ALEC COLES

HELEN SHIELD
ALEC COLES

Trust people, give them space and you will get things done, the chief executive of WA Museum tells Helen Shield.

Biggest or best career break?

It would be tempting to name my past two senior roles, WA Museum and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums in the UK. However, the real break was when I left my job as a senior manager in a museum service to become chief executive of an environmental charity in north-east England, the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. My colleagues thought I was mad . . . but I needed to prove to myself that I was ready to lead. Since, I have managed organisations with hundreds of staff and multimillion-dollar budgets but I have never forgotten what I learned there.

Describe your leadership style.

I don’t expect anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I like to think I’m firm but fair. I think everyone’s contribution should be valued and recognised and leadership and innovation should happen everywhere. I subscribe to the maxim that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I encourage staff to take responsibility and calculated risks, which is regarded with some suspicion in the public sector, the world over. You have to trust people and give them space if you want to get things done. A great example is our dinosaur exhibition. Big investment, big risk but we assessed it, thought it was worth it and it will be the most successful exhibition we have ever done.

Most memorable executive experience?

I have been lucky enough to have many. I’ve shown Her Majesty, the Queen, around two new museum developments; I’ve secured funding and built many major museum projects. There are two that stand out. One is the night we opened the Great North Museum in Newcastle on Tyne in 2009, and the second was May 2012, when the State Government announced the decision to build a new WA Museum, the Perth Cultural Centre, for $428 million.

Are executive remuneration levels excessive?

I do not believe they are. I think executives in leadership positions — whether they are in the private, public or not-for-profit sectors — are all accountable for large amounts of money, significant human resources and they are all expected to deliver.

Best way to improve productivity?

There is nothing that builds external support better than achievement and there’s nothing that builds internal confidence and productivity better than achievement. It comes back to creating an environment where people can succeed. And that’s sometimes in some pretty challenging financial circumstances.

Do you use social media?

I’m a regular tweeter, my Twitter handle is @alecwam, they are my own views but usually to promote something the museum or my colleagues are doing. I put out, with assistance, an e-newsletter to staff and a monthly e-newsletter to our stakeholders. The museum is on Facebook.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love travel, especially in regional WA because I think it’s important for me to understand the State. I am completely in awe of WA and I take photographs: landscapes, wildlife — I just love it. When I’m at home I listen to music, film. I have sporting allegiances, which are pretty sad.

Best Australian holiday destination?

WA, of course. There are so many incredible places and that’s why I spend as much time as I can exploring it. The Kimberley is magnificent, I love Kalbarri and the Goldfields are so evocative. But if I had to choose, it would probably be the south coast — anywhere from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Arid (east of Esperance), fantastic coastlines, forests, flora, fauna, food — and the wine is pretty good, too.

What was the last book you read?

Breath by Tim Winton and, before that, Cloudstreet. I love Winton’s descriptions of WA. I’m re-reading Donald Kagan’s Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. Pericles was an inspirational leader in the heroic tradition and his vision, his oratory, his commitment to common good began the ideology of democracy we hold precious today.

The WA Museum’s Afghanistan exhibition has a community contribution. How do you see your role, not just in bringing exhibits to WA but incorporating the community into your exhibitions?

Museums are whole-of-life institutions because we work in the scientific, historic, Aboriginal cultural materials sector, we work in research and education. People should be able to touch us at any point. The Afghanistan exhibition is an archaeology exhibition but we need to give it a contemporary context, whether that means talking about Australian troops in Afghanistan or involving Afghan communities here in WA. It’s a brilliant opportunity to engage the local Afghan community and to build trust and understanding between all the people of WA, where you have the longest continually established culture on the planet, the Aboriginal people, and at the same time this rapidly diversifying community of people from all over the world. The museum plays a key role in allowing people to explore their identity, to express themselves and to understand each other.