Sandra Willis

Incoming CEO Sandra Willis on Learning and Leadership

We are excited to welcome leading arts executive Sandra Willis as the next CEO of Melbourne Recital Centre in April.

Sandra is a multi-talented and widely respected Melbourne-born and raised arts executive, bringing 25 years of experience in the arts sector. With a career spanning theatrical producing, stage, event, and project management as well as strategic leadership and management, Sandra has played a pivotal role in shaping some of Australia’s most noteworthy organisations, including Opera Queensland, Opera Australia, Arena Theatre Company, Oz Opera and Bell Shakespeare.

To celebrate Sandra’s appointment, and honour the importance of not only International Women’s Day, but the value, achievement, and impact of women in leadership every day, as we continue to work collectively towards a gender equal future, Sandra shares her thoughts and reflections with us on leadership, career development, empowerment, advice, and Melbourne Recital Centre’s next chapter.

On her three most valuable learnings from her career to date:

1. Surround yourself with intelligent, motivated and agile people. They listen, seek knowledge, are engaged, and are interested. Being around them sparks interest and drive and introduces you to new ideas and concepts. If you’ve got a team of people like this working together for a common goal, you can move mountains.

2. Relationships are at the core of all aspects of one’s career. To succeed, you must successfully interact with others. Focus on cultivating relationships built on trust and connection. When speaking with someone, listen and have the conversation there, and forget the conversation in your head.

3. Connect through vulnerability. It’s striking to me how often women connect through vulnerability. I like to see this as our superpower instead of a weakness, creating a culture of openness, honesty and collaboration. Leading with empathy enhances communication and trust, which is vital to innovation and engagement.

On the people who have supported and empowered her throughout her career, which has not been without challenge:

My most significant advantage has been encouragement and support from my parents, family and dear friends and their genuine interest in everything I have turned my hand to.

In addition, many terrific managers have taken the time to empower and encourage me throughout my career. I have, however, had a couple of managers who were not always supportive. Fortunately, whenever this has been the case, I have had colleagues and mentors, usually amazing women, who have lifted me and helped me not only through adversity but to come out of the circumstances all the better and more knowledgeable.

On defining moments and key juncture points throughout her career:

I have many! My career has been full of ‘Sliding Doors’ moments which would have dramatically changed my trajectory, so it’s fun to imagine where these versions would have taken my career and life.

A pivotal moment more recently was in 2020. I was Executive Director of Opera Queensland, and while Brisbane was a wonderful place to spend 2020, being locked into Queensland and not being able to get back ‘home’ to Melbourne and to family and friends, I knew then that once the borders were reopened, I needed to come home to Melbourne. And thank goodness, because it has ultimately led to the opportunity to lead the Melbourne Recital Centre.

I am so grateful to the many trusted colleagues who gave me gentle taps on the shoulder along the way, encouraging me along.

On how she defines leadership, and the values she feels are most integral to success in the arts:

  • The ability to motivate people to a common purpose.
  • Collaboration
  • Resilience
  • Joy
  • Belief in the power of art and music to change the world!

On the best piece of advice she’s received about growth, learning and leadership:

My Dad told me:

‘You are going to work for many years, so it is important you love what you do. Study what you are passionate about as it is most likely you will succeed at that. You never know where it may take you.’

In a conversation with Dame Quentin Bryce, she touched my arm and said: ‘You can have it all – just not all at the same time”.And while I knew this somehow, it wasn’t until that moment that it resonated and sunk in. I now remind myself of this every day.

‘Be true to yourself. Know your values, and don’t compromise on these!’

On whether she had a detailed career plan or goal:

I wanted to work with incredible artists and learn from them. To that end, I have achieved my career goal many times over and look forward to the opportunities for this to continue.

And finally, why she is excited to lead the Centre through its teenage years and into its next chapter:

Oh, I have not thought of it before as entering its teenage years, but that is an exciting way to approach this time and age. Well may Shakespeare say, “All the World’s a Stage”, but no stage is as fine as the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

This era is about Melbourne Recital Centre being the home of music in Melbourne by doing what it does best, creating extraordinary musical experiences and ensuring we are constantly a centre of creative innovation and excellence where all share the joy of artistic expression. Full of teenage energy, we will be a hive of musical activity deeply connected to our diverse communities and in the middle of the extraordinary Melbourne arts precinct transformation.

Sandra Willis commences as CEO at Melbourne Recital Centre early April.