You can’t change anything without doing something different…

by Jon Spooner, Artistic Director and Chief Executive

2020 has been… well it’s been a lot of things, hasn’t it? But one of the things it’s been is a time of significant change in the makeup of our Board of Trustees. We’ve recently said goodbye to three extraordinary people who have been with us for many years – Martin Sutherland, Mark Hollander and Alison Andrews – each of whom have been fundamental in the development of both the company and for me, personally. I would do anything for any of them (though they’d want to argue, brilliantly, with me about whether that was the right decision before doing it themselves anyway) and I owe them all a significant debt of thanks. And a fair few lunches. Thankyou, Martin. Thankyou, Mark. Thankyou, Alison.

Softening the edges of our sadness in their leaving, we’ve been joined by three extraordinary new people – each of whom I have huge admiration for both professionally and personally. Their biogs and a longer piece follows from our (also brilliant) Chair Emma Roe about the process we went through to develop/refresh our Board. I’m just taking this opportunity to thank you all (past and present) for your time, your wisdom, your rigour and your patience in making Unlimited the best that it can be. I’m proud and humbled to have had the opportunity to work with all of you.

Caroline Hollick

Caroline is Head of Drama at Channel 4. Prior to this, she was Creative Director at RED Production Company since 2013, running the development team and overseeing RED’s international and domestic slates, including dramas such as the BAFTA-winning Happy Valley by Sally Wainwright; Cucumber by Russell T Davies and his anthology series Banana, which was also written by Charlie Covell, Lee Warburton and Matthew Barry; BAFTA-nominated Prey by Chris Lunt; and Trust Me by Dan Sefton. She was Executive Producer of Lenny’s Henry’s first original drama commission Danny and the Human Zoo and this year Executive Produced Butterfly, a 3 x 60’ series for ITV 1 written by Tony Marchant and starring Anna Friel. Prior to this at RED, Caroline was Head of Development from 2006-2013, after joining the company in 2002 to script edit Clocking Off. Caroline began her career as a production trainee at Yorkshire Television working on Heartbeat, Emmerdale and At Home With the Braithwaites. @CarolineHollick

Tania Mahmoud

Tania is Cities Programmes Lead at the British Council, where she works across Arts and Education, Youth and Skills portfolios to coordinate programmes in key cities in England and supports the development of their international cultural relations strategies. For example, this includes leading on the British Council’s international partnership with Coventry City of Culture 2021 and delivering programmes like Transforming Narratives, which supports Birmingham towards achieving its aspiration of becoming a leading international centre for contemporary South Asian art. Prior to this, Tania was Partnerships and Collaborative Programme at the Science and Industry Museum, where she built and developed strategic partnerships with local, national and international cultural and science organisations to develop and deliver creative programming for Manchester Science Festival. She has also worked in fundraising and project management roles at educational charity Teach First and multi-artform cultural venues The Lowry and Contact. Tania studied Theatre Studies at Lancaster University and has always had a love for contemporary theatre and dance. In her spare time, Tania enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, live music and the theatre, socialising with friends and going on expeditions around the world. @TaniaMahmoud

Nickie Miles-Wildin

Nickie leads Graeae Theatre’s new writing programme. Throughout lockdown she has created an online programme of work entitled Crips Without Constraints to highlight the voices of disabled creatives during this time. Previously she has worked at The Royal Exchange Theatre as Young Company Programme Leader and prior to that as Resident Assistant Director, part of the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme. Nickie is best known for her role as Miranda in the London Paralympics Opening Ceremony 2012, co-directed by Jenny Sealey. @knockback78

Our Board Recruitment Journey
by Emma Roe, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Unlimited Theatre

It can be a bit of shock to look around the board table of the charitable arts organisation that you’ve been chairing for a few years, only to discover that the worst of unconscious bias has crept up on you.  You’ve managed collectively to create a board that completely fails to represent not only the broad spread of society and therefore any audience, but more importantly the artistic work that is so consciously and carefully focused on inclusivity and accessibility.  How did this happen? And where do we go from here to solve it?

Given the emphasis within Unlimited’s own work on discussions of difference and inclusivity, I think it is fair to say that it was with deep embarrassment that those of us on the board had to confront not only the fact that we were a very white, and dare I say it middle-aged, board, but also that 3 out of the 4 of us came from a more corporate background than one closely connected with the arts and culture more broadly. 

