A Report on Talent 2 Lead Regional Gatherings

Leadership in the cultural sector today

Prepared for the Cultural Human Resources Council
August 2019


Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this information may be reproduced, modified or redistributed in any form or by any means, for any purposes other than those noted above, without the prior written permission of the Cultural Human Resources Council.

CHRC hopes that you will find the information helpful and easy to use, but provides the information as is and makes no representations or warranties of any kind regarding it. CHRC disclaims all liability of any kind whatsoever arising out of your use of, or inability to use, this information.

Writer Annalee Adair
Videographer Ieashia Minott
Video Editor Nicolas D’Aoust

This project is funded in part by the Government of Canada; the opinions and interpretations in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.

In collaboration with Mentorat Culturel et Diversité artistique Montréal


In the spring of 2019, the Cultural Human Resources Council’s Talent2Lead (T2L) program held a series of regional gatherings in order to explore the key challenges facing cultural leaders in Canada. Specifically, the gatherings probed the practices that Canada’s cultural organizations are - and aren’t employing when cultivating, hiring and supporting today’s leaders.

The attendees and speakers at these regional gatherings included a diverse group of program participants and mentors from all cohorts of T2L, and specifically focused on T2L3 leaders from official language minority, racialized and Indigenous communities.

Regional gatherings took place in Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto, and were held in March and April of 2019.

Each gathering followed the same format:

  • Panel discussion and Q&A led by T2L mentors and past program participants
  • Breakout Discussion Groups on the challenges and opportunities that emerging leaders will face
  • Video presentation—Respectful Workplaces in the Arts
  • Webcast—How to build a Respectful Workplaces in the Arts, accompanied by a follow-up Q&A with Laura Williams of Williams HR Law – a labour and employment law firm
  • Networking

The accompanying videos feature highlights of the key challenges and issues that were explored and provide a snapshot of these regional gatherings.

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For the last three years, the Cultural Human Resources Council’s Talent 2 Lead program has been a concerted effort to assist the leadership in the cultural sector to respond to these challenges. Talent2Lead is as much about providing know-how to mid-career cultural leaders, as it is about developing the relationships leaders need to overcome the challenges of the sector and progress in their careers. T2L strives to do this via the creation of one-to-one mentorship opportunities and developing professional networks across disciplines, language, and geography. 

Many of the challenges that cultural leaders need to navigate are common to those faced by leaders in other areas of social and economic life including how to sustain an organization in ongoing financial precarity; how to engage with digitally connected, networked individuals and how to work in inclusive ways. Yet - cultural organisations are different from other organisations and as such face their own distinct challenges.

Leading in the cultural sector both includes competently managing the organization and at the same time, leading culture itself - making work, productions and projects which show different ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world - bringing cultural expression and vitality to the economy and to communities. 

In this video, executive leaders and mentors explore the key challenges and suggest possible solutions to stewarding and retaining Canada’s talented cultural leaders.

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In this video, participants explore the term “inclusive leadership” and the challenges with language, and definitions of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and in practice. As panelist Sanjay Shahani notes “It’s not just about being able to use the right language and how you manage diversity. I don’t want to manage it. I don’t want to administer it. Diversity has to be valued through inclusion.” True inclusion also means much more than the right use of language. In fact, one participant noted how attempts to demonstrate inclusivity, actually end up alienating or isolating instead. “Why do I have to be an Indigenous program coordinator? Why can’t I just be a program coordinator?” T2L participant

“Inclusion and diversity is the same but in a minority context – there is less of a basin of people. We work with francophones and anglophones because there aren’t enough francophones to be all the roles. It is harder to be inclusive because language is a barrier.“ T2L participant

Interestingly, equity-seeking participants at the gatherings did not touch on the challenge of getting a job in the cultural sector in Canada, but rather spoke to the difficulties they faced once they have crossed the threshold.

