A day with Nicholas Serota

What does the UK’s Tate art museum group have in common with my last thursday? Nick Serota, Director of Tate from 1988–2014 spent the day with the Museum Leadership 2018 Cohort in Sydney.

This was the second best thing in six days of leadership training, and rather than try to summarise I’m going to write very briefly about my takeaways and reflections.

Verbs as enabling powerful action

Nick shared with us, confidentially, the two-page document he wrote for his job application. Everything in it was phrased as clear, active verb statements. While we so often read corporate statements phrased like ‘we should have some sort of hot beverage, mid morning’, he structured it as ‘serve tea and coffee at 11.00 for everyone’.

In discussions, he led us through scenarios he had faced. He asked what we would think we would do, in that position. Most of the time we waffled about ‘could do’ and ‘consider factor X…’. Nick then responded with ‘OK, great, you have identified the issues and options; now what would you actually do?’

As a leader, thinking and feeling is as nothing without an action. But…

Patience creates space for action

It was evident that Nick used waiting as a tool to get things done. He spoke of situations where he asked someone to delay writing a letter, then called a trustee to ask them to advocate a senior person for a change of decision. The details don’t matter. The point is that he spoke of ‘creating the time to allow others to act — it was all I could do at that moment, but it was something. And it worked because the weekend allowed for these senior people to talk an authority figure to a reversed position.’ The implication is that hasty action would have failed. But this wasn’t vacillation — it was fully intentional.

He talked about maintaining an ongoing conversation, talking about purpose and options, without forcing a decision. Don’t use the authority because you don’t need to — the course of action will become clear to those in the conversation. Eventually, a single course will become clear and then you can act when your team asks you to. He said he would listen, hear their truths and the contexts around these truths, and only then move to action, as the situation itself demands it.

This balanced clarity of forward movement combined with slow conversation and cautious steps was a powerful combination — it felt like the secret sauce that lifted his creativity and intellect into his style of leadership.

Intellect and clarity rather than process

He barely spoke of systems and methods. Far more he talked of embedding and enabling the right people. One thought was so resonant with me I tweeted it that evening — to be utterly clear on expectations of a decision-maker:

I expect _______ to make this decision.

I expect _______ to make a recommendation to me and I will decide

He said this wasn’t just about him and the staff member he was tasking. The audience all around him saw this as an expectation of a culture of working.

Leadership is lonely

It is easier if you have a cause. But even then, it is and will always be lonely. If you don’t thrive in that scenarios — don’t do it.

Decision-making and culture

He gave us a real warning. It is seductive as the leader to make the decisions. I am in control, I am deploying my expertise. But, if you are the one making the decisions, then you are the only one making decisions. The organisation will come to a halt and/or you will burn out.

Pivot

When he arrived at Tate, some meetings had been set up about a course of action. Those actions were someone’s idea of how to achieve an objective. He rejected the action, but found a different — better — way to reach the goal. My takeaway is to listen for the intended outcome behind an instruction, and if you really believe in a different course of action, pivot that way. But you must honour the intended outcome — rejecting that is a different thing to rejecting the course of action.

Don’t share your entire change vision

If you share everything with everybody, then there will always be a person who disagrees with one part of it. Then you find yourself assailed on all sides simultaneously. Go slower, release in stages, then you can win some battles and build a peace without ever fighting an entire war.

Realism about yourself

You are your organisation’s most precious resource. And you can’t do everything. Nick made some very strategic senior appointments for two reasons:

· someone else will do this better than me (technical skill, credibility)

· I will not have time to do this well — because I must focus elsewhere

During the fundraising period for Tate Modern, he knew he would be doing many development and partnership conversations. So rather than split attention, he took on a great leader for other Tate needs.

And this wasn’t his favoured focus — but it was what was required of him at that moment, and so needed to be done.

Articulate and make real your values

Nick suggested that in 1988, Tate did not value artists sufficiently. He organised parties for artists and put younger artists on the Board (because senior artists have a god-like status that kills conversation). He made Tate about artists as well as art — and the results in the long term are clear.

Pictures and diagrams are more powerful than words

Yes. But it is so easy to forget, this is true for all audiences — including Board members, government

Create your luck

A potentially contentious meeting with government departments — worried about the outcome. Turned out the senior public servant chairing the meeting was someone who had been invited to Tate events over many years. You never know who you are building as an essential future ally.

Imposter syndrome

He has it. He confessed that he feels it frequently. So this is no excuse for any of us :)

Final reflections

Have a vision for where you are going — but start from where you are.
We collect forever, we interpret for now
Inactivity breeds discontent — do something, even if you aren’t sure of the outcome
Never underestimate how long it takes to make real, lasting change.
Internal comms before you need it — or it’s too late.
No-one achieves on their own.
The comedown after a big project feels like failure — but it isn’t. It is just the absence of adrenaline
All leaders should be working to turn themselves into a coach