Chief Executive, Sheffield Theatres
"Having the chance to have three months away from major work responsibilities is an exciting and daunting project.”
When I discussed this with my board at the theater more than a year ago, we talked about the purpose of the sabbatical, what I might learn, and what I would bring back to Sheffield Theatres. As the start of the sabbatical came closer and I began the real preparation for being away, I also became focused on preparing our staff team to thrive while I was gone.
The board was keen to appoint an interim Chief Executive while I was away and after an open process, Claire Murray, our Director of Communications and Fundraising, was appointed to this role. Then, we had to figure out how to make her successful. What did I expect of her while I was away? How would the entire team come together to help her do her day-to-day work while she was filling my shoes? There was so much to consider, and TRG was helpful not only supporting her in this process, but also, in integrating her into the executive-level counsel that they provide.
My sabbatical began with a residency at the 15-year-old Esplanade in Singapore and has had a high impact on my thinking. The Esplanade is one of the busiest arts centers in the world, and Benson Puah, the CEO of Esplanade, is one of the most genuinely gifted leaders I’ve met. As I planned to join their team while still in Sheffield, I could see that the experience was going to be exceptional. I anticipated learning more about international partnerships and observing lots of good practice. But I was not ready for the complete access I had to the organization.
The first thing that hit me (and it was hard to miss) was how deeply ingrained Esplanade-Theatres values are with the work that they do. The entire team, led by Benson, believes that the arts make a difference to the Singaporean society. Seventy percent of their nearly 3,000 annual performances (across six venues) are free and are as important as any of the paid tickets work that they present. The team at Esplanade truly believe in making the arts accessible for everyone: they’re dedicated arts professionals who are also arts advocates. I found myself reflecting on the fact that in the UK we sometimes shy away from sharing our mission and values too widely—they might sit in our business plans or be hidden on our websites, but at the Esplanade it is very clear, upfront and very much part the team’s mantra. I think when I return we should have more of a sense of ownership of the mission and better describe publicly why we do what we do.
The second thing I took away was a variety of management processes clearly structured to ensure that audiences and excellence are first. Every day Benson and his key managers meet at 9:00am (called the AM meeting) for 30 minutes to coordinate all events for the day and make sure everything goes according to plan. A significant amount of daily coordination needs to happen with so many events happening each day and in every corner of the building, these daily meetings do two things: 1) they save time with emails and other communication later in the day, and 2) they help Benson reinforce their values every day. The team behaves (and believe) as if they have a moral obligation to the audience. I once heard Benson say, “Our profit is not dollars, it’s in how much we help people.” I want to bring this simple process to Sheffield’s culture. We spend so much time planning our future, looking backwards and often at the expense of the activities of that day.
The Esplanade team also has an unusually focused programming process that keeps the audience at the center of their thinking from the start. The programming team—almost 40 strong—are responsible for making on- going programming decisions throughout the year. Each recommendation includes a description of who the program will attract and why it’s important to be part of the season as well as how it contributes to its aims. Programmers are
responsible for all aspects of the program: from marketing allocations and sponsorship securement to ensuring artists have wonderful experiences – even meeting them at the airport and hosting their visit. They’ll truly have ownership and accountability for each program’s success. I like this approach and wonder what we can better do to integrate our artistic program considerations with what we know about audiences at Sheffield Theatres to get the best possible results.
My fellowship with TRG Arts had me asking about and looking for examples of how the Esplanade valued patrons and patronage. I would say that as they have so many different audiences, programs and ‘hired’ or rental programs, they can’t think of audiences as separate “patron groups” as yet. But when I think of TRG best practices, the Esplanade team does manage seating inventory to maximize revenue, they have a membership program to create different relationships with their immense body of ticket buyers (but don’t have a subscription program), and they do absolutely plan with the audience in mind. What strikes me is that they also never sit still, are always revising and reviewing their offer, and are incredible at self-evaluation and improvement.
Singapore has a different culture in giving than the UK – support for the Esplanades Programme for Schools (which is sponsor-named Keppel Nights), as well as their work in health and support for the older generation is just amazing. They do have great successes in attracting funds for this work with sponsors. Additionally, in June this year they hosted their first gala, right on the stage of their main theater.
“When I look at the lessons we’re learning from TRG Arts in Sheffield about patron loyalty, I see the team at the Esplanade seeding a future that can only develop. And, I’m reminded about how important it is for us, at Sheffield Theatres, to really invest in the systems that grow and sustain our patron relationships.”
More than anything, I want to thank Benson and his team – they gave me my own desk (!!) and so much access to their operations. It made me feel like I was really part of their team. From my vantage point, this was just another sign of the excellence that they value. It was a very special time for me, and I know that I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to have this opportunity.
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