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The Changing Face(s) of Governance – What could co-chairing bring to your board ?
By Pippa Warin


Though there has been some writing and research about co-leadership of arts and cultural
organisations, it mostly focuses on executive roles, which are often divided between artistic and operational roles.  Pippa Warin thinks it's timely to consider the benefits of sharing the role of the chair of the board and to consider the contribution this can make to our understanding of a different approach to governance and leadership in modern cultural organisations.

What does good governance look like in a modern cultural organisation and how can it respond to change.  Boards are often associated with hierarchical models and ways of working which can feel stuffy, unchanging and conducted with rather archaic and procedure driven language – often justified in the name of ‘accountability’ for example the term ‘minutes’ actually just mean ‘small notes’.  Other things we associate with traditional arts boards include an emphasis on personalities, egos and charismatic individuals especially the chair; informal ‘who do you know?’ methods of recruiting new trustees and a view often held by executives and senior staff that the board is there primarily for bureaucratic and legal reasons and should be kept at a distance.

What would the sector look like if we saw leadership more as a resource instead of a position? What would happen if we saw governance as part of everyone’s responsibility to each other instead of something for the select few? How might board roles / leadership change if we didn't see it in relation to hierarchy? All too often individualistic ideas of leadership stand in the way of organisations fulfilling their civic responsibilities to their staff, audiences and the wider communities that they sit in. Exciting, forward-thinking organisations risk becoming stagnant and ineffective due to being constrained by the scope of one person’s leadership style and attributes. 



Jonathan Mayes’s article in Arts Professional 13/10/21  ‘ Governance : Beyond the Great and the Good’ argues for a shake up of governance thinking , especially calling for a greater diversity of voices , only 3 per cent of all trustees are under 30 and 92 per cent are white. The Clore report Achieving Good Governance by Hilary S Carty, David Bryan, and Anne Murch: states that “Boards are responding to an unprecedented climate of volatility, speed and uncertainty, compounded by decreases in public funding … board members say they have limited time/desire to engage in these”. In addition leaders of arts boards, especially those who are public figures may have every reason to be concerned about their potential exposure to social media and public criticism. 

The spotlight on governance is welcome in many ways, and part of a necessary change. However, one consequence will be that some trustees and chairs will feel that as volunteers, this level of engagement and personal toll is more than they want to cope with. It may be a good moment for some to move on and they should certainly do so, but it’s also imperative to find ways of supporting and looking after those who want to adapt and continue to make a useful contribution. There are a lot of people out there willing and able to give their time and skills and the distinction between admin/ bureaucratic roles and artistic/creative roles needs to be challenged. These publications don’t really address what kind of board-level leaders and leadership is appropriate and relevant to the radically changed and uncertain world we are in, and how to support and develop board members and leaders. 

There are many aspects to re-thinking governance and lots of imaginative, innovative and unsung work is going on, much of which remains hidden from wider view.  This article focuses on one vital aspect: the chair, the leader of the board, and brings to light some good practice and insights around co-chairing.

I became aware of a real and unmet need to explore this when, through Engage, I worked with emerging leaders in the museums and galleries sector on their Extend leadership course.  Many of them were interested at leading in part time roles and in exploring ideas around collective leadership. They were finding little theoretical or practical guidance, or examples to help them. There is even less evidence about co – chairing, which is not surprising as there is very little networking or sharing of good practice between boards. Finding people to talk to was mainly through word of mouth but those I found were very willing to suggest a range of practical benefits and challenges.


Practicalities : What are some of the features of Co-Chairing ?

Shared Responsibility/Have Fun!  Being a chair is onerous at times and can feel a bit isolating - the buck stops there. Sharing it with someone else actually makes this voluntary, unpaid work enjoyable and companionable, with fun times too. I co-chair Wardrobe Theatre along with Naomi Miller from Bristol Ideas. She commented on our co-chaired awayday ‘It was such a warm, generous and exciting conversation space to be in, and another member of the team said ‘it was a chance to dream together, that’s definitely worth getting out of bed for, and would have felt less joyful if one of us had had to do it alone. ‘

