Iain Standen (OCL 2017): "Reflections on Oxford Cultural Leaders"

Silke Ackermann, Iain Standen and Steven Parissien at OCL 2017

Silke Ackermann, Iain Standen and Steven Parissien during OCL 2017

In the autumn of 2016 I was sitting at my desk when a colleague alerted me to the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme. I visited the website and a quick look around piqued my interest and I decided to apply. But why? And what could I learn from a leadership course?

For all my working life I have been a leader. I was trained as such when I left university and spend twenty eight years in the Army using my skills with some success. On leaving the Army I was lucky enough to secure a dream role, which five years on I still occupy, as the CEO of the Bletchley Park Trust, where I am responsible for the day to day running of this iconic heritage site. In my time the site has been successful with a doubling of visitor numbers and commensurate increase in income, so on the face of it I could have a sat back and assumed that my leadership skills and style had transferred successfully from the Army to the heritage sector, and that I had no worries. But in the back of my mind was a small seed of doubt that all may not be as rosy as I thought. So I decided to complete the fairly lengthy application form and once the selection process was complete I was lucky enough to be allocated a place on the programme. On 26 March 2017 I headed to Oxford for what was to prove to be a fascinating and thought-provoking week.

On arrival we were ‘thrown in at the deep end’ with ice-breaking activities and by the end of the first day we all knew each other very well. And what an interesting and eclectic group we were. Almost half the group came from overseas, whilst the UK contingent represented a wide range of museums and cultural organisations. We quickly gelled together as a team and by dinner that evening, in the imposing surrounds of Pembroke College Hall, conversation was flowing and everyone was sharing their thoughts and experiences. 

The following day we were launched into the full programme which took the form of a mix of academic and theoretical lectures, and practical example and exercises. The days were long and packed with activity. From the morning breakfast and a briefing about the day’s events, through the lectures and activities, to the social events in the evening we were kept busy. And as we were, so we continued to bond as a cohort.

One of the key selling points of this programme was its focus on entrepreneurship as a key element of running a museum or cultural organisation. In this sector we are all grappling with the challenges of having to do ‘more with less’ and the need to develop entrepreneurial skills is crucial. This thread was woven into every aspect of the course keeping everything grounded in reality.

For me one of the highlights of the programme was the opportunity to listen to, and interact with, senior practitioners within the sector and to hear their perspective on heritage and culture. We were lucky enough to hear from, amongst others, Diane Lees, the Director General of the Imperial War Museum, Janet Barnes the former CEO of York Museums Trust, and Richard Evans the Director of Beamish Open Air Museum, as well as all the Directors of the Oxford University Museums.  For me personally the stand-out example was listening to Carole Souter, currently the Master at St Cross College, Oxford, and formerly the Chief Executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund. Her candid and sage advice was fascinating, incisive and amusing, and very much in tune with the themes of the programme. Amongst other things she highlighted the necessity for leaders in the arts and heritage field to have passion for their story, be able to marshal the facts and figures (however difficult and unfamiliar), to have a mix of personalities in their executive team, and to make sure they have a good PA!     

Pembroke College quad

Pembroke College, Oxford

Throughout the programme we were privileged to be based in the impressive surroundings of Pembroke College where we lived and breakfasted. The location for the daily activities varied from college facilities around the university, to those provided by several of the Oxford University Museums. All were high quality and made for great opportunities to learn and interact with the wider environment outside the programme. In the evening we were able to sample of range of Oxford’s culinary delights culminating in a dinner served under the dinosaurs in the galleries of the Museum of Natural History.

So did the course achieve its aim? What did I get from it? Well I certainly learned a number of things.  I was exposed to new ideas and concepts. I met a wonderful group of colleagues from whom I learned a whole lot more. I also had some really important ‘me time’. This was time to get away from the office and the day to day routine, and to sit down and reflect about my leadership and my organisation.  This was invaluable, as all too often in our busy modern lives we do not have or take the opportunity to reflect and take stock. To answer the questions I set myself, I think I confirmed  that my leadership ability was sound, but I have certainly picked up things that I will improve and areas where I can exploit opportunities to help my team be better.  I have now returned to work with new thoughts and ideas, and a slightly changed perspective.  I have ideas and initiatives that I want to implement that have arisen directly from attending OCL and I am confident that they will make a difference to my organisation.

As a residential programme it is not cheap, but worth every penny, and I would have no hesitation in recommending to anyone in a senior leadership role in the cultural sector, or who aspires to such a position, to apply for the programme.


(Banner: The Mansion at Bletchley Park - Image by Bureau for Visual Affairs, courtesy of Bletchley Park Trust)