Does the new BBC DG need ‘renaissance talents’?

by | May 16, 2012 | News

Rob Davies from Cirrus writes for Human Resources

16 May 2012

Since current BBC director general Mark Thompson announced his resignation in March, there has been a great deal of speculation about who his successor might be. There has also been widespread debate over what skills the new DG needs to have.

BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten reportedly told colleagues that the next BBC director general will have to combine “the wisdom of Aristotle” with “the striking power of Wayne Rooney”. Boris Johnson, in trademark straightforward style, has called for someone who is, “free-market, pro-business and understands the depths of the problems this country faces.” Does the BBC really need a multi-talented leader – or does it need a leader who can get the best out of a multi-talented team?

The job specification published on the BBC website does stipulate that while attributes such as compelling communication, creative leadership and strategic thinking are ‘must haves’, an editorial background and experience of harnessing new technologies are considered ‘nice to haves’ and not essential. This opens the job up to candidates who do not come from a traditional broadcasting background. Boris Johnson will no doubt be disappointed to see that commercial acumen is considered ‘nice to have’ and not a ‘must have’.

Lord Patten believes the job requires “renaissance talents” because the DG has such wide-ranging responsibilities. There was even some speculation (now refuted) that the post could be split between two candidates as a job share in order to ensure a wide spectrum of skills could be brought to the role.

There is no doubt that the DG role is a challenging one. It could become even more challenging over the next couple of years. It is likely that Mark Thompson could go out on a high in the autumn following the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics. His successor will arrive in the middle of the BBC’s ‘Delivering Quality First’ cost-cutting programme, with a review of the BBC Charter also on the cards (at which point that commercial acumen might be more than ‘nice to have’ after all).

The BBC is a much-admired organisation. It has a fantastic reputation around the world for broadcasting excellence. It also comes in for a lot of criticism (back to Boris, who recently described it as “corporatist and defeatist”). The DG has a lot to deal with.

Is it right or reasonable to expect one person to have the skills and experience to deal with such a wide range of challenges? Does the role really demand a spectrum of “renaissance talents” and an ability to “understand the depths of the problems this country faces”? Or does the BBC really need a DG who can engage, motivate and inspire others – others who already possess the wide range of talents necessary to ensure the BBC achieves future goals?

A great leader can unlock the potential of others, and really engage them with an organisation’s mission, values and purpose. The most successful leaders also share leadership responsibility across the organisation, creating a culture of freedom and support where others can thrive. It is not necessary to be an award-winning programme maker in order to uncover the award-winning programme makers of the future, or to be a technological genius in order to foster technology innovation.

By focusing their search on attributes such as values-led team leadership, the BBC is making it clear they are looking for inspirational leader with a clear vision. The “wisdom of Aristotle” may indeed be an advantage to the next DG. “The striking power of Wayne Rooney” may not be quite so essential – but the ability to spot the potential Wayne Rooneys of broadcasting, and create a climate where they can thrive, would be a distinct advantage.

Rob Davies is a principal consultant at Cirrus. To read Rob’s article on the Human Resources website, please click here.

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