Feb 5, 2024 Nurole logo
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Managing change: how boards can steer institutions through ups and downs, with Sir Nicholas Coleridge CBE DL

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview with Sir Nicholas on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Sir Nicholas is Chair / former Chair of Historic Royal Palaces, Victoria & Albert Museum, British Fashion Council, Professional Publishers Association, Condé Nast Britain and Provost-Designate at Eton College. Tune in to hear his answers to:

  • As a Chair, where have you been most and least effective leading through difficult times? (1:25)
  • How did you know you could handle rapid expansion at Conde Nast? (8:14)
  • When you were Chair of Conde Nast International, how did the board think about cost-cutting? (16:33)
  • What do you think about voluntary redundancy, and how do you balance the welfare of those staying with that of those going? (23:50)
  • What is your approach to fundraising? (27:49)
  • To what extent do boards have an obligation to hold their organisations to account for their history? (33:58) and
  • ⚡The Lightning Round ⚡(41:34)

**This is an AI-generated transcript and may contain inaccuracies**

Oliver Cummings: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of Enter the Boardroom with Neurol, the business podcast that brings the boardroom to you. I'm your host, Oliver Cummings, CEO of Neurol, the board search specialist and market leader bringing science to the art of board hiring. 

Today's guest, Sir Nicholas Coleridge, CBE, is due to take over as [00:01:00] Eaton Provost in September 2024. He is Chair of Historic Royal Palaces and former Chair of the British Fashion Council, Professional Publishers Association, Condé Nast Britain, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sir Nicholas spent most of his executive career with the Condé Nast Group, latterly as President of Condé Nast International. So Nicholas, a huge welcome and thank you so much for joining us today. 

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Well, very fun to be here.

Oliver Cummings: You've led some incredibly illustrious institutions through some really challenging financial times. And I'd like to start with your time at Condé Nast. Where you oversaw a range of different news, which saw the company pivoting from from print to digital.

As you look back at that period now with the benefit of hindsight, can you just analyze for me what you see as the, the key moments through the eyes of a board member? And I'm really interested in what you felt you got. Right. And [00:02:00] where now with the benefit of hindsight, you think you could have done better? 

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Well, the first thing to be said about Conde Nest is it is a private company. It is owned 100% lock, stock and barrel by the New House family of New York. And it was their prize and is their prize possession.

They own many other things too, but Conde Nast is the one that they're interested. In the most that anyway was how it always seemed to me when I joined the company in 1989, the magazine industry was just about to take off the period through the seventies and the eighties. You began to see an upward movement.

But it was really through those period of 1990 to let us say 2015. where the expansion was completely remorseless. A [00:03:00] sign of that is that when I joined the British company, it had five magazines. When I left, it had 11 in the international company, which was where I spent most of my time. It went from having 40 titles to having 139.

 The profits of the company went from, well, it's a private company, we never announced them, but in the international bid, we went from making about 30 million a year to just about 200 million a year.

So you saw this huge uplift. I think it was surprising to all of us, and probably especially even to the owners, that the two countries that were going to become Hugely important with China and Russia and Britain and Italy, which had always been doing pretty quietly. Well, suddenly shot up margins. In all of these [00:04:00] businesses, we in the end came to think that 18 percent was anything below that.

was a disappointment. aNd so the backdrop to the, to that very, very long 30 years I spent in Condé Nast was, print was growing at this colossal rate all of the time. Then came digital. We were in very, very early. Condé Nast was into digital before Facebook. Doesn't seem extraordinary. Really, really early.

But it took a long time for the luxury market to really embrace digital. And I would say that they are only about halfway there now. The margin of profit on print was so high, it was so pleasingly high, that if you wanted to take a double page advertisement at the front of Vogue, it cost you 27, 500.

And if you said I would prefer to pay a little bit less the answer would come [00:05:00] not in that position. If you want to be the 10th spread that's what you pay. If you want a cheaper page, you can go much later in the book and people didn't want to. So digital started as a kind of exciting, rather exotic slightly clunky 

because you may remember those early days. of practically having to dial in and you still had to type www dot before you could type anything else. And it was difficult even to get good digital staff at the beginning because there were none. No one could be taken from anywhere else because no one had any digital expertise.

