Running The Australian Ballet falls to two people – the executive director and the artistic director – which creates an unusual but effective dynamic.
Executive director The Australian Ballet Tenure Nine months
Executive director, Bangarra Dance Theatre; executive director, Major Performing Arts and National Engagement, Australia Council for the Arts; director, New Zealand International Arts Festival; associate director, Sydney Festival
How do you define good leadership?
I realised very early on in my career that you can’t do it alone and nothing is done all by yourself. Leadership is about building an environment where people want to listen and want to be motivated. I wouldn’t be the first to say that it’s important to surround yourself with a really strong team, who have complementary abilities. But to make it work, you have to be able to inspire trust and confidence in a common purpose and ambition.
You’ve been in this role since December. What’s been the biggest surprise?
Probably the complexity and the broadness of things we’re facing in the next few years. I was in a meeting with the executive directors of the world’s major ballet companies and it was a real sharing of knowledge. We’re not yet out of COVID and audiences haven’t returned. I said, “Well, I’ve been in the role for 16 days and we’re going to be out of our home venue [in Melbourne, for renovations] for three years in our most profitable market, going through the challenges of the next couple of years on the back of COVID.” They said, “Did you know about all of this when you first started?” and I said, “Yes, I did. But I still took the role.”
What do you do about audiences not coming back as you would have hoped?
In 2019, audiences made up 65 per cent of our income. We didn’t get back to that level at all in 2022 and now, in 2023, we’re in a challenging economic context, with discretionary spending down. We do all that we can – we’re looking at accessible ticket pricing and ensuring that we’ve got the right balance of programming. Big classics like Giselle, Swan Lake and Nutcracker do bring in audiences but there’s a real appetite for new works as well.
You’re new, you have a relatively new artistic director and a new musical director. What are the advantages of having that much change at the top?
Fresh eyes. We’re working in a very different environment. For a lot of arts organisations – not just ballet – models that have held true and were strong before are not necessarily the best way into the future. Audiences are changing. We’ve seen audience shifts pre-pandemic that have been exacerbated post-pandemic. The Australian Ballet has a very strong subscription base – more so than many other major companies – but people are used to staying at home a bit more. We’ve been doing a lot more in terms of digital and streaming but live performance will never go away. You can’t replicate the intensity of being in a theatre with 2000 other people and experiencing that moment together.
And what about the disadvantages of having a brand-new team?
The leadership hadn’t changed for a long time. Change is often a little bit uncomfortable but [artistic director] David Hallberg has been here since 2020 – what an interesting time for him to come in! – and there is a new ambition and a different focus. We see that audiences are responding to that.
You’ve had a perhaps unexpectedly public stoush with the dancers over pay increases. What have you learnt through that process?
These processes are rarely easy, especially in an inflationary environment where our revenue is not CPI-linked. Some really positive changes were made to scheduling, including low-activity days to support the work-life balance for the dancers. I’d like to think that, next time, these discussions will take place in a more positive environment – without the triple impact of a global pandemic, the current cost-of-living challenges and the looming disruption of the closure of our home theatre. That said, I think it took some time for both parties to fully understand the other’s position, which is essential in seeking a solution.
How do you approach difficult conversations in general?
With honesty. Sometimes it will involve things that people don’t want to hear so you have to have a mutual respect and humility.
Do you practise those conversations or are they more in the moment?
I don’t do it on the run. I go into it thinking about my key points, the perspective of the other person and how this will impact them. And then I do lots of listening.
Feedback is so hard, isn’t it?
Feedback is hard but feedback is important. I continually hold a mirror up to myself to look at how others perceive me and what we’re communicating. It’s really important in motivating a team to understand the impacts of what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do, what we hope to be and what their part is in that journey.
This is a very public role. How did you prepare for that?
It’s a different public role. When I was the artistic director of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, which was the leading arts organisation in that country, people would recognise me at the supermarket! Like any CEO coming in to a role, I absorbed as much as I could about the workings and the stakeholders. It’s also a leadership role with the artistic director, David Hallberg. We’ve talked about that a lot – what does that mean? It is unique; it’s not something that’s replicated in the corporate world. We have two voices at the top needing to come together, one with the artistic responsibility and one with the financial and organisational responsibility. It’s a bit of a marriage. I have to get inside David’s head and understand what he wants to achieve but at the same time balance that with the reality of the financial management of the company.
