Q&A | 'The prospect of doing it alone lacked joy' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘The prospect of doing it alone lacked joy’

Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah on leadership, breaking barriers and job-sharing in a crisis
Diversity Leadership Workforce
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah took up the joint role last November
Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah took up the joint role last November

The appointment of Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint chief executives of Birmingham Museums Trust broke new ground in the sector when it was announced last year.

The pair are among the first to job-share at the top level in museums, and they also join what is still, for the time being, a small cohort of people of colour represented in the sector's leadership – although their pioneering joint model is a hopeful sign that things might be changing.

A few months into the job, Museums Journal caught up with them to find out what it's like to job-share through a crisis and what museums need to do to break down leadership barriers.

How did you both come to apply jointly in the first place? What were the challenges in getting the job-sharing model off the ground?

Sara Wajid: Following a soul-searching process of coaching with the brilliant coach Gaylene Gould, I came to realise that I really wanted the job of CEO but that the prospect of doing it alone lacked joy. Given the social and economic challenges we are currently facing and the complexity of the museum service, I knew deep reserves of emotional resilience and a wide set of really solid competencies and skills would be needed over the long term to do the service justice.

Prompted by Gaylene, I thought about examples of the joint model of leadership more common outside museums – it seemed like the solution. I’d job-shared a leadership role in the past at the South Asian Diaspora Arts archive and I’d seen really effective long-term partnerships up close at Tamasha theatre company between Sudha Buchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, which were inspiring.

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And of course the collective spirit and solidarity within Museum Detox and other networks meant I knew how powerful collaborative work could be. I’d met Zak through Museum Detox and had followed his brilliant work for years from a distance and had regularly been recommending him to headhunters. When we spoke about the job it turned out we’d been thinking along similar lines.

There were complexities of physical distance in preparing for the application process at a distance but like everyone we managed with remote working and lots of phonecalls. And of course we had to convince the trustees not just of ourselves as candidates but of a new model.

But the initial decision between ourselves was the big thing and we actually decided that very quickly in the space of one phone call. We realised that we had the same professional values, very complementary skills, a similar eagerness to learn new things from one another and a genuine interest in promoting diversity of thought and new ways of working in the sector.

Zak Mensah: When the opportunity went public we both assumed each other would be applying. Sara reached out to me to sound out if the role would be of interest. 2020 really made us think about what is important and a work life balance was definitely high on the list. We saw the opportunity that a CEO role job description is a “wish list” and thus our combined skills would be a great fit. 

On a practical level, the standard way to apply is as an individual who, if successful, then seeks a job share partner. We took the unusual step of applying purposefully as a pair. The board was seeking change so took the welcome step of permitting this, with some helpful support from the agency.

The biggest concern everyone we spoke to in the sector during the prep and interview process was “what if you don’t agree?”. We reassured everyone that we could work through any disagreement as it is about what is best for the charity, not ourselves. 

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What are the main benefits of job sharing a leadership role?

SW: In this time, the main and huge benefit is capacity and emotional resilience. I anticipated feeling the usual rush of stress on starting a new job but I was amazed to find I was sleeping fine even during the first few weeks of the new role. Being able to share the load and sense-check our assessments and analysis is invaluable. The range of life experiences and professional competencies across two people is wider and deeper than a single person.

For instance, Zak has a really strong mastery of transformation, organisational design and knowledge of how a complex museum service actually works and I have other types of expertise around cultural politics, socially engaged practice and major capital projects. Crucially, it’s a lot more fun that solo working – Zak is a really good laugh and that matters in this dispiriting time.

There is also something specific about the experience of people of colour in leadership in the culture sector. Over my career I’ve seen a tragic waste of talent because, too often, institutions that appoint a person of colour to senior leadership roles, with an expectation to change the organisation and deliver on its diversity and inclusion agenda, have not changed the culture of the organisation, putting the leader under intolerable pressure.

The more senior you are the more likely you are to be the only person of colour in the room – by job-sharing with a fellow person of colour we minimise that pressure on ourselves. And being Black and Asian, we are also better able to represent as leaders the different communities of Birmingham, who are woefully under-represented in the cultural leadership of the city.

Also, from a sector point of view, we need to see a much faster change in the profile of museum leaders. There are relatively few major leadership roles, by us sharing this role the sector gains two new leaders  of colour in one appointment.

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A few months into the job, how is it all going? What was it like taking over at a time of crisis?

ZM: To use a sporting analogy, job-sharing is akin to the Le Mans 24hr motor race, where it takes two great people to compete together, not Formula 1, which pits two people against each other. Frankly, it feels amazing. Sara is a great talent and I’m learning lots from her. Having two heads is better than one. We can bounce ideas off each other and make better decisions. Also we can be in two places at once!

It is of course a challenge to have about 70% of your workforce on furlough and not physically be in the museums with the collections or teammates. We immediately implemented some digital communication tools to ensure we work as well as we can remotely. 

As both of us were already in the thick of it in our previous roles the leap wasn’t too uncomfortable. We joined just after losing 25% of the workforce so morale and wellbeing was a day one focus, which is tough when many of the team are on furlough. What we saw immediately, though, was a dedicated team. By now everyone was comfortable with remote working too. We both work part-time too, and that allows much needed time to decompress.

You said that you plan to “make a ruckus” at BMT – what are your plans for this?

ZM: We aim to make positive change happen and rethink how we meet our purpose. We seek to serve real user needs which will depart from the traditional way of running a service. Storytelling is at the core of what museums do and we hope to shake things up in collaboration with the community. Within the sector we want to be the best museum to work for, and lead in several areas including community and use of technology. 

What steps should museums be taking to get a more diverse cohort of leaders into the sector?

ZM: Being open to focus on first accepting that we are not diverse in terms of class, race or gender in relationship to leadership. The recruitment pipeline is also littered with barriers that are stuck in the past. If you look at how other sectors recruit, there are lessons we can learn. It is a myth that there are not talented people from diverse backgrounds with the skills to be effective in our sector.

When you see talent, support and nurture it. It also takes patience. We must keep trying. I had two fantastic leaders (Vivienne Bennett and Laura Pye) in my early career who listened to me when I said I wanted to progress and gave me time to learn new skills, challenge and mentor me, for which I’m super grateful.  

What leadership qualities has the pandemic shown are important?

ZM: Responsibility. Leadership is an attitude, not a title, and leaders must take responsibility and lead by giving the people in your organisation the ability to do their job. Being human/people-centred both in terms of our workforce and our users is everything.

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