Being a lawyer on the board of an arts organisation, I tend to feel like the least creative member of the company and often like the blunt tool in the box when it comes to handling difficult topics and situations!  It also means that naturally I am driven to a bit of a process-based approach when we face any sort of challenge.  

So to start the process of addressing this question of how to diversify our board, we started by doing a skills analysis to think about what contribution each current board member felt they were bringing to the table and then confronting what it is we collectively saw as the gaps in our expertise.

There is more intentional work involved in diversity than simply opening the doors wider.

I’d been to a recent training event on diversifying boards in the arts, at which I heard the view that national adverts for new trustee board members was considered the best method for ensuring the widest possible diversity of candidates, but to be honest we’d tried this in the past at Unlimited and hadn’t found it a great way of finding the right fit for the organisation.  Whilst I get the argument that the alternative of approaching board recruitment by the ‘tap on the shoulder’ method definitely has the risk of simply homogenising the board through friends of friends, without ever broadening the diversity of views around the table, I don’t think rejecting this method entirely or using national adverts to recruit new board members is the right solution for all organisations either.   

Whilst a national advertising campaign might work for the household names amongst charitable arts organisations in this country, I would argue that for many of the smaller, less familiar names, it is not the best route to ensuring a more diverse range of potential board candidates.  Essentially, there is more intentional work involved than simply opening the doors wider.  It takes a more considered approach to ensure that those people who might not feel enticed to respond to a national advert are approached pro-actively to join a board.  After all, who doesn’t want to hear someone say “we want you” and know it is specifically meant.

Unconscious biases will control you unless you control them

With this in mind, and having honestly faced the impact of our own unconscious bias on the board make up, we could all think about who in our respective network of contacts might be approached to bring not only the precise skills and connections we were looking for, but also to broaden our representation at board level. 

Starting the conversation with our skills gap analysis allowed us to consider what skills and connections Unlimited had specifically lost from the board with recent departures.  So, for example, with the retirement of a valued board member from a leading regional bricks and mortar arts venue, we discussed how someone with more of a connection to festivals, outdoor events and/or museums would perhaps more accurately reflect the shift in where Unlimited’s work was being performed now.  This led us to think about the fantastic Tania Mahmoud, a contact now working for The British Council, but who had worked alongside Unlimited during previous shows at the Manchester Festival. 

We also looked at this skills gap with a specific eye to how each member of the company could benefit from a representative voice on the board as support when that need to bounce ideas arises.  This led us to acknowledging the need to balance out our more corporate leanings to include more support from another fellow artist/performer and also emphasising the production experience side of our board.  This led us to approach Nickie Miles-Wildin, an amazing artist and theatre-maker with a distinct emphasis on creating work which challenges perceptions and the talented Caroline Hollick, a long-standing friend of Unlimited’s founders, and now Head of Drama at Channel 4. 

I think it is fair to say that each of these great additions to our board would not have necessarily found themselves responding to a national advert to join us, but each is entirely the right person to bring their valued skills and connections to the board of Unlimited.

You can’t change anything without doing something different.

And I think this is where the nub of it is.  Even those of us who feel we work hard to be unbiased in respect of sexual orientation, disability, race and other differences, can find that without an intentional check on our actions, unconscious bias can creep into any institution.  It takes effort and focus to ensure that it doesn’t and to consistently act against it.  As someone rightly pointed out to me, you can’t change anything without doing something different.

By confronting our own unconscious bias in this stark, but honest way, we were able to think carefully and intentionally about which contacts within our broader network we wanted to approach to fill those skills gaps on our board, whilst giving priority to those individuals who came to mind who might also bring a different voice to the table.  I believe this has led to us ‘tapping on the shoulder’ people of really valuable additional experience, but who might not have felt welcomed or encouraged to respond to a national or regional advert. 

I would encourage any smaller, charitable organisation to look to create a new blueprint for evaluating your board recruitment needs in a way which consciously challenges the creeping menace of unconscious bias.  Whilst I appreciate simply opening the doors wider through advertising might work for some charitable bodies, I think it’s important to recognise this alone won’t shift the ‘old boy network’ feel of many boards – overcoming issues of inclusivity and diversity needs more considered effort and challenging conversations to reach the right people to invite to your board table.