According to one participant, they can find themselves in an organization that is ‘not ready for you.’ Also, as a panelist Zainub Verjee pointed out “when you start to unpack what inclusive leadership is, you get information paralysis because every article, case study or conversation has a slightly different take on it, right? I work with Boards who say “yes we are inclusive, we have two women on our board” – that’s great but what does that mean for everyone? So, we need to have a unifying vision of what inclusion is so that we can all grow together.”

Leadership have not figured out (even) surface-level inclusion. I don’t want to have to teach you. I want to fire those leaders. Maybe eventually they will wake up and notice that people keep leaving.” T2L participant

This sentiment is reflected in the findings of the CHRC 2019 Labour Market Information Study of Canada’s Cultural Labour Force on equity-seeking initiatives in the cultural sector; the report notes: There is a real lack of training that is sensitive to specific equity-seeking groups’ needs; for example, there is no formal cultural sector management training for deaf people in Canada.

Ontario’s MakingitWork report – a report identifying the challenges of the cultural sector in Ontario echoes this finding; the lag between awareness and action was raised as a major challenge or stumbling block in regions across the province. The report noted that cultural sector organisations demonstrated an increased awareness of need for diversity and inclusion but a lack of formal, accessible, cultural competency training available for the cultural sector. 

“Although 69% of organizations reported that diversity and inclusion is one of their stated values, only one in three (23% overall) has a clear, actionable plan to achieve explicit goals about diversity and inclusion.”

Inclusivity is about “bringing your whole self to work”/ values-based leadership – willingness to let people learn on the job in a safe environment. Inclusion is pre-emptive of harassment.” T2L participant

The conclusion to be drawn is that the authentic inclusion of a diversity of voices depends on a number of factors. Hiring from equity-seeking communities, without the training in cultural differences, teeters dangerously close to tokenism.

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In this video, participants touch on several pertinent human resource issues affecting the ability of cultural leaders to nurture the next generation of leaders. Chronic poverty caused by the consistently low rates of pay across nearly all types of cultural work was cited as a major challenge to succession planning.

Indeed, the 2016 census data indicate that almost 28 per cent of cultural workers are self-employed, more than twice as much as the national level (12 per cent). Coupled with high percentage of part-time, temporary, or contract working arrangements common to the cultural sector, many workers face tremendous uncertainty about employment, hours, earnings, and benefits.

Participants noted that many cultural workers have to work several jobs in order to keep a roof over their head, especially in Canada’s larger centres. In short, shrinking funding, lower salaries and an increase of people seeking employment in the sector is putting a strain on a cultural organisation’s ability to attract and retain leaders.

According to the Cultural Human Resources Council’s 2019 Labour Market Information Study of the Cultural Labour Force: For full-time workers, the average income among cultural occupations was $8,300 lower than it was for the overall labour force in 2015.

Participants acknowledged that although HR is important, that resources are scarce and are focused on programming. As participants, pointed out, HR often is low on the priority list until an issue erupts or there is cause for concern.

“I do believe the cultural sector tends to take Human Resources as “it can wait”- myself included – we’ve had great policies developed but as you are in the middle of events and contractors, you tend to keep pushing human resources lower and lower to a point where it all caves in on you, as the leader.” T2L participant

Other comments from participants revolved around the responsibility that established leaders have to both share their knowledge and to also give young professionals the breadth of work experience (such as supervisory skills) needed for them to advance to senior management. It was noted that it’s not the responsibility of human resource professionals to nurture younger talent; rather this duty lies with the leaders themselves. Leaders often stay in their role, well past their due date. 

Lack of upward mobility can be caused by senior manager/CEO roles being kept indefinitely by the same person. The lack of benefits extends to little or no pension plan. They simply can’t retire. Senior-level workers/managers must work into later years thus creating a bottleneck for promising younger careerists.” T2L participant

In a similar vein, one participant recognized a definite need for mentorship for new executive directors who are expected to have a daunting skillset and may be loath to admit they need professional development in certain areas. Increasingly, the sector is recognizing the need for knowledge sharing and dedicated time for senior leaders and mid-career managers make the leadership transition in their organizations. 

