In this series, we ask the same set of questions to a number of leaders who are making an impact through their leadership and vision. Next in the series is Dr David Gaimster, Chief Executive at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. At a recent client event David presented an insightful evaluation of the various challenges that face cultural institutions and that demand an innovative response. His personal profile below highlights the leading image he brings to the Auckland Museum's current transformations.
1. What has shaped your leadership the most?
I think that across the board leadership is now much better than it was when I started in the cultural sector thirty years ago. It has become accepted as a discipline and the theory and practice of good leadership is constantly evolving. Having worked in some very hierarchical organisations I would have to say that it has been examples of poor leadership which I’ve witnessed that have been my motivation to try to do better. These include instances where bad communication and a lack of empathy have meant that organisational change has been unnecessarily difficult for staff and the leadership team have not achieved buy in. I agree with Leadership thinker John Maxwell who says that “leaders become great, not because of their power but because of their ability to empower others”.
2. What are the 4 or 5 key principles that define your leadership and why are they important to you?
The business model for museums and the art and culture sector is changing, and moving from not for profit towards social enterprise. A strong focus is on delivering social capital which requires a compelling vision. This means that what good leadership in the sector looks like is changing too. Currently Auckland Museum receives 75% of its funding from Aucklanders every year. I want to accelerate the growth of our own revenue generating activities to shift that to 60% within the next ten years. We are placing our focus on commercial imperatives which ensure we deliver programmes and exhibitions that are eye-catching, engaging and capable of competing for our visitors’ precious time. To do that requires passion and a clear sense of purpose for the business you want to create, so that combination is a guiding principle for my management approach.
Secondly, I would describe my leadership as anticipatory rather than agile. We work in a volatile environment with multiple disruptors such as a changing political landscape in Auckland with public funding flat-lining for cultural organisations across New Zealand. Rather than just acknowledging that changing environment I believe in anticipating the next iterations of that change. This requires an inside-out approach where all our people are encouraged to think beyond what our audiences want now to how and what they will want to consume, cultural information and knowledge in the future.
Identifying and developing the best people is critical for any leader and it’s my belief that the right people are our greatest asset. The ability to anticipate the technical competencies and soft skills we’ll need to achieve our commercial and social goals is vital and I take a keen interest in the direct reports of my senior leadership team. We’re a values-based organisation so succession planning is centred not only around securing intellectual property but also developing people who are fully engaged with our vision.
Finally, I place a strong emphasis on collaboration and partnership across our Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector to collectively build the influence of arts and culture in shaping a Tamaki Makaurau that Aucklanders are proud to live in and visitors get to experience. Leadership should not be introspective. Networking and relationship building is crucial to evolving a cultural organisation into a social enterprise. Few businesses can attain all of their strategic goals working in isolation and the ability to persuade and advocate to and for partnerships is key to growing the audience for arts and culture overall. Our Museums of Auckland and Discover Auckland Pass are two examples of the sector working together to increase our FIT and inbound visitor numbers.
3. Do you think these remain relevant for the future, given the rapid changes and disruptions that we continue to face?
Yes, absolutely. All of these principles are what will enable Auckland Museum to anticipate and manage environmental change and disruption best. Together they are a formula for future proofing the business and for transitioning us from a cultural not for profit into a social enterprise.
4. Which of the many global trends interest and concern you the most, and why?
Digital channels and technologies are playing an increasingly significant part in how we interact and encourage participation from our visitors, and this trend will continue. These developments have also affected the way that people experience the exchange of information. We’re embracing these skill shifts to evolve and improve the audience experience and content. Harnessing new technology has driven a change towards more rich, interactive digital content, both in our on-site exhibitions and through the Museum’s online platforms. And our role is changing too, which means that Auckland Museum is moving from being solely a knowledge authority to also being a facilitator in a broader knowledge network. We’re using digital technology to connect people and make more content available through traditional and non-traditional channels. Auckland Museum has been at the forefront of developing digital experiences, such as virtual reality interactives and collectible content. We will continue to invest in digitising our collection and in the quality of the public connection with our taonga.
5. How do you keep focused on what is critical for success as things change/are disrupted around you?
The passion and purpose I mentioned earlier is easy to maintain as we have a clear vision in our five year strategic plan, with its six priorities:
· Reach out to more people
· Transform the building and collections
· Stretch thinking
· Lead a digital museum revolution
· Engage every school child
· Grow our income and enhance value for Aucklanders
These priorities have been shared with our stakeholders and audiences and the high level of transparency drives our ambition through clear KPIs that will help us retain and grow our relevance for all Aucklanders and as a cultural arrival experience for New Zealand. The galvanising factor for me in an age of disruption is that our audience has developed well beyond the walls of our building. Thanks to our off-site collaborations and strong online presence we are a global influencer now, and that inspires me to keep striving to be among the best in the world.
6. If there was one piece of advice you would give yourself at the beginning of your leadership career, what would it be?
For me it’s the importance of communicating with integrity and clarity. You need to listen harder to bring people with you when you effect change in an organisation. Taking short cuts in communicating your vision will make the process much harder. Investing the time to get people on side and being willing to offer genuine compromise is an important leadership lesson. If you want to achieve buy-in then you need to deliver change ‘with people’ and not ‘to them’.