When I joined The National Archives I couldn’t have imagined that I’d spend two weeks living on an organic farm in the name of work. But in late September of this year I found myself at Bore Place, a conference and study centre in the idyllic Kentish Weald, for the opening fortnight of the Clore Fellowship Programme 2012-2013.
I have had the great honour of being selected as one of 29 fellows on the programme, which is designed to support leadership development in the cultural sector. My own fellowship is supported not just by the Clore Leadership Programme but also by a consortium of national archive institutions: The National Archives, National Records of Scotland and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
Most of my fellow fellows come from the UK, but there are also two from India, two from Jordan and two from Hong Kong. Our professional backgrounds range from theatre and dance to libraries and museums. Some are freelancers, while others work for big organisations.
What unites us, I think, is a desire to open the next chapter of our lives. By the time we complete the programme in July 2013, some of us will have chosen new career paths. Others will return to our old jobs with fresh ideas and a new sense of purpose. We will all have developed new skills and enlarged our professional networks. Above all, we will have discovered a lot about ourselves. The programme is all about leading authentically – in other words, in a way that’s true to who we are as people.
Luckily, Bore Place didn’t resemble the ‘Thought Camp’ that featured in a particularly excruciating recent episode of The Thick of It, the BBC’s political satire. Having been dragged to a country house hotel against their will, the fed-up participants improvised new policies (only positive ones allowed) while playing a game of catch, and guessed which political concepts had been written on the Post-Its stuck to their heads. That said, I did smile with recognition when I watched two of the characters climbing a slide in the children’s play area in an effort to get a decent phone signal. At Bore Place we had to go to the end of the allotment.
So what was it really like? I’m tempted to reach for clichés: amazing, intense, unforgettable. It was all that and more. The Bore Place experience is immensely hard to describe, yet profoundly affecting. When I came back to the office my manager commented that I looked different. I don’t think she was referring to the fact that I was showing symptoms of the Clore cold (Clorum difficile – a nasty variant of freshers’ flu), or to the deleterious effects on my waistline of having eaten copious amounts of gorgeous organic food.
We had an action-packed two weeks. In fact, Bore Place was never boring. We learned a lot about what might be called the nuts and bolts of leadership: strategy and risk, finance, managing teams, pitching ideas, leading change, and dealing with the challenges of today’s tough economic climate. A glittering line-up of speakers (including Sir Tony Hall of the Royal Opera House) shared their personal leadership stories with us, which was a huge privilege.
Perhaps most importantly, we spent a lot of time exploring our own strengths, motivations, struggles and life-shaping experiences and learning from one another. There were uncomfortable, even painful moments, but the support we gave each other was overwhelmingly powerful – fellowship in its true sense.
The day that sticks in my mind the most was when we each had to give a talk to a small audience summing up where we were on our leadership journeys. I said that the programme was helping me ‘face up to the fact that I have many strengths’ – an unintentionally comic phrase which ended up being quoted in our Saturday night Clore Quiz. Articulating my strengths in such a positive environment somehow made them seem more real, and gave me more confidence in my ability to lead.
I wasn’t alone in feeling overawed not just by the high-powered speakers and the Clore team, nice though they all are, but also by the fellows themselves, who are of the highest calibre. But we quickly formed strong bonds of friendship, and we certainly played hard: those of us who stayed at Bore Place over the middle weekend created our own entertainment, putting on a show so talent-packed that it went on into the small hours.
I returned home exhausted, but harbouring a sense of excitement about what the future might bring. The next step will be to identify where to go for my three-month work placement after Christmas: mine isn’t confirmed yet, but let’s just say I’m hoping it will be some way north of the Watford Gap. In the shorter term I feel better equipped to tackle the things I’m not good at, I’ve got a brand-new network of contacts who are only an email away, and I’ve developed a greater appetite for trying new things. Like this blog.