My week at Harvard

7 February 2013

Last week, Steve Moffitt travelled to Harvard to take part in an international leadership programme involving 100 CEOs from across the world, and discovered that you only ever really understand what you're doing when you leave it behind.

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Steve Moffitt is A New Direction's Chief Executive Officer @Steve_Moffitt

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For the last 2 years I have participated in a leadership programme initiated and constructed by National Arts Strategies (NAS) in the USA. The programme involves 100 CEO's from organisations across the globe convening annually to share knowledge, experience and practice.

The structure of the programme (to date) has been woven around three events that NAS identified as the key issues facing the cultural sector: the new nature of competition, money and relevance. Working with faculty from some of the top business schools in the USA, the focus of each gathering has been issue-based education – often difficult, challenging, and for me always new.

I was invited to apply in 2010 by Russell Willis Taylor, NAS President and CE0, just as it was announced that the Creative Partnerships programme was closing. Always willing to embrace a challenge and explore new opportunities I was successful in securing a place and thanks to the generous funding of The Andrew W Mellon Foundation, The Fidelity Foundation and The Kresge Foundation, there was no cost to A New Direction. The learning has been invaluable and has supported AND and me through a period of major transition and change.

The 3 convening's (so far) have taken place at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, The RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, The University of Texas at Austin and Harvard Business School.

This has been my first experience of Executive Education or Business School - I have learned how to have a 'fierce conversation', examined my dominant logic, worked with empathy maps and change theories – discussed a range of organisations through detailed case studies – so it's been a huge learning curve and much of this is still quite resonant and in my head as I just got back from Harvard Business School a week ago.

Apart from it being absolutely freezing (like nail biting and face numbingly cold) - and me being slightly in awe of the fact that I was at Harvard - the 4 days were intense and memorable. 95 CEOs were involved. 95 SMART, bright, clever people - individuals from a diverse group of not for profit organisations, disciplines and art forms - largely based in the US but also involving representatives from Australia, Canada, Brazil, Hong Kong and the UK. This was the first time all the participants have met as a whole group.

In smaller groups, we worked in-depth on 5 case studies on the theme of relevance. The case studies included New York City Metropolitan Opera, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Sundance Institute and the American Repertory Theatre and Care USA. As a whole group we discussed 'Leading Change - the Role of the Board', 'Action Learning for Leading Change', 'Authentic Leadership and Reinventing the Nature of Relevance' – all very clearly and cleverly facilitated by Professor Kash Rangan.

The highlights for me were the key note interventions from Diane Paulus, Director of ART and on the last morning a session with Reynold Levy, President of the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, and David Britt - retired President / CEO of Sesame Workshop - both hugely inspiring individuals with different approaches and styles of leadership. I was hugely impressed with the power of the partnership building, clarity of vision and place-making of the CEO of the Lincoln Centre, but also really overwhelmed to be in the same room as the man who led Sesame Street to be the global brand and phenomena it is today.

I have appreciated the time to listen to peers – actively listen to new approaches and insights. There are some extraordinary individuals in the group with a wealth of experience and perspectives. The organisations involved are all different sizes and ages, with different funding models, and many are organisations that wouldn't automatically come together to share their learning. I have particularly valued the fact that there are four Zoos participating - their definition of 'relevance to 21st century audiences' was incredibly useful to hear and understand. For me real learning happens when we find ourselves in new situations – out of our comfort zone and in exciting and new territory.

I have been drawn to and impressed by the conviction and purpose of why people are doing what they are doing and although it sounds a cliché – but clichés are often based on a truth - our American colleagues really do the best elevator pitches in the world! They cut to the chase and articulate why their organisation exists, what they are trying to achieve, what they are attempting to change, and the real deeper purpose of what their organisation is doing.

That's the biggest learning I will take away from the experience in Harvard, is that the mission of an organisation is central. It is always changing, and it is everything – it is the core purpose of why an organisation exists. It sounds obvious ,but we often forget.

It's been fascinating for me to think about why I do what I do, and what motivates me to keep going. I think often in the UK we lose sight of the value of what we do - and more importantly the reason why we do it. As the status of cultural education and young people's participation in culture is challenged, it has been hugely helpful to revisit my own personal values and motivations. There is something really helpful about having permission to leave what you are doing and travel for 7 hours to another country, and it to feel legitimate and worthwhile. I know that's obvious but you only ever really understand what you are doing when you leave it behind.

It has been an extraordinary experience for me to be involved in the programme. This has been my first encounter with Executive Education and Business school, but I am sure it won't be my last.