A Guide to Culture Transformation

Arts Centre Melbourne is a special place where people come together for truly remarkable experiences. In thinking about what the organisation needed to do in order to be the perfect host for audiences and artists alike, the internal culture was the first thing that needed to evolve.

The Arts Centre Melbourne sits prominently positioned on St Kilda Road and in the hearts of Victorians. While not as flashy as its Sydney cousin, this building, or more precisely what goes on inside it, contributes enormously to the cultural fabric of Victoria and Australia. The more than 800 people who work at Australia’s largest performing arts centre host some of the finest local and international talent. From the sublime to the every day, night after night they collectively manage all of the activities necessary to stage world-class events. So what kind of internal culture does it take for this prestigious institution to successfully play such a special role, that enriches the lives of so many, and how do you build such a culture?

Act 1 – the need for change

When Claire Spencer was appointed to the position of Arts Centre Melbourne CEO, a principal challenge was to quickly get her head around the organisation she was now leading. There is a balancing act between assertively making haste and effectively piecing together an accurate picture, and it requires asking the right questions and listening actively to others.

As Claire puts it, ‘How do you value and respect those that have come before you whilst driving the change needed to move an Institution into the next phase of its life-cycle?’

Those who work in creative hubs, like the Arts Centre Melbourne, generally share a strong conviction that society is enhanced through artistic and cultural endeavour. There is a rich vocational seam running through such institutions, similar to what can be observed in the health profession.
Such dedication can be a powerful asset, but it is not enough to drive the change necessary to create an internal culture where:

  • performance and employee wellbeing are valued;
  • everyone knows the role they play;
  • people are engaged as one team to achieve shared objectives;
  • collaboration is the norm; and
  • creativity and learning flourishes.

To create an internal culture such as this, worthy of applause every time the curtain goes up, key elements needed to be carefully orchestrated.

Act 2 – Culture Change and Leadership

There are numerous theories about organisational culture and leadership. For our purposes, organisational culture is defined as a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, that governs how people behave in an organisation. Transformational leadership is where the leader identifies required changes, works to create an inspirational vision to guide the change and delivers change with help from committed, engaged employees. Leadership development interventions are often aimed at building the leadership capability necessary to drive positive organisational culture change.

“How we deliver our experiences is as important as what we deliver. We put people and culture as our number one priority for change, elevating HR to the Executive table and making it a strategic contributor. We defined our target internal culture with our senior leaders and then embedded this within all of our systems, processes and relationships. Equipping our people leaders with the skills to embrace and drive this culture became a major focus.’”
– Claire Spencer

Defining necessary change and target culture required careful thinking and
understanding of what areas of focus would make a positive difference. More challenging by far, however, is making change happen. To ensure change happened, Arts Centre Melbourne called upon Steople to play a key role.

Act 3 – Partnering with Steople

A series of structured development programs were rolled out for executive, senior, frontline and emerging leaders. To ensure maximum impact from each element of intervention, Steople worked closely with key Arts Centre Melbourne stakeholders to identify specific cohort development needs.

Programs included assessment and coaching, at individual and collective team levels, with a focus on building targeted competencies. To date, approximately 10 days of workshops and 4 days of team coaching have been delivered across the entire leadership population.

Positive behaviour change is at the core of Steople’s approach to cultural transformation. Proven methods emphasise the need to create awareness and motivation, as a prerequisite to individual growth. Without positive individual behaviour change at people leader levels, team and culture transformation simply does not happen.

Anyone who has tried to break an old habit and replace it with a new one will understand that behaviour change is challenging, even when the path to getting there is well-planned.

To enable leaders to truly grow, Steople taught them how to maximise the value of feedback, regardless of where it comes from; understand the power of engaging with a ‘growth mindset’ when learning opportunities arise; and to authentically manage their vulnerabilities.

With an emphasis on personal and collective benefits, we helped them tune into unique motivators that enabled them to change and develop. With key growth enablers in place, workshops were used to build specific targeted skills, identified through needs analysis. Team coaching sessions served to reinforce skill development. They provided an environment where people leaders could openly discuss challenges to progress and learn from each other.

At all times throughout the program, a key objective has been to build capability for ongoing self-sustainable growth, through knowledge transfer from Steople to Arts Centre Melbourne.

Act 4 – The Results

Intention to Change

Organisational culture transformation can only occur if people leaders are motivated to grow and change themselves. So a key lead indicator for the success of the program was the degree to which leaders intended to change and had the confidence to apply new skills.

Over three years, 95% of leaders going through the program agreed that they felt competent to put into practice what they learned from the experience. Critically, 93% agreed that, as a result of their participation in the program, they intended to change some of their leadership behaviours.

The Role You Play

‘The Role You Play’ is a powerful piece of communication that pulls together Arts Centre Melbourne’s purpose, vision priorities and values. Launched with sections on People, The Performing Arts, Audience Focused, Custodianship and Business Excellence, it defines how more than 800 employees work together, and with their multitude of stakeholders, to manage one of Australia’s most Important cultural entities.

Positive behaviour change, at individual leader and collective levels, has enabled the internal collaboration necessary to develop this key document that binds Arts Centre Melbourne’s dynamic parts. More importantly, leaders are equipped to engage the broader employee population to ensure positive behaviour change, guided by ‘The Role You Play’, permeates the entire organisation.

Impact on Engagement

An engagement survey was undertaken at the start of the program to set a baseline for the organisation’s culture. The findings resulted in an organisational culture change plan that prioritised leadership, fairness and increased alignment of purpose through improved understanding of strategic priorities. When compared to the first Arts Centre Melbourne staff engagement survey, 84% of questions in the survey conducted the following year were answered more favourably.
There was an increase of more than 21% in the positive response rate to questions regarding the clarity of the Arts Centre Melbourne’s overall strategy and organisational objectives. Positive responses to specific questions regarding the clarity of the organisation’s purpose and values increased by just under 15%. Improvements of 15% and 13% respectively were recorded for communication questions about relevant information being available to the right people at the right time, and Arts Centre Melbourne having a culture where sharing information is encouraged. ‘My managers acting with integrity’, ‘I find leadership inspirational’, and ‘We have the right structure and people to be effective’, all saw improvements of just under 11%.

Performance by Numbers

In the following financial year, more than 1.2 million people attended 1,468 performances at Arts Centre Melbourne. Visitor satisfaction came in at 97% and 99% said they were likely to attend another event at the centre. Nearly 100,000 bought tickets for the first time and 403 schools engaged through the Arts Learning Program. Of a total of $85.4M in revenue raised, more than 63% was commercially generated. Net results from transactions before depreciation were $2.5M.

Finale – Key Learnings

As with every organisation, developing a positive enabling culture was a ‘must do’ priority for the Arts Centre Melbourne to grow and succeed.
Guided by the new incoming CEO, the leadership of this centre of cultural excellence dared to embark upon the transformational journey that was required. Leaders recognised that a new approach was needed and found external partners that could help them build the individual and collective capability to make change happen. They trusted themselves and the wonderful ensemble of employees at Arts Centre Melbourne to positively transform work culture.