You asked me what I think was good and what I think was bad. I think on the good side, it was good for Condé Nast to be in early. And it kind of grew at roughly the same speed as the readership and as the usership came along. If you look at the very early days of Vogue [00:06:00] Digital, It was a rare week. People thought it was great if 50, 000 unique users came to the site.

Now it would be considered a disaster if a million didn't. So in these very early days, it's difficult to know whether it would be better to spend even more. In a curious way, what's happened, particularly in the last five years and I retired from day to day working there around that amount of time ago.

There's been more and more investment in digital, but the great challenge of it is the yield per impression. The price that Chanel, that Dior, LVMH generally, the Gucci group, Kering as they're called, all of the above, will pay for digital is much lower. And the price that they pay for print is still very, very high.

And in an interesting way, it's the [00:07:00] difference between niche targeting and broad targeting. People sometimes used to say to me, "Why does it cost so much to advertise in Vogue?" And the answer would come because Chanel you basically have 10, 000 UK customers, of which 9, 800 by Vogue every single month.

And although it's very expensive, it's actually incredibly targeted. It's zero wastage. With digital, where you get now these enormous audiences, margin of profit is much, much lower because you're competing in a different market where you're up against social media opinion formers of every kind.

And there are many, many different ways, but I actually think that most of the Condé Nast titles, and I now look at them with the eyes of a reader and a user I [00:08:00] think that the growth of it is rather impressive, and I think that the standard of what they're doing is, is high and digital. And of course there's things that can always be better, but I think they're faring better. Better, than most.

Oliver Cummings: What an amazing story. I'm fascinated to know how it felt at the time when I talked to a lot of the guests on the podcast, I think there's a recurring theme, which is. That the dots didn't join up when we looked forward. It was only looking back that we could see the dots joining up. 

And I think when you talk about that incredible growth, if I was sitting in a board meeting now with a company sort of saying, well, we're going to go from, you know, when I was 20 to hundreds of these, these titles, I'd be sitting there thinking, my gosh, less is more. We need more focus.

How did you get yourself comfortable at the time that that incredible explosion was going to be something that you could deliver on, manage? Was it, was it something that you had planned from, from the beginning or did it evolve? 

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: [00:09:00] I'm going to shock you slightly by saying that The Condé Nast board was the executive board, the international board that planned these things had zero non executive directors on it.

There were none. Everything was rather instinctive and seat of the pants ish. And as things worked well, they were replicated in other places. And the argument would slightly go like this. Russia has opened up. We need to be in Russia. All the luxury goods companies are in Russia and they want Vogue to be there to advertise in.

Therefore we will open in Russia. It's in the Russian language. So you hire a Russian team in Russia. We had, I think at the height, 380 staff doing Vogue. Allure, The Beauty Magazine, Architectural Digest, a Russian edition of Tatler the only other place in the world, I think, where there [00:10:00] is another edition of Tatler, where the oligarchs, until they invaded Ukraine, read it assiduously.

And the idea was to go into, rather fearlessly, into these markets. Always owning everything ourselves, if we possibly could. In one or two markets, you had to have a partner, because that was the law, and you couldn't go in without. But in India, we managed to go in wholly owned. In China, essentially wholly owned.

In Russia, wholly owned. And it worked extremely well. I think if one was looking at it, With the eyes that I now have having been on different boards, I can see how unusual it is not to have all sorts of governance wonks and process experts and people Making 11 year plans. But there really wasn't much of that.

There was a great sense of [00:11:00] energy, and I can tell you it was very thrilling to go into Russia and to find in no time at all. There was 70 million in revenues with I think it's high to 36 percent margin of profit and furthermore, being able to take it out of Russia and it to be real profit.

