Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer and has taught creative writing for over twenty years. She is also an experienced festival programmer and is the Children’s Literary Advisor to Listowel Writers’ Week and Children’s Programmer for ILFD (International Literature Festival Dublin). She was Dún Laoghaire Rathdown Writer in Residence 2016 to 2017 and won the Children’s Books Ireland Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Books in 2015.
Her latest book is Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World (illustrated by Lauren O’Neill), published in October by O’Brien Press.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
My background is in writing, event programming and teaching creative writing. I work with many different organisations and companies, the common denominator being children’s books. As a book festival programmer, I work with some of the best events management companies in Ireland and I am always struck by their ability to troubleshoot and also to manage large and very diverse teams, including teams of volunteers. Many of them have arts management background, many are just very good at what they do and have the ideal personality to deal with anything that a festival might through at them, from delayed flights to lost hotel bookings and, of course, mislaid teddy bears. Always a factor at children’s festivals. To answer the question, I think in many ways leaders (in the arts) are calm, organised people to begin with, people who have amazing attention to detail, and a great way with people, but their skills can certainly be enhanced by training. So yes.
How? In the arts – by on the job training. There are also events management courses available in some Irish colleges – DIT and IDAT run them. I learned by making mistakes – that was my main training – and also by working with some highly talented programmers such as Bert Wright, Martin Colthorpe and Maureen Kennelly (now Director of Poetry Ireland).
What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?
I am self-employed – so I need to make sure I am still relevant in 10 years’ time! I do this by reading trade magazines and websites, staying up to date with the publishing world, talking to people in the industry, attending festivals. And most importantly taking time out to think and reflect on my own work/life balance. Am I doing enough of the things I love? Am I spending enough time with my friends and family? Am I working with people I enjoy working with and really respect? What excites me, work-wise?
What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – an astrophysicist who discovered Pulsar stars and who encourages women to study science. President Mary Robinson – for so many reasons but mainly for being a huge role model and showing Irish teenage girls like me that you could do anything if you set your mind to it. Senator Ivana Bacik – for fighting for women’s rights for so many years. Maureen Kennelly who is the Director of Poetry Ireland – she has such big plans for the organisation over the next few years and it’s inspiring. I also admire Michael O’Brien who has led O’Brien Press with passion and drive for many years now. It’s an amazing company (they publish my books), and they really care about their authors and staff.
If you could wind back the clock to when you were starting your career what advice would you give yourself?
It doesn’t matter if people like you as long as they respect you. Work hard and take on challenges, even ones that terrify you. Step up to the plate.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
TED Talks are great – I’d highly recommend them. Also Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – it’s not about leadership, it’s about nurturing your creativity and not scaring it away. But I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in thinking more creatively. All great leaders need to think creatively.