IWD 2021: Q&A with Louise Mitchell, Chief Executive at Bristol Beacon

Victoria Matthews
Initiative Manager | Business West
4th March 2021

As part of International Women’s Day on 8th March, we spoke to Louise Mitchell, Chief Executive at Bristol Beacon to learn more about her views on women in business and what a more gender-balanced world-view means to her.

Tell us about your role? 

I’m Chief Executive at Bristol Beacon. We’re a registered charity responsible for the concert hall programme and for music education across Bristol. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?  

I think maybe having the chance to take an idea and make it happen. That can be true about staging a wonderful music show or sensing potential in a colleague and encouraging them to develop and shine.

And what are the most challenging aspects? 

Being involved with a major building project is hugely challenging. My role involves managing the complex web of stakeholders, inspiring potential funders to contribute and constantly reminding everyone that the finished result will be more than worth the hard work.

What 3 things do you think you need to progress as a woman in business?

I’ve been very lucky throughout and have seldom been really conscious of gender, but I have seen huge progress towards equality during my working life. It’s true that there have been a few times when I’ve needed just to take a deep breath and get on with the job. For example, when I worked in Glasgow, there were quite a lot of formal civic occasions to attend; in the early years I was usually the youngest person in the room and one of only a handful of women. So, I’d say the ability not to think too hard about the surroundings is quite useful. 

I’ve needed to develop various techniques to try and appear more confident than I feel in some situations. I used to do that by always making sure I looked the part if I had something tricky to do at work. I’ve grown beyond that now, so I now have a wardrobe full of redundant rather pompous jackets waiting to go to charity shops. It did help at the time though. 

A golden rule for anyone in business is never assume that people understand what you and your company are trying to achieve. The arts are a bit more nuanced than manufacturing or sales so it’s always worth taking the extra time to explain what success looks like. Working in the arts is a real privilege, I think you get to touch the edges of what life is about and become inspired by wonderful things. Arts organisations are often quite sophisticated businesses facing many of the same everyday challenges as industry and commerce.

What are the biggest challenges the future generation of women in business face?

The world in general is becoming more conscious of the importance of equality of opportunity for everyone irrespective of gender, race, disability, sexuality or anything else. This was rarely talked about when I started work in the 1980s. I very much hope that the future generation of women in business will be judged by their own merits and that people will no longer remember anything different.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your experiences?

I think we’ve all learnt important lessons about leadership over the last year. Instead of catching up with colleagues in the office kitchen we now have to book a time to stare at their faces in a little box on a computer screen. It’s come home to me that everyone’s circumstances are different and that you need to give them space and support to cope in their own way. I’d say that has worked pretty well for us at the Beacon and that we all feel that we’ve become a stronger and more supportive team over the last year.

What can the next generation bring to business that previous generations may not have?

Above all an awareness of the world beyond work. I’ve thought a lot about caring for mental health of my team during lockdown. I’m sure the businesses of the future will promote a healthier work-life balance, be more family friendly and consider their environmental impact as a matter of course.

How can we enable more women to take a place at the board-room table?

The answer to this lies in mentoring and nurturing talent through the organisation, gently making suggestions and encouraging everyone to be aspirational. 

How can businesses evolve to be more gender-balanced?

I think we are generally pretty well balanced in the arts, although I am involved with an organisation that has very few men in the core team and I’m hoping to change that over time. A balance of all kinds of people just has to result in better decision making.

What advice would you give to young women and men starting out in business today in context of promoting a more diverse world-view?

Listen and think.

What women inspire you and why?

I’m hugely inspired by women who manage successful careers and a happy family.

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