The company always spent all its costs against that year's profits. There was never any kind of 10 year amortization of costs over everything. So it felt like a very real fast expanding Without much caution there were financial people, of course who were present at meetings and they would somebody would usually say do you think it's wise for us to open in Korea if we're opening at Japan?

Roughly the same. The Newhouse family are very impatient. They literally didn't really like hearing [00:12:00] that kind of thing. And actually I don't really either. I much prefer a plan being made rather swiftly and not endlessly interrogated by people looking at it and cross questioning it. I think if you have five or six people who you think know what they're I think in a slightly power radical and cowboyish way. But they do have to know what they're doing.

I mean, they do have to know what it's going to cost to put together a magazine and how many millions of pounds you're going to need to spend in marketing it. And how many pages of advertising you would hope to get and at what price. The publishing industry only has four variables. unbelievably easy.

It's how many copies you sell, how many ad pages you sell, at what price and the cost of employment. And, and that's basically it. And if you get those things right you can [00:13:00] do, you can do, it can work incredibly well with

It's a trickier one because on the face of it, it's going to be cheaper because you don't have print and paper. So the colossal, the tens and hundreds of millions that were being spent every year on 100 gram glossy paper. But what quickly becomes apparent is there is never a moment when you're happy with your tech.

It never, there's never a moment when it isn't having to be upgraded. And the upgrade is always incredibly expensive. And the The caliber of people working on it are different. I don't mean that they're worse. I definitely don't mean they're worse. But they have different skills. And they have, in a way, less less loyalty to the brand.[00:14:00] 

I give you an example. The staff of Vogue, or Tatler, or House and Garden, or Interiors or Vanity Fair, or any of these magazines We're very reluctant to leave because it was a very, it is a very glamorous world to be on and to be associated with and it's very, it's and it gives you a sense of self for some people and it's, it's a very understandable thing.

People. A lot of staff who came to work there in those days had slightly wanted to since they were about 13 and they had first read this 

magazine or that. Oh God, wouldn't it be so great to one day work on Vogue? And having got onto Vogue, they want to be on Vogue. When they were offered a job elsewhere, I would often get people coming to me to say, Nicholas, can I have a word with you?

I just don't know what to do. I need your advice. I'm number four, as you know, on Tatler. [00:15:00] But I've been offered the job of number three on Marie Claire. And I'm going to be paid 5, 000 a year more. I don't want to leave, but I really need the money. What should I do? And I would say, well, look, we don't want you to leave either, but I hope you've thought it through properly.

That at the moment, when you go to any of these industry events, you're sitting on table one or table two, 11, because that's where you will be. And I said your friendship group won't be reading it in the same way. And you may not feel you have quite as much identification with the brand.

But in digital, obviously this is not the case. People who have the digital skills that all of us need are much less loyal. to the brand. And I suspect haven't been ever since they were 13 longing to work on GQ. They're very happy to work on GQ for a bit. And then if Google [00:16:00] invites them at double the money, or someone else does tag coil watches, then they think, well, that's more money.

I'll go. So it was a an interesting time in that moment of transition. But as I said at the beginning, the main thrust of all the years I spent there with that, those great years of expansion and very, very lucky we were too. Every industry goes through its, goes through its period. And so it was. 

Oliver Cummings: The boom years. What an amazing story. And I love that insight around the difference in the nature of those tech employees versus your core product people, content people and being more attached to the brand. And my sense would actually be that that applies across industries.

Generally my experience of the technical people is that they're fascinated by the technical problems, but they're somewhat content agnostic. And so it is a real challenge, I [00:17:00] think, for boards generally to think about how do you build that employee value proposition for those critical technical people.

 You did also face, when you became chair of Condé Nast Britain, a period of difficult financial times when you were having to make cost savings and restructure things. I'm interested to hear how your, you worked as a sort of an executive board to navigate. Those sorts of decisions.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: There was a time when more money clearly was going to need to be spent on Digital and it was just coming out at that period when the economy hit a difficult Yeah, and there was some cutting back of the number of People on each title.

