Did you know 200 students a year spend time working at the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London? They get to experience the backstage of one of the busiest opera houses in Europe for a couple of weeks. At the center of it all was Sarah Foxlee, the Work Experience and Training Coordinator at the ROH.
I had the pleasure to chat with Sarah about the program as well as the management training and leadership programs she used to run for over 1,000 employees. With professional development usually falling by the wayside at arts organizations, we can all learn a thing or two from Sarah’s experience working in the field. And hold out for the personal advice she would give to her younger self, it’s something we should all remember once in awhile!
Mara Vlatkovic: I’d love to find out what your career path was and how you chose professional development for arts professionals to be the area you want to be working in.
Sarah Foxlee: After I finished my Bachelor degree, I was wondering what to do next and as I was going around a museum with a couple of friends, they said “Sarah you’re a really good tour guide you should work in the arts”. And so I started working in the arts, first in arts education, then I came to the Royal Opera House’s Learning department, and I’ve also worked for the Cultural Leadership program helping develop leaders in the arts.
Then it kind of all came together. I love work experience, I love working with people who are just starting their career, but I also love the training aspect of my role, which is about getting people to learn how to do their roles effectively and developing their skills and really being the best they can be.
MV: And how does the work experience program run within the ROH?
SF: We take around 200 working students a year, it’s probably one of the largest theater programs for work experience in the UK. We induct them all on Monday morning and we drop them off to their departments. Their work can be very wide, from costume to prop making to ballet stage management, people occasionally work in HR or finance as well. And we support them through their time here, they see a rehearsal, they go on a tour of the building and we help them get a much deeper understanding of the industry.
MV: How long do the students stay with you?
SF: We’re passionate about making sure our placements are brief and supported so we keep the work experience to two weeks maximum. It can be slightly longer for work exchanges, when we know the participants are getting paid through funding. But it’s generally two weeks during which we provide expenses as well so that our placements are as open as possible.
I personally feel very passionately about it being accessible to all and there not being barriers to taking part, particularly as I’ve come from teaching in diverse schools and as my grandparents came from a working class family.
MV: What are the biggest challenges that leaders and managers in the arts face? You’ve worked with so many leaders and managers in the arts, what is the biggest problem or issue that they are facing?
SF: The issues are very much around the broader, national headlines like diminishing arts funding and how you work with less resources, and what that means in practical terms as a manager or leader. In terms of our program, it’s pretty much the same issues that any manager struggles with. Handling difficult conversations, keeping your team motivated, adapting your management style. Something that really came up through the training was realizing that your management style might have to change depending on who you’re managing and at what stage they are in their career or their role.
MV: It sounds like it’s similar to what every manager deals with, but in the arts we seem to also have the added difficulty of finding funding and trying to get a program going as well.
SF: It’s very tough. We also have to deal with the fact that the show must go on and that’s something that affects all other arts organizations too. There’s always a product we have to get out and sometimes the product comes first but that doesn’t mean that we should neglect our own development, and that’s really key.
MV: So what is a good method when talking to a manager who’s struggling with exactly that problem? If I’m the manager and I know that the show must go on, but at the same time I really need to develop as a professional and learn how to lead my team etc. How do you find balance between the two? What has your experience been, what has been the best approach?
SF: As part of the management training program, we included a lot of time for reflection and for people to work on time management in order to make sure that they carve out time in their schedules to work on the non day-to-day things that so often fill our entire days. It’s being really strict with yourself and finding sneaky times any way you can. It’s about actively finding and working on the things that sparkle for you, the things that you really always want to do if you had time. And if you create a list of those things, if you then find yourself in a moment where you do have some time, you always have a list to look back to and can reach for your next thing to crack on with.
It’s strange, because often the important, big-picture things are the ones that you most love about your role and things that you’d really want to do if you had all the time in the world. It’s also often the stuff that makes you really good at your work as well, because if you can bring that added value it’s what is actually tenfold more important.
MV: What advice would you give your 25-year-old self, looking at where you’ve come from, where you are right now, and thinking back to the time when you graduated or just about to start a Masters?
SF: 25-year-old Sarah knew that she wanted to be in the arts and I guess I would just tell her to be tenacious and resilient and to keep going. I think the arts are a hard nut to crack, and at some point you’re making all those job applications and you’re wondering whether it’s worth it. And obviously in comparison to other sectors you don’t get the kind of pay or reward that you might get elsewhere privately. But just knowing that your passions are going somewhere, they’re helping people so just keep going. I would also tell her to think about networks. A lot of people hate networking but it’s so important and I think it’s just finding the joy in speaking to new people and being brave. If there’s anything that you can do to be a little bit braver and bolder, I think people would be surprised at the results.
MV: That’s great advice for anyone really. Thank you so much Sarah to speaking with YPA!
Sarah Foxlee is a coach and action learning facilitator* who lives in South London. Graduating in 2008, with an MA in Arts Management from City University, she has worked for nine years developing people in the arts and education. Following roles in arts education at the National Gallery, Imperial War Museum, and Reading University, Sarah went on to develop leaders at the Cultural Leadership Programme. Here she began a particular interest in advancing female leadership through working on the project 'Women to Watch'. Sarah is a qualified teacher with a PGCE from Roehampton University, and experience of working in inner-city, state primary schools in London. While teaching, Sarah delivered INSET training, worked as Shadow History Coordinator for her school, and lead on the arts and humanities curriculum for her Year group. At the Royal Opera House, Sarah supported managers by facilitating cross-department action learning sets as well as delivering introduction to coaching sessions to grow emerging leaders. She currently works at UCL as Training Officer, helping staff and students to set-up their own businesses.