Who Was Your Best Boss Ever? Here’s 26 Reasons Why Mine Was John McGrath

John Edward McGrath

When the Contact Theatre was redesigned in 1999 as an arts venue for young people, as the brainchild of the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith , John McGrath was the inaugural artistic director.

From 2005, John was my boss for three years and what a positive impact he had. In a nutshell he taught me that less is more, you turn up and speak up at crucial moments, and the true meaning of respect – that everyone’s voice is equally valid.

Then he left to become the founding director at the National Theatre Wales.

It was a weird time in my work life after that. Things were never quite the same.

There was definitely a John-shaped-hole in the modern-day castle on Oxford Road, an emptiness that used to be filled by his wise compassionate presence.

But more than that, some of his final words to me and the trust he instilled in me, gave me a big enough boost in confidence to eventually go it alone as a freelancer.

Here’s 26 things I admire most about my best boss ever:

1 He walks the talk. All humans with half a brain cell know this. You can’t win over the hearts and minds of the people without possessing the core quality of integrity woven into the very fabric of your soul.

2 Commitment. I once overheard a chief executive from another arts venue bemoaning their own level of commitment compared to John. ‘I just couldn’t give up all my time in the way that he does,’ they said.

3 He’s a nice guy. It’s the first (and most important?) thing people judge each other on isn’t it? Niceness is sadly vastly underrated as a leadership quality. Surely we could do with some more nice leaders in the current climate?

4 Empathy. Unlike some of the poor wee damaged psychopaths that get into our top positions of power, all true great leaders have empathy – the ability to share and understand other people’s feelings. ‘What are you thinking? What do you want to do?’ were often the opening questions to the young artists he helped grow at Contact. Scores high in the Fs as well as the Ts on his Myers-Briggs test no doubt.

5 Let’s you down gently. Knows how to say no. When I had ideas above my work experience station and thought about applying for a Clore Fellowship, he told me ticketing was a ‘specialist area’ and perhaps I didn’t quite have the right experience yet for that particular career path. I left that meeting thinking oooh ticketing is specialist area and yet!

6 Trust, Delegation and Empowerment. ‘I know this is in a safe pair of hands,’ was his classic instruction, combined with an NLP forearm touch, when he wanted to integrate all the Front of House, Box Office and Bar staff departments into a slicker organisational structure.

7 Equal Input. He has Spiderman like sense for making sure everyone gets their say and voice heard in meetings, workshops and consultation days.

8 Diplomacy. My Mum always says it’s not what you say but how you say it. He is brilliant at saying sensitive things in an engaging way. (See point 5 above.)

9 Speaks Out. Publicly defends anyone being sidelined, cliqued out, picked on or bullied in the workplace.

10 Self-Control. He doesn’t get cross, née even mention the fact that, say if an anonymous employee who can’t be named here for, ahem, legal reasons, accidentally broke a glass table in the centre of his lounge one staff Xmas do by doing some podium dancing on it. (Face Palm Emoji.) In point of fact he might have been heard to say, ‘What’s a coffee table between friends?’

11 Turns Criticism Into Empowerment. Being told off by John was the most enlightening exercise in how not using or abusing your position of power makes everyone more powerful. Don’t get me wrong he doesn’t shy away from giving less-than-favourable constructive feedback that is practical and to the point. It was how he ended a ‘review’ meeting with me once. He said ‘Can I support you in any way?’ I was astounded at how he empowered me when I was worried about getting a bollocking. I felt a deep sense of gratitude that lives on to this day — hence this blog.

12 Critical Clothing Neural Pathways. Much like Einstein, it appeared he made a pact with the getting dressed side of his brain take a back seat to allow more synapses available for creative thoughts. I don’t think I ever saw a grey wool hoodie, jeans and black leather jacket worn with such stylish regularity as I did in The Contact Years.

13 Is A Professional Performer. He can do, with bells on, what lots of people he leads dream of doing. Many a time I watched him take to the stage and do a talk, no notes in hand, parry hecklers, crack a few jokes with the best of them, while all the while as calm as an apple getting his key messages across to the audience.

14 Has A Sense of Humour. ‘I don’t need to die now,’ was his opening line at his Contact leaving do speech, ‘because this is like being at my own funeral.’

15 Leads By Example. Rolls up his sleeves and mucks in with the frontline. You work with him, not for him.

16 Can Motivate Even Difficult Characters. I once asked him what was his secret was to successfully handling these types of people and he said, ‘Positive reinforcement.’

17 Vision. Has always got one eye on the new, the avant-grade, and the emerging young brave boundary pushers. Oh and he can spot an overly written script by overly educated people in favour of diamond in the rough artististic voice from a hundred yards away.

18 Keeps Himself On His Toes. Literally, by running up any staircase that he sees. Well, maybe not any staircase, that would be entering into wonderful levels of Monty Python silliness, but it was part of his fitness regime running up the gigantic spiral Castle Contact staircase at Duracell bunny speed at many times a day.

19 Is A Master Of Discretion. He always knew what was going on somehow without ever letting on that he knew that you knew that he knew what you knew. It’s his superpower.

20 Prepared For A Crisis. Although this one is unverified, one gets the feeling that he might have a secret pack of Marlboro Lights stashed away somewhere should a nicotine starved artist emergency ever arise.

21 Listens Not Lectures.

22 Has A Magical Hypnotising Voice. When he speaks, it always gave me a little start. Those rumbling river of words that poured sonorously out of his mouth, then hang around in the air for ages with real intent. That voice comes out of that body? Incredible.

23 Generous And Kind. Often on sold out shows, he would give up his seat and stood watching from the back.

24 Approachable In A Slightly Formidable Way. At five foot whatever John still cuts an imposing figure. He has presence. Perhaps, due to his more reserved British nature, he doesn’t ‘distort reality’ as in the famous description of Steve Jobs, but there’s a definite change in the density of the air when he walks into a room. I always felt nervous as heck asking him something but knew it would be dealt with in a discerning and discreet way.

25 Judicious And Responsible With Interventions. Knows when to step in without stepping on people’s toes. And that if he didn’t intervene probably nobody would.

26 Stays Young At Heart. I may be reading into this a bit more than is necessarily true, but with that puckish smile you know that he has a mischievous Bart Simpson side who knows what a good time is all about.

I think it’s safe to say with John at the helm of MIF our good times are in a safe pair of hands.

Find more information on the Manchester International Festival here.

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