In marriages, couples fight. How are you negotiating that dynamic?
We haven’t had a fight yet [laughs] and I’m not saying we will. David’s a gorgeous person. But we’re upfront with one another. You know, “Tell me when I’m deliberating and when I’m procrastinating.” We keep very close together on a daily basis in discussions about what’s happening. Undoubtedly, there will be a time when we don’t agree but like all good marriages, the best way forward is to sit down, understand the other’s position and find a way to move forward. I’m not anticipating a major divorce.
You’ve spent your entire career working with creative people. What are the challenges that come with that?
Creative people are very disciplined, just in a different way. It’s maybe not about budgets or timelines but they put so much passion into their discipline. It’s my job to understand what it is they want to do and how I can best help them achieve that ambition.
Creative people can bring a certain emotion to the workforce and sometimes that can be tricky.
Yes, it can be tricky because you’re there wanting to do the very best to realise the passion that a director or choreographer wants to bring to the stage but it’s not without boundaries. We’re there to keep the company sustainable and there are facets to that – the work on the stage, the donors, the stakeholders, the audience, the bottom line, the budget.
Would you describe yourself as a creative thinker?
Yes, I do think outside the box. During COVID, I had a sticky note on my desk at home that said, “Hope versus a plan.” I relish the times where we have a moment of uncertainty – not always a crisis – and have to be imaginative and find a solution. It may not be the most direct or most obvious path but once I get something in between my teeth I won’t let it go.
As a not-for-profit you need to have great relationships with= donors and a key part of your role is extracting money from them. Is that comfortable territory for you?
There are different times when you feel comfortable about making the ask. A lot of philanthropy is about finding a way to match that desire to support the company with the right sort of proposition. I really enjoy having conversations with donors about why they’re attracted to the company and what they hope to achieve and getting into the mind of the donor.
Let’s talk about the dancers. The average age of retirement is about 35. How do you prepare them for life after ballet?
We have a lifestyle coach who works with the dancers, not just on their mindset to ensure that they do their very best on stage but to think about what’s next. We have a dancer transition fund so they can apply for funds that have been donated to support study. We’ve had people study criminal law, go on to become a midwife or have careers in arts administration. We also invest heavily in our artistic health team to ensure that dancers can have a much more fulfilling and even longer career with the Australian Ballet or another ballet company.
How are you going on injury prevention?
The results have been incredible. We’ve charted injury over the past 20 years and seen the eradication of some of the usual problems. The objective here is not necessarily about seeing more time at the crease or more time on the stage, it’s about strengthening the dancers to ensure their ongoing physical health and wellbeing. Ballet companies across the world do an exercise commonly called the Aussie calf raise to reduce injury.
What’s your biggest strength as a leader?
Perseverance. I’m not one to resile from problems and say that something can’t be done.
And your biggest gap?
I continually check myself to ensure that I don’t get trapped in the doing. It’s too easy to say, “I’ll just do that and I’ll do it right.” But it’s about helping others to get things done because you do need to concentrate on the higher. In my early career, I was given a piece of advice that has stuck with me. It was, “Lissa, you need to let others do things, even if it means they fail the first time or don’t do them as well as you would like.”
Where do you do your best thinking?
In the early hours of the morning. You can let go of the slurry of the day before, take stock and think, “Okay, what are the things that would make the most difference right now?”
The ballet has celebrated its 60th anniversary. Do you think about legacy and what your contribution to that will be?
I have to say it’s something I do think about. You can get lost in the challenges of the moment but what’s the longer term? We’re looking at some big legacy projects.
Finally, what advice would you give a brand-new CEO?
When you first start, it’s easy to get so busy, into everything and the detail. There are likely to be many stakeholders and many wheels spinning. You need to think about it broadly and long-term.
“Trust, respect, inspire.” Email approach
“Minimise email domination.
I’m trialling a new AI tool,
SaneBox, to sort my inbox.”
“Celebrate milestonesbig and small.”
Business book or podcast “Good to Great by Jim Collins. A number of the concepts and basic messages explored in the book have stayed with me: the importance of a strong team, honest, critical assessment – no matter how brutal it is – humility and the importance of disciplined cumulative effort.”
“Prioritise, schedule, delegate or delete.”
“Be honest and true to your word.”
Favourite piece of advice
“There is a solution for everything – you just have to look hard enough.”
Image credit: Marc Némorin