Curiously, it wasn't that difficult to do. In that rather classic way that if you've got 68 people on a project you simply say we'd like to now have 64. And four people are my target. [00:18:00] let go, generously let go. And the scene moved on, and there was a very quick recovery.

The economics of magazines is that the final 20 percent of advertising revenue makes an absolutely colossal difference because it becomes almost entirely profit after a certain point. And whereas up to a certain point, it's covering the costs of producing it. So it was for that short period relatively simple. To do. 

Comparing it with, say, the V& A, if we think about how that was a very different situation. The first five years I'd been chair there, visitor numbers had just grown and grown and grown. And there's all sorts of reasons for that, and they were common across many of the Museums, although in the case of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I think [00:19:00] the team there did a very good job of finding a succession of blockbuster shows, which then bring large numbers of people in, who then discover the museum sometimes for the first time in a while and then while they're there, they go to the cafes and they buy the William Morris oven gloves and they buy jewelry in the Very marvellous V& A jewellery shop and all the rest.

So there have been five very, very strong years. Then came Covid and the museum had to close for the best part. of a year. And as you know, and can easily guess, if you have as the museum had 1, 100 staff some of whom could be furloughed, but some of whom of course can't, because you can't leave it empty. And you have zero visitors, and half of your income comes from visitor [00:20:00] generated cash.

All of the National museums suddenly found themselves in a very tricky thing, and we had very enjoyable twice a week Zoom calls with the six directors and the six chairs. And of course, it was very, very interesting because you were looking into people's homes, which you never normally would see at all.

And some of them, as you would exactly expect, given that it was the National Gallery and the BM and all the rest. People were in very magnificent rooms and then one or two were sitting up in a child's bedroom with two bunks behind and the superman duvet and all the rest of it. 

But we realized fairly quickly, clearly that we needed to be saved by the treasury. And it was a question of working out how much we as organizations could do ourselves, because I think it was not going to be right to just go along rattling the tin and saying we can't do [00:21:00] nothing, but please give us everything. And in the end, I thought incredibly generously. I must have to say Rishi Sunak, who was Chancellor then, was, it was marvellous, the outcome.

Oliver Dowden was very helpful at that period. Two. The, the VNA, for example, was given 19 million as a non-returnable gift to save the day. And we agreed to save about 10 million a year for the next three years, which was done by reducing the number of staff. hUndred left or just over a hundred, actually more like 120 of which all but eight were voluntary 

and two groups went. One were very senior keepers who had been there a very, very long time. Who had been thinking of leaving for a few years, it's that [00:22:00] classic thing where you say, I think this might well be my last year, you know you know, I don't think I'd do, just be prepared. I doubt I'll do it. And then they do another year and then another year, another year because it's a lovely place to work.

 But quite a lot of some senior members who had been at the museum for 30 years plus very generously agreed. to leave. And then there were quite a lot of younger people who had spent a year at home with their parents during lockdown.

They were perhaps age 30 and were number 14 out of a Department of 18 and specialist in something, and I think they just re evaluated their lives and realized that they could get a job in a museum somewhere else in the country and no longer wanted to return to their Hackney Wick studio apartment and then travel into South [00:23:00] Kensington every day.

But the board We're very supportive on it, and I think we didn't really have very much option. The thing that I cared about and Tristram Hunt, the director, cared very much about, and actually everyone cared about, was that people, when they were leaving, should be very much thanked. People have done wonderful service to the museum and so as soon as we could we had lots of parties to say goodbye to people and proper speeches and proper presence and you know all those things which I think matter.

Sometimes companies can be very careless when they have to make Cuts and they become suddenly very hard nosed and don't take care, but I very much think it's important for boards to do so.

Oliver Cummings: Two questions on that. First is, I guess, often the reason that companies become hard nosed in those situations is out of financial necessity, where they're really up [00:24:00] against it, they're liquidity, and so the choice is, do we imperil Those remaining for the benefit of ensuring those leaving feel properly looked after. So curious to hear how you think about that as a first point. 

