The Life Of… A Chief Executive

By Fiona Sinclair, Chief Executive of The Leeds International Piano Competition


The Leeds Web

Interview with Fiona Sinclair, Chief Executive of The Leeds International Piano Competition

Before you established your career within the performing arts industry and higher education, you built up experience training as a musician and performer. How did your experience as a performer help nurture your career progression within the arts?

As a performer, I had first-hand understanding of the things that needed to be put in place for a performance.

In classical music the conditions have to be optimal so that cultivates an eye for detail and keeps your standards very high. Musicians have to multi-task and prioritise all the time and that has been incredibly useful. I think the most important thing I learned was a better understanding of how music can impact people’s lives – finding ways to make the music I adore accessible and relevant to people has always been my motivation and is why I can’t wait to get to work each day!


Do you have any advice for students making a career transition from performer to a more organisational business-led capacity?

Recognise the transferrable skills you already have  –  being a musician already equips you to be a creative, collaborative and practical planner. In my last role at Lancaster University, big blue chip companies would seek arts graduates who intrinsically have creativity, empathy, style, passion and an eye/ear for beauty and detail. These are all highly transferrable and valued qualities, whether you’re planning a festival or designing a website to sell widgets. But most of all, remember that the very best people in business are those who care about the art (or product/service) and its impact most, so let your passion drive you – all other skills can be learned!

Remember that the very best people in business are those who care most, so let your passion drive you – all other skills can be learned!     


Can you tell us a bit about the International Piano Competition and why it means so much to be given the opportunity to be the Chief Executive?

The Leeds is one of the four leading piano competitions in the world and I grew up watching it on TV with my Dad, so I have a long interest in it. But what attracted me to the role was the ways it has recently changed. Competitions sometimes get a bad press for their gladiatorial image, but The Leeds wanted to change that. We set out to become one of the most caring and friendly competitions in the world, so that our musicians have a great experience in our city and can take something positive away, whether they win a prize or not. Our jury is musician-led by world class pianists, so they understand the pressures and reality of a 21st century pianist’s career, and every competitor has had access to their advice and support post-competition. But what’s really exciting are the new ways we are connecting with people in our city – as a CEO, I love the challenge of removing barriers and creating the structures and partnerships to make our artistic visions a reality, helping people find new reasons to love what we do.


What skills have you learned in your time in the music industry that have allowed you to progress to this role?

I think the capacity to keep learning is the key to progression in any field – I’ve always sought to develop new skills and challenge myself. I think we all can learn a great deal by listening and observing our world more closely, and keeping an open mind is essential to seeing the potential in something and finding solutions.


You’ve clearly had a varied career, covering everything from Business Planning to Event Curation to Orchestral Programming to Arts Administration. What training and development did you go through to adapt to such a wide range of roles and responsibilities?

I was always very hands on and preferred working in small organisations – I learned about marketing, audience development, finance and fundraising all because (often) it was me and a few others who had to do it! I had no formal training at all until I was in my late 30s, and when I realised that if I wanted to make the next step, I needed to have more strategic capacity. That word is completely over-used, but it’s the difference between being able to make a practical plan to get something accomplished, and being reactive to your environment. Throughout, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have some really wonderful people who have shared their expertise and invested their time in me.


What does being the Chief Executive entail and how is this different from previous roles?

At The Leeds, I’m responsible for devising and putting  our business plan into action, working very closely with our Artistic Director and Board. Like many CEOs of arts charities, a large part of my role is fundraising. My previous role was within a much bigger organisation, but the variety of the job is similar, albeit on a more global scale. This year I will travel to Sweden, Singapore, Germany and the U.S. to develop our relationships and programmes there. We have artistic partnerships with really awesome organisations like Steinway, Warner Classics, the BBC and Leeds College of Music (and I’m still giddy that I got to hang out with Lang Lang for a day!). I’ve enjoyed all my previous roles, but this does feel like a dream job…


As a successful female working  in  music,  what  would be your top tips for young aspiring females looking to progress and prosper within the industry?

You don’t have to look very far in our industry to find aspirational high-achieving women (and men) who can help show you the way. Mentors are invaluable and their experience can help you find shortcuts. I had never really thought gender bias affected me before I received some training about it, only a few years ago – I was staggered when the facts and figures were put in front of me. I’ve been given some astonishingly patronising advice about being a woman in business – everything from ‘cut your hair short’ and ‘don’t bring baking into the office’ to ‘do less work and network more’. So I’d say, educate yourself about the issues, acknowledge bias exists, call it out when you see it, but don’t let it define you – let your work speak for itself and be true to yourself. I have faith that the world will come right eventually!

Fiona Sinclair

Chief Executive of The Leeds International Piano Competition

By Fiona Sinclair, Chief Executive of The Leeds International Piano Competition

The Leeds Web

Interview with Fiona Sinclair, Chief Executive of The Leeds International Piano Competition

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