On Leadership – Sarah Weir OBE

12 July 2016

Last week we were lucky to have Sarah Weir OBE in our midst, as a guest speaker on our ILM Level 7 senior leadership programme, which we call Appledore.

Sarah’s own leadership journey is a remarkable one, spanning the public, private and third sectors. She was the first ever female MD at Lloyd’s of London. She’s the woman who brought culture into London’s Olympic bid, and art into its Olympic Park.

Punchy, passionate and pink-blazered, Sarah regaled our Appledore delegates with tales of personal high-points and how she made them happen, and of navigating her way through those more uncertain times “when the path seems to be on top of your head”.

When Sarah left school at 16, it wasn’t so much a path that she saw ahead, more like “a thicket”. Eventually she fell into a job at City insurance brokers Lloyd’s of London, working as a “gopher”. She was the errand-runner, the post-opener, the tea-maker.

It was 1979, and “women had only been allowed in for the last three years”. Sarah was one of 50 women in a workplace with 5,000 men, and felt very much part of an “alien species” as a result.

Pluck and steel were the watchwords, no question.

Fast forward 15 years, however, and Sarah had worked her way up to become the company’s first female Managing Director.

But then came the “moment of epiphany”: on a visit to an educational psychologist (“the adult version of the careers adviser you had at school”), Sarah realised she had been following the wrong path. It was time to leave behind the griffins of the Square Mile and “the smart red sports car”.

Instead she went to university, completing an evening BA in Art History at Birkbeck. And it was there that Sarah had her first real sight of women leaders who could not only educate but inspire as well.

 

“I really wanted to run the place.”

The opportunity to put her own stamp on an organisation is a clear draw for Sarah. Her response to her time as fundraising director at the Royal Academy of Arts? “I really wanted to run the place.” But, of course, there’s the old adage about power and responsibility: her move to the Almeida Theatre meant leading the quite literal move of an entire theatre across London, and the need to make “life-or-death” budget decisions that would have a very real impact on the lives of her staff.

It was at this time that Sarah first enlisted an executive coach, who helped to shape her leadership thinking and boost her communication skills in tricky times.

Moving next to run Arts Council London, Sarah’s take on aspirational leadership – and her almost insatiable thirst for “getting something started” – continued with backing the team who put on the acclaimed street theatre project The Sultan’s Elephant. It was here, too, that Sarah first started her work on the London Olympics, as early as 2004. She oversaw the start of ‘Artists Taking the Lead’, 12 funded public art projects across the nine regions and three countries of the UK to put an artistic 12 in London 2012. You may remember the 30ft boat built entirely of donated wood, from rolling pins and hockey sticks to a piece of one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars.

 

“If you cannot see the path, make one.”

Sarah left the Arts Council ten days after learning her application for the Chief Executive role had been unsuccessful. “They were all antelopes and I was a tiger”, she says. And it’s here that she mentions the importance of “sticking your head above the parapet” as a leader, and how this is what brought her to the Olympic Delivery Authority.

The post of Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy was a tough leadership challenge indeed, with the task of delivering on what she had been working on elsewhere for so long. From 2008 until the Games themselves, Sarah would lead on the Art in the Olympic Park programme.

Determined not to roll out a sequence of “plop art” – the usual statues of “running people and javelins” – Sarah wanted to embrace art as a storytelling force, integral to the Park not an add-on to it. Bringing Anish Kapoor’s Orbit (Britain’s largest piece of public art and led by the Mayor of London’s office) and Monica Bonvicini’s RUN to Stratford, alongside multi-coloured bridges and politically subversive poetry, would prove no mean feat.

Especially with the number of stakeholders involved, and the lack of resources on the table. “When you’re faced with no strategy, no money, no people,” she says, “the only thing you have is influence; it’s that culture of doing things differently, from the base of nought”.

Sarah cites two more cultural gems as metaphors for her own experience working on the run-up to Games Day. One is the final line of Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’, which is set into a wall in the Park opposite Chobham Academy school: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. The other is the BBC mockumentary ‘Twenty-Twelve’, given just how close the chaos facing Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes and co was to reality.

 

“We’ve done something now that can’t be undone.”

In engaging with so many different groups across so many different sectors and areas of expertise, Sarah sees herself very much as a “translator”. Bringing arts and culture to the sporting table for 2012 may not have seemed a seamless proposition at first, but one development since stands out as a symbol of her success. Whereas ‘Vision Culture Legacy’ was added into the London Olympic bid document as Chapter 17, from Tokyo 2020 onwards, all bids must feature the chapter. And feature it as Chapter 1.

It’s something that Sarah and a team of people, often been working behind the scenes, take great pride in: to have “done something now that can’t be undone”.

Sarah’s association with the Olympics carried on beyond that memorable summer: as CEO of the Olympic charity The Legacy List. There she oversaw post-Games projects in community arts and education, ranging from play-spaces to graffiti to a floating cinema on the Regent’s Canal.

And Sarah’s down-time after such a long period in such an intense spotlight as a leader? By now we should not be surprised to be surprised: Sarah decided to spend a month volunteering at a secular Buddhist retreat on the West Coast of Scotland. She was ready to “not lead anything but just take instruction… and do the pot-wash”.

Not that her leadership skills were entirely put to bed. There was great joy to be had in gathering up and galvanising the young people around her. And, of course, to institute a new call system to make sure everyone’s lunch got out on time.

The time-out also served as a sharp reminder for Sarah of “the interdependency of everyone”, whatever and wherever the work may be. She would take a keen interest in the kitchen staff at her next role, as Chief Executive of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, just as she had done in the landscape gardener who had shown such pride in looking after the hidden systems that watered the new trees in the Olympic Park.

Sarah is now the interim Executive Producer at the Roundhouse, North London’s “house of young talent”. In and amongst the 21st century takes on punk and circus, Sarah continues to balance her leadership between the commercial and creative worlds. She pictures herself as a tightrope walker – a Woman on Wire – crossing our room with an imaginary pole between her hands, keeping the momentum going.

To lead effectively, then, is to never stand still.

 

Interested in joining our next ILM Level 7 leadership programme? Call us on 0203 036 0689 or email the team.