The second I'm really interested to hear how you thought about was this idea of voluntary versus involuntary redundancy. Because that's always a key decision as a board. And one of the things that always worries me when I Here a board talking about voluntary redundancy is are you going to lose all your best people who are the ones who can easily go and get other jobs and then you get left with your bottom quartile people having shed your top quartile people. So really interested to hear how you thought about those two things.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: As it happens ,those people who applied by and large, there were exceptions to this, but by and large, were people who perhaps didn't see the next 20 years of their career.[00:25:00] 

career being there for whatever reason, either they wish to move out of London or they thought they would do better in something else or something, something. And I'm very relieved to say that the museum didn't lose. It's really. crucial key people. In fact, I think we ended up pretty much in intact on that.

When I say about survival in a company is the most important thing of all. So I mean, there's, there's no lengths that you shouldn't go to if you're up against it. to that great extent. With the, with the VNA during the COVID lockdown, that was never the problem. The problem was to simply make sure that we were able to get back to where we were before as quickly as possible and not be weighed down with expense and cost that was going to just be. too great to bear. 

One of the reasons, by the way, that I think the [00:26:00] Victoria and Albert Museum is pretty much back now, it's on about 90 something percent of the very, very highest period before, is because of that. 

But to write a decent thank you letter to somebody takes how long? Three side thank you letter. I reckon it takes. 10 minutes. If you sit down and you're thoughtful about it and you know the person a bit and you have some understanding of what it is that they've been doing and you're able to, this sounds rather cold hearted, but actually it's not. I think it's that's I think it does help, actually rather than someone having to leave somewhere that they've loved and sort of slightly feeling that they're scuttling out and no one has noticed and no one cares.

So I'm a great advocate wherever you can Of doing that and making it because after a bit, you don't want to [00:27:00] create all sorts of people who speaking ill of where they were, or feeling ill of where they were when they've done so many great things.

Oliver Cummings: I love that. And she reminds me a lot of I remember listening to Indra Naid, a former CEO of PepsiCo, who used to write letters to the families of all her senior executive team. Thanking them all that they were so supportive and had allowed her to have so much time of these incredibly talented executives, and she just said the impact of it was disproportionate to the time that it had the families bought into the journey as well as the exec. So that really resonates with what you're saying there.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: I think, I think that's a very, very clever thing to have done, and a very kind and thoughtful thing to have done. I applaud it. 

Oliver Cummings: You've touched on a number of examples already where you have Some amazing fundraising outcomes. And, you know, earlier you said Rishi [00:28:00] Sunak was incredibly generous as chancellor, but I suspect you have played a big role in that.

And I'm curious to know for someone who, a chair, who's listening to this right now, thinking how on earth does he do it? How does he raise these sort of millions of pounds for these, these projects? 

Now I've actually been in a room. With you, once you probably won't remember this but I know one of your superpowers because I remember seeing you And by the time I got onto my second person in the room you had been around Every person in the room and made them all feel incredibly special . You've spoken to me as well. It made me feel a million dollars And then you were walking out of the room just as I was probably getting on to my third person. And so I can see that is clearly one superpower that you have, of just being able to build incredible connections with people. 

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Well, let me say, I mean, let me answer, but I want to say something before. The money that's been raised by the BNA, there's a big, big team there. I mean, there's 30 people working in development. And I would hate anyone to be listening to this, thinking it was me [00:29:00] raising every. penny because it sure wasn't. 

I think the proof is that to be a chair these days of a national museum or gallery or many other institutions, actually, if you are completely adverse to. Fundraising, which is not my favorite thing at all. It really is not. But I think that it goes with with the territory on you just have to do it.

Development departments, generally of all kinds of organizations, I think, on the whole, can get things to a certain point, and they can tee people up. And they're very, very good identifying who might be susceptible to helping.

But in the end, If you are a millionaire and you are about to give, or you're considering giving, two million pounds to build to redo a gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, or to, frankly, to build a new [00:30:00] tennis court at Eton, I mean, all of these matters, there is a moment when the director and the chair, or In Eaton's case, the headmaster and the provost and vice provost and others.

