Case study

Courage to change: how do you transform a Board to put diversity at the heart of governance?

By Hilary Carty

In February 2021 Coventry City of Culture Trust announced the appointment of seven new trustees in a major transformation of its governance: Olubunmi Adenegan, Baljit Dhadda, Sunny Dhillon, Kuljinder Khaila, Kumar Muthalaggapan, Seyedeh Naseriniaki, and Upinder Pokhriyal.

Clore Leadership supported the Trust through a dynamic intervention in its recruitment processes to help turn the Trust’s desire for change into a reality.

The challenge

In 2020 Coventry City of Culture Trust recognised that they needed to create change at Board level in order to design and build the best legacy possible for the UK City of Culture year in 2021.

In autumn 2020 they approached Clore Leadership to gain support in finding and embedding new trustees, and evolving the organisation’s thinking about diversity at board level. The existing board - formed at the outset of the bidding process - had enabled the City of Culture to benefit from well-connected professionals from arts & culture, higher education and local government. They had successfully secured the bid and provided strong and effective governance for Coventry2021. But, with the year of culture more immediately in focus, the question of legacy - creating and embedding meaningful and lasting change across the city - demanded a broader stream of contributors, ones that more overtly reflected the strength in diversity that sits at the heart of Coventry.

Helping organisations to diversify their boards is essential work for Clore Leadership in fulfilling our purpose ‘to cultivate excellence and innovation in the leadership of culture’. Promoting diversity of leadership across arts and culture is crucial in that cultivation, with diversity on boards a key ingredient.

Good governance is not only about the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation. It is equally about the board aligning its work with the best interests of its communities and stakeholders - to reflect the organisation’s broader social, cultural and societal responsibilities. For boards to authentically align with these broader responsibilities and accountabilities, they must draw on wider skills, experiences and perspectives to ensure effectiveness in maximising organisational impact.

The transformation process

Clore Leadership’s expertise in governance and diversifying boards meant we were well placed to support the Trust in recruiting new trustees. Our work supported the full articulation of Coventry City of Culture’s ambition for a truly representative legacy for the creative life of the City. We drew on our networks and connections to help attract and engage the widest pool of potential talent and everyone was delighted with the remarkable response.

We got involved because we passionately believe that strengthening boards with diversity of experiences and perspectives will make their governance stronger. The continuing work of such interventions must be in enabling cultural change: to shift from diversifying boards as a transactional objective to one that is genuinely transformational.

The Trust went public and transparent with its recruitment, a strategically important step (and one that more organisations should consider). The response was 49 applicants, all passionate about the future of Coventry. The recruitment process revealed an immense network of knowledgeable and experienced professionals who had not previously connected with the Trust in such a direct manner, despite evident support for its ambitions. Something about the openness, honesty and sincerity of its call to action conveyed the Trust’s genuine endeavour for change and reached its most eclectic, talented and diverse audience:

‘The new appointments form part of Coventry City of Culture Trust’s long term commitment to unleashing the cultural and creative potential in the city by ensuring diversity amongst its leaders. The appointments form part of a wider policy to embed diverse leadership and opportunities at every level of the organisation, as well as engender change in partner organisations, both in the lead up to and during the City of Culture year (May 2021- May 2022) and beyond.’ - Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive, Coventry City of Culture Trust

This ‘proof of concept’ has seen Clore Leadership work in new ways to support a dynamic intervention in the diversity of governance. Our work now focuses on on-boarding, induction and embedding – working for the long-term cultural shifts that underscore lasting diversity and inclusion outcomes. Instrumental in the process were Clore Associates David Bryan and Thanh Sinden, whose inspirational endeavours continue to support the success of this intervention.

Clore Leadership’s Head of Strategic Partnerships and Impact, Jonathan Mayes, is now exploring ways to consolidate this approach - learning from the positive impacts, and investigating what a new, in-depth programme focussed on diversity in governance leadership might look like - as a model for supporting the wider sector in turning positive intention into practical action.

The courage to change

The leadership of Coventry City of Culture Trust recognised that they needed to act radically. It took organisational courage to acknowledge that they were not in the strong position they needed to be, to enable the Board to think forward, to act for what is right for now, and critically, what will be needed for the future vision of Coventry’s cultural life.

“I’m massively excited about the appointment of our seven new trustees. It’s a real turning point, actually, because a number of us like me, we’ve been at this for quite a while as trustees. And whilst we have a really able board at the moment, we do need some new skills coming in. Even more importantly, it’s essential that our board is really representative of the city of Coventry, throughout all of our communities, which are massively diverse.” - David Burbridge CBE, Chair, Coventry City of Culture Trust

Coventry City of Culture Trust has shared a valuable example. For lasting change to happen, we need all our arts and cultural organisations to reflect on their governance and ensure that boards are sufficiently diverse and inclusive to operate from positions of strength. For transformational change we must go beyond statements and intentions, look beyond what already exists, and have the courage and commitment to act, to embrace the change, and to keep the momentum against waves of challenge and adversity.

We look forward to seeing how Coventry showcases its exciting, talented and diverse arts and culture during this City of Culture year and supporting the refreshed board to secure a lasting legacy for all that is achieved in 2021.

Clore Leadership is developing a new strand of work that focuses on diversity in governance leadership. Sign up to the Cultural Governance Alliance to learn more in Autumn 2021.

Explore and share free resources about governance diversity and more on the Cultural Governance Alliance website.

Key takeaways

Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive, Coventry City of Culture Trust, has shared his key takeaways and top tips for other organisations wanting to truly embrace diversity, and be courageous and committed in acting for long term change:

  • Be outcome focused

  • Be bloody minded - recognise traditional processes won't work, so insist on doing things differently

  • Own the change that needs to happen and deliver it, supported by articulate experts

Meet the new Coventry City of Culture Trustees

Coventry UK City of Culture have put together a video where you can meet the new trustees! Watch the video here.

There is also a playlist with more videos of the trustees here.

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