bckr | Bringing Your Skills to the Arts – Neil Adleman tells us why Lawyers Think Differently
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Bringing Your Skills to the Arts – Neil Adleman tells us why Lawyers Think Differently

Bringing Your Skills to the Arts – Neil Adleman tells us why Lawyers Think Differently

This week we were pleased to welcome Neil Adleman to BCKR to hear his thoughts on board membership in the field of theatre. Here is a summary of what we had to say;

Summary of meeting with Neil Adleman – 9 February, 2016

Neil has been a partner in Harbottle & Lewis for 12 years, having escaped from the City. His practice focuses on theatre, live entertainment and the arts and for some years he has sat on the boards of arts organisations.

He currently serves on:
• The Peggy Ramsay Foundation. A £6million grant giving foundation, where the key challenge is making the investments work.
• The Split Infinitive Trust – endowed by Alan Ayckbourn and
• StageOne – a charity focused on training and entrepreneurship, again a very different discipline.

He has recently stepped down from being Chair of the Sheffield Theatre Trust which runs 2 large theatres. £11 million turnover, a staff of 150, 2500 visitors each night and effectively 3 different businesses in one – production of shows; operation and hire of venues and commercial and trading via bars and catering. The complexity of the organisation does not stack up against the numbers. (By contrast the National Theatre, the largest not for profit arts organisation in the country, has turnover of £100 million.

Lawyers on Arts boards
As a lawyer you are wearing 2 hats
1. That of director
2. That of trustee – higher level of obligation and responsibility

Often it is the lawyer on the board who remembers that and reminds others. Usefully a lot of arts organisations have the default view that they need a lawyer on the board. Easy to see why they default to that mind-set but it is important to understand why they want one. Often they don’t know.

Why do they want a lawyer?
Often this is a box ticking exercise – wanting representation from all professional services around the table.
Amongst arts organisations and their executive staff there is a lack of understanding about what a lawyer can bring and they are often very surprised by their business. Expectations also need managing. You are not there to provide legal advice. The role of the lawyer on a board is about issue spotting and steering. It is actually down to risk management. Helping to make a decision about when to take/pay for advice. It is very different from private practice’s approach to risk. When an organisation only has £10,000 per year on external advice to spend – you tend to take less advice.

Lawyers sometimes underestimate what they can bring. A lawyer thinks in a very different way to most other professionals – more linear – which is often not a bad thing. The ability to analyse, work through to solution, evaluating options. You’d be surprised how valuable a skill that is on a board.

Very few arts organisations have any in house legal – other than the top ten nationally – so unlike other NED professionals who might have a natural opposite number on the executive team, lawyers don’t, which can often mean that their main mentoring relationship is forged with the Chief Exec.

Risks for the lawyer
The challenge for lawyers is to stop being a lawyer. Easy to spot the legal issue, roll up your sleeves and dig in, but sometimes you need to know when to step back and look at the bigger picture. The board’s time may be better spent on that one.

Coming in from professional services, you must gain an understanding that funding for much of the not for profit sector is about not going bust as opposed to the commercial world’s profit motives. These organisations live year to year largely on their P&L.

What are the benefits for the lawyer?
• Improved management skills – you learn so much watching the coaching and advising that goes on
• Paucity of resources – it is heartening to see what people can achieve with such tight resources. Reminds you of how the other half lives. It has given Neil a different way of thinking about the law.
The lawyer is sometimes nothing more than a risk manager, merely deciding when to spend money on advise. Very different from the council of perfection we were all taught to strive for.

How can people get involved in the arts?
Organisations are desperate to find good people – particularly lawyers. More now advertise in print and online. Worth checking out Chamber of Commerce websites and The Arts Council. Most organisations don’t know how to find people. There is a lack of match making. It is no longer the ‘old boys network’. Recruiting is much more open.

If you are interested in an organisation – drop the Chief Exec an email. Most will genuinely add you to their list as potential candidates when opportunities arise.

How did you choose Sheffield?
Neil was a graduate of Sheffield. He was originally invited by previous chair whom he knew through a professional context. Very important to hit it off with the Chair and the CE.

How would you do due diligence and spot the ones to avoid?
Always look at the accounts. There are far more details published on the Charity Commission website than you might imagine and it does a lot of the analysis for you. These organisation’s health and success are driven by the CE and the Artistic Director. By meeting them you get a feel pretty quickly for if it is an exciting prospect. Are you excited and motivated by what they want to do or is it a long list of woes? A conversation will drill down to the nitty gritty pretty quickly. A lot of what is published will tend to be positive only.
Also worth talking to other trustees. They have nothing to lose by being honest. The Arts Council will provide the bare minimum such as whether it is an organisation in special measures.

Do you ever sense tension between the commercial revenue generation and the artistic drivers, and where do you come in?
If the organisation runs well, you wouldn’t see the join between the artistic director and executive leadership. As an example of when it works well – 3 years ago he was on a board where the F&A committee signed off on a budget based on certain assumptions about upcoming productions. The artistic director produced a very uninspiring programme due to the restrictive budget. Therefore, the budget was taken back to the F&A committee for further review where a decision was made to reengineer the budget for that particular year. The year ended with a small surplus.

However, he has seen situations where the FD can’t justify a budget increase and the artistic director digs in. This is where the trustees need to intervene and find the middle ground, to act as the honest broker.

Where do boards go wrong?
When they try to shadow manage the CE too much. You are there to challenge and probe but not to make proactive moves. Don’t disempower the executive. It can also go wrong when the board becomes complacent – riding high on the crest of a wave. Sometimes the Chair is overbearing. It is the hardest thing for a trustee to ask the difficult question in those situations.

Is there a tendency for over dominance on the artistic side?
The problem is often more a lack of engagement with the board by the artistic team. You need to get the artistic director engaged with the board. You still need to be able to hold them to account. The commercial/FD director can be over engaged however, and simply present things as a package that they want rubber stamped. They stifle debate.

Boards go wrong when they try to shadow manage the exec team too much. Board’s role is not to make the proactive move, but rather to approve. You can not disempower the exec.

It also goes wrong when boards are too complacent. Awards, reviews, balancing books are not necessarily an indication of tomorrow. It can turn on a sixpence. Sometimes the great and good chair can be overbearing.

What is the time commitment?
Roughly 5 meetings per year plus the expectation to be on one committee. Very manageable. Being Chair is obviously more, with the addition of a weekly phone call with the CE – about 1 hour. Most organisations are realistic about how much people can commit to.

What do you do about legal issues that you aren’t necessarily experienced for?
Set boundaries early with the Chair and CE. Make is clear that you can help get outside advice. Offline you can help the CE choose where to go for that advice. Don’t give the legal advice.

What has been the trickiest issue you have dealt with?
Firing a Chief Exec. Very time intensive. A drop everything moment involving 3-4 weeks of reorganising the day job’s diary.

Supporting the management team in its success, winning awards, getting good reviews does give vicarious pleasure. We appointed him, we created the culture and environment.