I mean, someone has to be there, kind of tipping people over the edge, or at least trying to. And so it is with Historic Royal Palaces, I can see already. I've been there a month. And, you know there's a very good fundraising department there, like there was at the V& A, but I can see already that The final nudge has to come.

I had a terrifying fundraising experience over the late Queen's Platinum Jubilee because I was asked if I would like to be Co chair of the pageant, which is the big event on the final day And I hurt myself saying that I would because it would be dull not to [00:31:00] wouldn't it and so I was pleased to be asked And so I go to the first meeting and I suddenly realize that My co chair wanted to do other parts of what needed doing as well, but felt that he didn't want to get involved at all in the fundraising.

And he said, well, could I oversee that with the little team? And I said, well, how much have we got to raise? And he said, well, about 15 million. And I said, how long have we got? And he said, five months. And I came back, I felt, I felt Absolutely, I think, freaked out and very, very panicked, because I knew that if we didn't get to it, and it's an awful lot of money it really is in that length of time, and I thought that if we, I could hear myself having to apologize if we didn't get it, and there would be, as it were, the Chancellor of Bixchequer and probably the Keeper of the Privy Purse sitting there too, and I'd be saying, well, we've done quite well, we haven't quite got to Fort 15, [00:32:00] you know, we've got to, you know, 2, 131, 040 pence or something, and will you make up the difference?

And they would all look tremendously disappointed and furious. So we, we scraped it. So, and there were some very kind people who did it, but I think it's completely part and parcel of it. And in a broader, board way, When you're thinking about how should boards face up to fundraising, in my experience half the board normally see helping the fundraising efforts.

As something that they should do and they try to think of people who might be able to help and they play a part in it. And then the other half sort of see their role as being thinking of reasons why you shouldn't accept the money, you know, under enormous [00:33:00] amounts of due diligence and process and all the rest of it.

And if they can possibly find a reason, to not take it. They're rather, they feel that's good day's work. But it's a difficult time to fundraise, you know? It's, and I think it's going to get more difficult, I think the priorities of. People who give money are slightly changing. 

We've come through a period where galleries and museums et cetera slightly less appealing as the. Great Sainsbury Foundations and others come to the end of that period. I think a lot of the new tech billionaires want to give to climate change or eradicating polio or other good things.

And and why should they not? I mean, these are very good things for them to be doing. So, it's one of the most important things is trying to find all the time new people who, who want to give back. 

Oliver Cummings: You've recently [00:34:00] become a chair of Historic Royal Palaces. And I think earlier this year, the University of Manchester partnered with them to conduct research on the British monarchy's link to slavery.

And I think the study has full access to the Royal Archives and the Royal collection. The partnership was initiated before your time, but I'm really curious to hear how you think it might add value to historic royal palaces. 

And I'm curious also to understand how you think, or to what extent you think boards have a responsibility to hold organizations accountable for their distant history, which seems to be a recurring theme recently, boards are facing more and more challenges about how to respond to their history.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Let me answer it. It was indeed commissioned before my time. Historic Royal Palaces has a big research function. It commissions every year lots of pieces of research,[00:35:00] and it's been doing quite a lot of work with Manchester University, who are doing a number of different reports at the moment.

One of them is this one. It isn't quite called the way you described it, but when it was written up in the papers, they very sensibly, because I would have done exactly the same thing if I was a newspaper journalist and I was writing about it, they made it seem slightly more emotive than the piece of research really is.

And it goes right back into that period when the brother of King Charles the second was a shareholder at one point in the Africa company, as were so many. And. There will be a paper which will then go for approval as a PhD, and I think in due course, it will just be added to the great amount of material there is on that subject.

The whole question of restitution and all the rest of it [00:36:00] is, as we know, incredibly live. At the V& A, there were 2, 800, 000 pieces in the collection, of which about a million come from overseas. Only I think it's three or four are disputed. Museums at the moment have to learn pieces back and I'll tell you a story, which actually gives you a very interesting insight on it.

