Having a shared vision saved our organisation

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust asked staff what sort of organisation it needed to be to thrive in a competitive environment

After 10 years as CEO at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) I’m preparing to hand over the reins of an organisation primed for further growth and success. But it was a different story when I arrived.

The SBT is one of the UK’s oldest conservation charities, established in 1847. It was set up to promote worldwide appreciation of Shakespeare’s works, and to care for the heritage sites and world-class collections in Stratford-upon-Avon, for the benefit of all.

Back in 2007 the organisation had battened down the hatches in an attempt to weather the storm that was slowly sapping its lifeblood – visitor numbers that deliver nearly all of its income. Bad weather, a strong pound, decline in US visitors, closure of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for refurbishment, mounting fixed costs and a world recession compounded years of declining visitors. The team felt powerless to halt this downward spiral.

It felt like we were grimly guarding our Shakespeare heritage rather than sharing it with the world. Morale was at rock bottom.

Now we are in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations To Work For, visitor numbers have grown and income has almost doubled. Last year 5 million people benefitted from our work, and volunteer support has quadrupled. So how did we achieve this?

The answer lay in staff not stuff. Despite the wealth of Shakespearian heritage at our disposal our greatest asset was the people who could bring it to life. What are the world’s most important Shakespeare heritage properties and collections worth unless we can unlock the stories they tell?

The first task was to unite our teams with a vision they could all sign up to. We held a series of workshops and brainstorms to agree a statement that was ambitious while also describing what we do: Leading the world’s enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s works, life and times. This was the rallying call for a more outward-facing, confident and proactive culture. Having a shared vision also helped to level the playing field between departments and tackle silos.

Our people cover an astonishing range of disciplines. Now everyone could see their part in the experiences we provide for visitors to the five Shakespeare family homes in Stratford, through learning and outreach programmes and, later, through digital platforms.

Next we asked what sort of organisation we needed to be to fully realise our vision, and thrive in a competitive environment. We set out to tap into the enormous pool of talent, skills and passion among our teams so they could take greater control of the Trust’s destiny.

Again, consultation was crucial. Through workshops and staff briefings we identified four key values.

These watchwords – ambitious, innovative, outward-looking and collaborative – are embedded in our new performance management process and leadership and training programmes. Putting them into practice has created an organisation where everyone can make a difference.

New cross-departmental initiatives and experimental programmes are now bearing fruit, which will be boosted by stage one National Portfolio funding for the first time from 2018.

Diana Owen is CEO of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust