Findings from the Supporting Leadership project, a research and knowledge exchange project examining the role of executive and administrative assistants within the cultural sector, have revealed the importance of this overlooked section of the workforce. The project has been led by researchers at the University of Oxford with contributions from staff across more than 60 UK museums, libraries, heritage sites, and arts and performance organisations. The Supporting Leadership
report suggests opportunities for change and calls out for action from the sector.
In the first detailed investigation of this staff group, the report reveals the importance of support roles in enabling and facilitating dynamic cultural sector leadership. It provides mechanisms through which the often invisible work that goes on behind-the-scenes can be better quantified and understood, and it highlights the dangers of failing to recognise and to appropriately value this work.
Despite the value administrative staff bring to an organisation, both leaders and support staff agreed that these roles are undervalued. Some support staff describe their contribution as invisible, they are seen as unskilled and their roles can be a dumping ground. The research revealed worrying trends, such as a high rate of turnover for support staff, with only 31% of administrators in the cultural sector seeing their roles as a long-term commitment (of more than three years) and the remainder looking to move on in the near future. A lack of professional recognition drives this discontent, a problem that seems heightened in the cultural sector where certain roles e.g. in curation and with collections are perceived as more important.
Administration underpins every aspect of working life and there are many benefits to be gained at both individual and institutional levels in ensuring that we value and strengthen these foundations, says Vanessa Moore, lead author of the Supporting Leadership report. Many organisations are being forced to think carefully about how they operate when they reopen. Amidst the many challenges the current situation presents, there are also opportunities to change working practices for the better and improve wellbeing in these roles.
The Supporting Leadership report sets out recommendations for greater clarity in role definition, for raising awareness of administrative work across institutions, and for creating a culture where staff feel empowered to take ownership of their work. The report also provides practical advice for both leaders and support staff with a series of tools focusing on role descriptions, working environments, recruitment processes, and development pathways.
The report urges leaders in the sector to consider:
How they value and recognise the work done by their support staff
How they can better define the scope and boundaries of support roles
How they can help to increase understanding of these roles across their organisations
How they can support their staff to identify their own development opportunities
The Supporting Leadership report is a valuable resource for leaders of cultural institutions to draw upon, says Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Oxford. We hope that the report will provide leaders with the inspiration and tools to ensure the expertise of support staff can be recognised and working practices can be improved for the benefit of all.
Recently there has been sector-wide recognition of the vital roles played by front-of-house staff and volunteers. The Supporting Leadership project takes an important step forward by providing a voice for another essential, sizable and yet generally under-represented group.