One of the pieces the Victoria and Albert museum has is the crown of Ethiopia. It's from the crown jewels of Ethiopia. It goes back to the battle of Makdala in whenever it was 1851, I think around there after the Emperor of Abyssinia had kidnapped a number of European and British people, and an expeditionary force was sent and it with guns, and it knocked down the walls of Dull, which was his capital.

And I'm afraid the British troops rather run a mock. Having [00:37:00] walked across the entirety of Ethiopia , I think they became quite ill disciplined, and they stole a lot of stuff. They put it in their rucksacks on the ship back to England. Their officers removed it from them saying they had no business to have taken it and it was given to the government over here and some of it's in the British Library and some is in the National Museum in Greenwich and some is in the V& A, including The museum has a plan to loan it back to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopians want it very much.

There were various conditions, like it had to be in a bulletproof case and various other things. And there was a plan that it would go back for 25 years. and then come back to England for 10 and then go for 25 and 10. Then everything went wrong. Three things happened all at once. The family of the Emperor of Abyssinia wrote in and said it doesn't belong to Ethiopia.

It belongs to us personally. And we would like it, [00:38:00] please, if you have any plans to loan it or let them give it. Then the Coptic church wrote in and said it had been stolen from their church by the Emperor of Abyssinia and it belongs to them, not to either of the other two parties 

and then there was the Tigrayan uprising and the Tigrayan mercenaries were marching on Addis Ababa and it seemed a very, very bad time to be flying this priceless crown jewel in where of course there would be have been an almost certainty that had they taken Addis Ababa, which they didn't, it would have been immediately melted down and that would have been the end of that.

So it's now on full show in South Kensington and absolutely well worth seeing. Most of the pieces in most of the museums, when you look at the provenance of them were bought. They were bought in Christie's. They were bought in Sotheby's. They were bought from dealers in Rome or in Florence. And during the grand tour, they [00:39:00] were the museums still receive maybe 10, 000 pieces a year that have bequeathed to them and amazing things come.

 iT's a very, very hard. subject. People's, one of the arguments people say now is, but you can make replicas of the Elgin marbles or any great pieces. And so people would not, could look at them. Instead, 

and I think by the same token, whenever I go to New York, and I'm in the Met, or I'm in the Smithsonian in Washington, and I see those gallery after gallery of amazing British paintings and the Chippendale that they've got, and the incredible Turners Stubbses, do I think they should, I mean, do we want a world where museums only, and national museums, of their own So the V& A would end up as enormous displays of William Morris.[00:40:00] 

Should the South American museums return all the incredible Spanish artwork that's there? It's a tricky thing. The V& A, the As far as the labels are concerned, and I know that historic royal palaces come to it in exactly the same way, nothing is hushed up, but it's not the main thing.

If you saw a beautiful statue, sculpture, it will tell you who made it, where it came from, what the materials are, and give you something of the history of who's owned it before it came. to the museum and you normally have four paragraphs that you can write. I think if one was doing it in a, the wrong way, it would start off by saying once the property of notorious slave driver, so and so whose family had a 0.

5 percent investment in a plantation [00:41:00] in St. Lucia, Canova's Three Graces is made of marble and Blah, blah, blah. One or two museums have slightly gone down that track. I think Tristram Hunt and the director of collections and others have been very good about getting the balance right. So nothing is, is hidden, but tries to be a proper sense of priority of provenance versus beauty versus these, most of these pieces have very, very long histories.

Oliver Cummings: Interesting. So, so if I reflect back, would it be fair to say that you see the role of the board to ensure things are transparent, but not to unwind the complexities of the past?

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: That is my view. I think that research and history and fully understanding the stories behind the pieces in the collection.

Oliver Cummings: SeNecas, time's flown [00:42:00] by, which means it's time for the lightning round where I'm going to say a short statement and ask you for a quick response if you're ready. So first up, the boardroom behaviour that irritates you most? 

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: People who don't say what they think during the board meeting, but afterwards.

Oliver Cummings: Love it. The best book every board member should read and why?