Recruitment and Succession, finding new voices. An advertised recruitment call for co-chairs brings more and different people into the frame, see examples of recruitment packs below. Exeter Northcott discovered this, and Georgie, co chair of a South London play organisation, told me that when they specifically advertised for co-chairs more people came forward. They tended to be younger, creative types with more diverse backgrounds. She said the previous lack of interest was explained by people being put off by the work load and responsibility. Similarly, with succession planning co-chairing can create a real opportunity for people to explore the role, build confidence and enable those who may not have thought of chairing or have other time consuming activities in their lives to step up. Wardrobe has recruited two young trustees through the Rising Arts Agency ( see below). Kath Fox and CindyLou Turner-Taylor Co-Chairs of Manchester Proud Chorus describe amazing support networks and solidarity .

Getting Buy In / setting out the terms.  Getting the support of the rest of the board is critical. Naomi and I set out a formal proposal to adopt a co-chair governance structure for the Wardrobe Theatre. This set out the rationale that co-chairing is both a practical arrangement and it speaks to an ethos of collective leadership and teamwork within the organisation. We described how it would work in practice and built in a review. The Board discussed the proposal without us being present to raise any concerns they had. We undertook to brief each other between meetings, to come to a joint position if necessary, to uphold decisions taken by the other and to ensure that any confidential matter raised with one can be communicated to the other. 

Workload, Skills and resilience.  Freeny Yianni co-chairs with Melita Armitage at Somerset Art Works. She speaks highly of sharing the load and bringing different skill sets, backgrounds and personalities to the role. 

They take responsibility for different areas and each take on different sub groups. They have capacity between them to be able to give each other time off if needed for personal or any other reasons. This makes a big contribution to the sustainability, stability and resilience of the organisation, as well as to looking after themselves. ‘ Chair burnout ‘ is a serious risk to a small organisation, and co-chairing is a good way to mitigate this. Difference and demarcation can take place not only with different functions e.g. finance or people, artistic or administrative but might also encompass background, age or gender. If co-chairs do decide to lead on different functions, it’s really important to have ways of learning from each other to maintain overview.  Support and development for chairs is important and overlooked , for example: ensuring they get feedback and joint or co-coaching and can access personal and professional development opportunities too.  

Challenges . There are challenges too. The relationship with the executive is critical. The Exec has to relate to two people on an equal footing and they shouldn’t have to do things twice.  Efficient systems and communications have to be in place to avoid duplication or stuff falling through gaps.  However, Daniel Buckroyd Artistic Director and CEO of Northcott Theatre identifies a net gain. He says that having co-chairs has had a positive impact, both practically, in terms of sharing the increasingly heavy workload of leading the Board of an ACE-funded arts charity, and importantly, in terms of developing strategic thinking with a broader range of perspective and challenge.


Leadership Perspectives/Where Next 

Paula Orrell, Director CVAN England and lead for Visual Arts South West says: “Working with two Chairs is invaluable to the development of our organisation as we work across networks and invite plural ideas and perspectives into our programme and thinking. However, there has to be a recipe between the two people involved. I have been fortunate now to work with two different pairs who have been equally driven about developing the visual arts and have the same vision. In my experience, it is essential when leading an organisation to have a great partnership with your Chair - so when you have two, there is a unique level of understanding about each other and what continues to motivate you all. I am a great advocate and champion that two heads are better than one “  

Apart from the practical benefits, co-chairing has a real contribution to make to developing our understandings of leadership in a radically changing environment. In its very nature co-chairing embodies and models a relational and distributed way of working and being.  This feels particularly appropriate at this moment in time as we question the kind of leadership needed to adapt to the huge societal and global problems ahead and to the uncertainties that surround us. Adaptive, collaborative leadership values the making of relationships and partnerships. It keeps egos in check; it celebrates the entity rather than the celebrity; listening to and empowering new and diverse voices: being able to hold a space and to be present, working with uncertainty and not necessarily having to come up with answers. It’s altogether a more humble model. 

Jonathan Gosling writes about: ‘Shifts In Doing’ in his essay on ‘Leadership in a context of Deep Adaptation’ claiming that the “leadership of adaptation will be a collective accomplishment, and is best developed as a collaborative, reflective effort “

Freeny Yianni described how sharing the role between two women brought about a gentle cultural change. She emphasised that chairs have to do the right thing rather than stamping the organisation with their own personality and interests. You can’t go off like a rocket in one direction.