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In this video, leaders discuss how the relationship between Indigenous protocols and how we manage in cultural organizations. The interactive panel discussion highlighted how leaders are managing to bring their whole selves to work in cultural organizations – each day. 

Participants address the recent focus on engaging Indigenous leaders in joining organizations – and the importance of building bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities through outreach, hospitality, education and awareness. The accountability to community was discussed throughout the various gatherings as key to how Indigenous cultural leaders work in their own practice and in organizations. Participants reflected on how they are working today noting that … if asked to choose between one’s community protocols and settler institution’s policies and protocols, Indigenous leaders agreed they would always choose their community. 

“We are held accountable by our own communities. I go out and do “big work” and bring it back to community and check in. It is part of my process. Sometimes I open it up to create space for other people and voices that are less unknown. Sometimes I get negative feedback when I won’t be a representative voice, it can be a fight. There are challenges.T2L participant

As a newcomer, one participant spoke of how newcomers can relate to issue of decolonization – stating that newcomers are among the biggest advocates for change in this area. Participants spoke of understanding how a leader’s own culture impacts their worldview, how cultural assumptions and stereotypes influence their expectations of others and how communication and behaviours should be adapted in different cross-cultural situations.

“When we (indigenous) talk, we have a cultural shorthand and so why do Indigenous people have to hold their (dominant culture’s) hand? In Indigenous culture is a protocol that settler culture doesn’t understand. It is a different way of business. I am challenged in getting people (settlers) to get it. I find there is a fine balance between being token and doing the work. What if the answer to reconciliation is what they (settlers) don’t want to hear? Only now does settler society understand that it is a systems problem and that it all has to happen together.” T2L participant

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This video highlights a series of interviews based on the following questions:

  • What are the lessons learned?
  • How can we continue building capacity in handling these and upcoming HR issues in the cultural sector?

Leaders explore not only the strategies they use but the competencies that they feel are important to face today’s challenges. Panelist Nadine St. Louis speaks of the Indigenous leadership model – noting that leadership is at the center of the circle and speaks of the importance of recognizing the relational nature of leadership. Indigenous leadership provides an opportunity to balance and strengthen cultural and contemporary colonial leadership competencies. 

One of the key aspects is the power of storytelling. As part of the series of training webinars for T2L, panelist Louise Profeit-LeBlanc introduced participants to storytelling as a leadership strategy; in this video, Louise expands on competencies citing emotional intelligence as a key leadership competency. We learn from Louise how important it is for leaders to get to know who they are working with and explains how stories allow one to do this “Everyone has a story; everyone has experience”. Panelist Alison Geskin reminds us of the complexity of leadership in cultural organizations and suggests that co-learning, coaching and mentorship will help leaders and their organizations. 

Throughout the gatherings, participants often raised the importance of strategies that allow for networking, and co-learning; making the point that this is especially true for leaders from remote communities. 

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In the cultural sector there are many people and organisations who work tirelessly and who work collaboratively to foster the growth of Canada’s cultural products, people, institutions and organizations. Leaders in the sector recognize that knowledge is the key asset for sustaining and growing the value of culture. Opportunities for individual and collective knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer can be seen in various programs, events, courses, mentorships and internships. 

Given the diversity of knowledge sharing practices across cultures, organizations and communities, there is no one-size-fits-all model for what this should like. The T2L3 regional gatherings explored models of knowledge systems and knowledge sharing practices of leaders from Indigenous, racialized and official language minority communities. This brought about new ways of knowing to and among these leaders along with 40+ past T2L cohort participants.

New knowledge sharing practices and knowledge systems were explored and challenged through open and honest reflections from panelists, talking circles of peers, and sharing of stories of life experiences.

The challenges explored and knowledge sharing practices highlighted in the videos are critical first steps in how the Talent 2 Lead program is harnessing the knowledge of leaders to be more connected, supported and successful in leading the cultural sector today in Canada.

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