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: I've never read one of those business books. I was given one that used to be everywhere called Someone Has Stolen My Cheese or something. And whenever you went into Terminal 5, which I did very, very often at one point, there was always a big display of Who's nicked my cheese or who's stolen my cheese?

And I read the first three pages of it and I felt very, very depressed since it all seemed very theoretical and I couldn't, I couldn't imagine it connecting to anything that I've ever been involved with. So I'm, I'm not a great business book reader, so I'm the wrong [00:43:00] person to ask.

Oliver Cummings: Excellent. Favorite quote and why?

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Well, I think a business quote that's good is that you should always think like the customer or spend at least part of your time thinking like the customer. One is invited to think from many different viewpoints these days. You know, you're, you're thinking from another. word I can't bear, stakeholder.

And people say, well, stakeholders and what do they think? And then you're thinking about what might the government think and what might this person or that person think, or what might diversity and inclusion people think on this subject. Actually, I think that If it's a magazine, you should be thinking, what does the reader want, and you should be trying to, and that's why editors are never going to be replaced by chat GBT because it's a sort of in, it's an instinct of what the reader might want to read.

Oliver Cummings: What has been [00:44:00] your most significant professional insight?

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: The importance of turning up and the importance of turning up to actual things. You made a kind of kind joke at the beginning about me at a party and wandering around talking to people. 

I have an absolute pet hate that In the museum world, and it doesn't happen very often, but in, and in heritage world, sometimes you see the development department at a party and they're all talking to one another.

Well, what on earth is the point of that? Talking to someone at the next door desk. I think that if If you are involved in one of these organizations, the point of a gathering is that you're, you're getting feedback and wandering around and people frequently I find tell you things that you're welcome so getting out there.

I'm very against working from home. I, I wish it had never been invented as a, as a thing. It amazes me. The number of [00:45:00] people who are, I was on a thing the other day, and there was a person who works for the civil service and in the up in Scotland. In the course of this discussion he announced to us all that the world had now completely changed and everyone worked from home now.

And that as a consequence, nobody went more than five miles from their house and everyone worked from home and, and And I just couldn't resist saying, I just actually couldn't bear hearing him say this. I said, you know, I don't know, I don't think I know a single person who works from home, actually. I said they might occasionally, if they have flu, or they might one day a week if they drive somewhere.

somewhat, but I said, by and large, I think you need to be in your office, in your boardroom, walking around the museum, walking around historic royal palaces. If you're in a school, you should be walking around the streets and speaking to people and [00:46:00] meeting. So I'm a huge enemy of W F H. 

Oliver Cummings: The worst professional advice you've ever received?

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: The worst professional advice I've ever had was from a careers master who in a conversation I had only talked about joining big corporations and money and, And things like that. And the absolutely most essential thing in life is that you must find things that you like doing and do them.

It's, I think in the end, it's the only advice that matters. My late father actually, who was a bit of a city tycoon in his day, I remember him saying to his three sons in the car he said, he didn't normally give any advice, but he said, you know, just so that you know. I really don't think you should go and do anything like work in the city or in finance or anything unless you really, really want you.

Unless you want to. And for the avoidance of doubt, I don't mind what you do. [00:47:00] He said the only thing you've got to do when you leave university is you've got to have a job. Any job and you have to go to it five days a week and you have to be paid on friday And you can just do whatever you like in your life because you're much more likely to have a nice life And so I think so that's. The, the advice that I would give, and that's the, and the reverse of that is the advice that I would avoid.

And I think I always have done that, because I've worked in journalism, which I've absolutely loved, and museums, which has turned out to be tremendously enjoyable, and heritage. And let's see whether the next chapter is as fun. I think it might be. I love that. 

Oliver Cummings: Gustav Nicholas, this has been an absolute treat. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your incredible range of experiences and your incredible passion for what you do.

Sir Nicholas Coleridge: Well, thank you very much. It was very fun.

🎙️ You can listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Show notes

  • Who Moved My Cheese, Dr Spencer Johnson 

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