Theories of leadership abound, but they are mostly predicated on the supposition that there is an individual leader. In my search I came across a fascinating article: Co-Leadership: lessons from Republican Rome (Sally, 2002).  Republican Rome had a successful system of co-leadership that lasted over four centuries. The system extended from the lower levels of the magistracy to the top position of the consul. Lessons learned included trustworthiness, a unified voice, making collaboration visible to others, power balance, including others, reciprocal lack of pretension, and on-going communication between leaders. These lessons have much to teach us in the contemporary world, especially at this post pandemic moment when so many traditional ways of doing things and running organisations are being challenged and shaken up. We are seeing all kinds of acts of collective leadership, many artists are speaking out, taking actions, leading the way and challenging the institutions of the cultural sector; new voices are coming to the fore; public protests and actions.   If they are not already doing so, boards need to lose their traditional stances and get closer to the plurality, values and flexibility of the work and ambitions that their organisations are creating and supporting.  

Co-chairing speaks to adaptive, collaborative leadership an ethos particularly resonant in the arts and voluntary sectors, and is an attractive supportive way to welcome and mentor new or first-time board members. There’s help out there too, for example The Rising Arts Agency in Bristol sets out to build a community of young leaders through a radical model of holistic personal leadership development, giving participants the opportunity to challenge the structures within the creative sector. 

Becky Chapman and Ben Qasim Monks were recruited as co-chairs for the Northcott Theatre. Ben brought experience of Open Space methods and between them they have shifted the focus from an ‘oversight ‘model which they feel burdened trustees, to a greater emphasis on ‘insights’, valuing having better conversations, the creativity that comes through collaboration and widening the range of voices. Promoting equality of contribution for example using small groups flows from their own dialogue with each other. This leads to better understanding and kinder ways forward. Becky said:  ‘ inclusivity is not an abstraction , it’s the way you are and the way you relate to people and ideas. The co-chairing arrangement helps to embody this ethos, perhaps helping contribute to more humane empathetic organisations and a more humane empathetic sector'.

Charles Landry pinpoints the unnecessary division between administrative roles and creative roles in his recent work on The Creative Bureaucracy. 

Creative Bureaucracy & its Radical Common Sense by Charles Landry . Comedia Shorts 2022. 

“The Creative Bureaucracy’ highlights the human perspective. It understands people are at the heart of the system. It puts the lived experience of working within or with a bureaucracy centre-stage. A bureaucracy is not only a structure or ‘organigram’ with functional relationships and roles. It is a group of people with lives, emotions, aspirations, energy, passion and values.

A creative bureaucracy engages people so that they extend their potential and build their energy. This unleashes and helps harness their discretionary effort – the unrealised resource that can make organizations more successful. “

Let’s value the creativity of everyone involved in the organisation – Board members, admin, tech people, and volunteers (who rarely get a mention), as well as the more obvious artistic roles. The language, culture and style of the organisation will reflect and embody this approach, whereas the traditional language of bureaucracy and admin often intimidates and puts people off joining boards and volunteering. In my jobs as a ‘ culture bureaucrat’ I tried to think of my efforts as being about helping to make the compost in which creative projects could thrive.  It felt fundamentally creative. 

Let’s work together to get some of these innovative examples of co-chairing shared more widely within the sector, as well as getting some serious attention within leadership studies. There are a number of organisations taking practical and theoretical interest in this : Clore Leadership (now an Arts Council NPO) and business schools. Co-chairing seems to be a real way of addressing a more dispersed, generous and relational model of leadership, fitted to uncertain and changing times.  



Pippa worked for Arts Council England in the SW until 2019 with responsibility for strategic partnerships. She has a background in job sharing and co-leadership at senior executive level including Exec Director of Culture SW and the Community Fund. She is co-chair the Board of Wardrobe Theatre Bristol and chairs Literature Works. She has written about co-leadership and worked with co-chairs in a mentoring capacity. She now works freelance with a particular emphasis on leadership, organisational development, mentoring and coaching.


Further References 

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