 years left of working and you want to ensure you make the most of that time.
Immersing myself in the programme
From the very first session with everyone gathered in the library, I was engaged immediately by the warm welcome from the programme directors, the faculty and the staff at the college itself. Some of us had come a very long way to be on this programme and we were made to feel at home straight away. I soon found out that there were ten other Aussies on the programme, which was great, all from different sectors but all with the same approach to life - have a go, and that is exactly what we were asked to do for the time we were together.
Then the work began, interesting speakers, models of management, leadership advice and tutor groups where you got to know some of the other participants just that little bit more. I was in a fantastic group hailing from Saudi Arabia, UK, Pakistan and a fellow Aussie. We had a wonderfully thought-provoking tutor, Pegram, who always drew out interesting conversations in the group.
Time away from daily life is always a gift when you can shut off completely and immerse yourself in another experience. I am lucky at the Opera House, I had someone acting in my position so I could devote my time to the programme and fully engage with the subjects and the sessions without disturbance. I know many of my fellow students were constantly pulled away and back into their work life which made it harder for them.
One of the biggest challenges I felt whilst on the programme was to not eat too much! There was so much food at every meal and a full cooked breakfast every day was always tempting. Fitness focus sessions in the morning were a lovely way to start the day and although I did not attend every day, I enjoyed an early fresh start to the day when I did.
My biggest takeaways
The programme asked us what our biggest challenge was both professionally and personally, what was next for us, and where did we want to go. These are big questions and ones which I thought I knew the answer to but since returning I have questioned myself and continue to do so.
One of my biggest takeaways from this programme has been the adage 'A leader without followers is simply someone taking a walk'. I have thought about this a lot since returning to my role. What do I need to do for people to follow me, how many people are following me already? How do I know if people are following me? I don’t have all the answers yet but the time I spent discussing leadership and hearing about how others lead and what it is that challenges them has certainly helped me on my leadership journey.
Recently I have caught up with a few people from my tutor group and hope to have another one soon. Being able to hear their challenges, their successes and where they are heading is so interesting. Some are similar, and some couldn’t be more different, but we can all give each other advice and hope to help in a small way. I have joined the alumni group and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with Saïd Business School. The Strategic Leadership Programme has never felt like just a programme, it is the beginning of something more.