The start of my leadership journey
I had been developing my leadership skills for several years: Attending conferences, gathering professional development informally in different ways and exploring options for further study. As Artistic Director and CEO of Mercurial Dance, I have a leadership role. I founded the company and a parallel charity and have been running them for nearly 20 years. I’m active in committees and was involved in the steering group for Coventry City of Culture Bid. In 2016 I applied and was shortlisted for a Clore fellowship. In my leadership interview, in London, we talked about 2021, when Coventry would be UK City of Culture and about readying myself for the opportunities that this could bring. Reflecting on the interview afterwards and the conversations that had taken place I felt that Clore wasn’t my route and that I needed a different resource for my leadership journey.
A friend introduced me to the Senior Leaders Apprenticeship (Arts and Culture) with Arts Connect and encouraged me to look at it. There was a week or so left to apply for the 2019 entry. It was a big commitment. I had several really clear motivations for starting. The timing was right. I was ambitious for change and knew I needed to take a different perspective on my work and the companies I run. The Arts Connect programme is the only cultural leadership Apprenticeship in the country, which implied that whilst being business focused, it would be relevant to our sector and my work. The cohort I would be joining had friends and individuals working or leading dance organisations, alongside others and I felt encouraged. Finally, the apprenticeship approach meant that financial barriers were substantially lowered and that the focus would be interwoven with company development. It would be practical and applied.
My learning and development on the programme
The MBA programme covers all the ‘traditional’ areas of business and initially was more focused at mid to large scale organisations. Modules included Human Resources (HR), Marketing, Finance, Entrepreneurship and of course the Arts Connect leadership module, which for some is their entry point into the MBA. Part of the learning was recognising I had already gained substantial experience through running my businesses. I just hadn’t named it or articulated it in academic terms or leadership theory. I had to work quite hard initially to tie the theory into a relevant angle for my small business context. Through the programme the MBA started to consolidate my understanding. The essay writing, reflecting and applying it to my work, sharing it with my team so we could develop aspects together, and underpinning our approach with an academic framework has developed rigorous foundations. It has given me a leadership language to match my/our artistic practice.
How it changed my practice
I recognise and talk about leadership now. I find the approach of ‘Leading with Influence’ – Arts Connect’s theory of cultural leadership – helps me to see the ways in which we can affect change in the sector through our actions and approaches within and outside of our organisations. It has changed the way I articulate our work, across proposals, board meetings and planning, enabling a much more strategic approach to my practice. In March, 2020 as the pandemic hit, I took very different decisions than I might have previously. The disruption to our sector has brought some great opportunities and I was resourced to manage and lead Mercurial and our team through this period. We’ve evolved, and come out in a strong position, having grown the company.
The future for Mercurial Dance
We’ve implemented a radical and ambitious shift in our work in creating immersive digital experiences and this change has been underpinned by the academic framework and the work-based project. We’ve raised the artistic quality of our work, taken creative leaps forward and evolved working practices with AGILE development approaches, and found new ways to finance our projects. An Arts Connect Thrive bursary came at a critical time and seeded the creative collaboration with a games designer. It’s led to Fame Game™. Fame Game™ is our new outdoor adventure game launched in Birmingham this summer and touring the UK. It is an immersive digital experience. Armed with a phone and a map, groups set off to navigate the city centre to discover clues, solve puzzles and unpick the narrative behind the scenes of a dance talent competition. You have to find one of the contestants before it is too late. Fame Game™ is just the start of how we are seeking to lead a shift in digital dance practice in the West Midlands. We’ve an augmented reality dance experience in development and are currently researching virtual reality for health and wellbeing. It’s an exciting time for Mercurial, and one that the Arts Connect Senior Leaders Apprenticeship (Arts and Culture), has been a part of enabling.
Oliver Scott, Artistic Director and CEO, Mercurial Dance