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Abbotsford Convent - Melbourne, Australia

Because she doesn't believe in leaders staying forever and ever and ever, former Abbotsford Convent Foundation Chief Executive Maggie Maguire recently stepped down from the position. In the past 10 years, she managed to restore and transform a largely derelict site into Australia's largest multi-arts precinct.

Admired by politicians and the public, through to artists and philanthropists, Maggie demonstrated outstanding and inspirational leadership in the past decade. Her artistic vision, passion for the Convent, commitment and tireless work are truly remarkable and all contributed to the tremendous success of the Convent.

I have had the unique opportunity to sit down with this most inspiring and creative woman during her last few weeks as a CEO. Maggie is without doubt one of the most fascinating entrepreneurs I have ever met and made a lasting impression on me. No doubt that you'll be inspired and amazed, as I am, by her stories and perspectives.

Photo credit - Abbotsford Convent

They needed a different leader. They interviewed four suits and me. I had a very diverse background. No one knew what was needed. They didn’t know what this place needed. They just knew they needed a different kind of person so they gave me the job. My brief was “Make it work.” (...) At the end of the first five years, the Board wanted me for another five years. When the first Chairman left, he left about three years ago, he said in his speech that he thought the best thing the Board had ever done was to appoint me and the second best thing he thought the Board had ever done was to reappoint me, which is really lovely. Really lovely. That made me cry. But the first five years were hell. They were really hard because we didn’t have much money and I didn’t really have a sense of what we had to do. I was literally making it up all the time. I suppose that over the last five years, I have relaxed a lot.

There are a million things that go on here every day. It has been very interesting for me exiting because I have to empty my brain of all this stuff. There are things that I know that no one else knows. There are bits of history that might be useful in five years’ time. The new CEO might sit here for the first few weeks and wonder what everyone is talking about. So I’ve written a bible from A to Z so they can sit in meetings and go “Right. That’s what it means”. But it’s hard to know what the new person is going to need and not need so I’m just writing it all down and if it’s irrelevant, they can just ignore it. 

In the last ten years, we’ve generated enough money to do up all the buildings and make them all leasable and habitable, which means we get more rent, which means, in the future, she is saved because we’ll have an increased income. Sure there’ll be increased costs with more tenants. We’ll need more people and more toilet paper. But it means the model is working so we don’t need the government. We now have people visiting from all over the world and all over the country. But it isn’t an easy model. It’s really tricky and hard work because we have to be really careful about every cent we spend. We have to negotiate and be really clear about value. Is it urgent? Is it going to fix a problem? Is it going to create more problems? It is going to be good for the visitor? Is it going to help the tenants? We have to think about a million of things before we agree to anything to be spent because every dollar that we’ve got is precious (...) There has been a shift in government funding in Australia recently and a lot of organisations and arts and cultural institutions have been defunded and they are all saying “It’s the end of the world. We’re going to have to close.” That’s just so uncreative. They are just used to being given money. They never had to think about surviving on their own and we do that every day. People just need to think more creatively about how to survive. If you say you have a good and strong cultural organisation, you should have the strength and the capacity to be able to get support from other sources. And if that’s not happening, it’s probably because your work is shit or there are three of you. We’re very clear about our point of difference and the unique assets we have.

These lollies here. I don’t eat lollies. I don’t like lollies. But that gets filled up every Monday and the team, when they’re feeling flat or when they have a problem or when something is going on, they come here and eat the lollies and talk to me and that’s the reason for the lolly bowl. All of the team would say that I’m their mum number two. I know when their grandma is sick. I know when they’ve gone for another job interview. I know when they’re having troubles at home. I know when they’re feeling fragile or when they need time out. I’m really interested in them. They’re all really interesting kids and they’re all passionate. I want to protect them and help them. That’s an important part of the culture of this organisation. And I know, I absolutely know that the one thing I’m going to miss more than anything when I’m not here is the people. I know that already because we’ve such good connectivity. I mean, without people, what are we doing?

Nothing in my mind is set in stone. Nothing is not negotiable. All is up in the air.

There are some tenants here who I suspect will remain friends when I’m not here because I really like them as people and I respect their practice. I like talking to them. And I use them as a sort of touchpoint. What is the mood? There have been times that it has been really hellish here. Six years ago, there was a big uprising because there were about eight different people who were tenants and weren’t getting what they wanted. They collided as a group and created all sorts of headaches. It was really hard to come to work every day because we were basically getting beaten up. The other tenants eventually turned their back on them and said “If you don’t like it, just bagger off. This is our lovely happy home. We don’t want you shitting on it.” They were like “What are we doing? We are supposed to be making art.”

When I announced to the world that I was leaving, I got thousands of really gorgeous emails from people. Just really generous and warm. Just all saying “Wow” and “Thank you” and “You’ve done a great job” and “Thank you for the Convent.” I built her (because she is a her) for everyone else. That’s my legacy. I’ve done a lot of big jobs, a lot of big gigs, but this will always be the cream on the cake. I took her from a derelict place full of dirt and snakes (…) That’s when you know it has been worth the journey. A lot of the tenants have said to me “I’m sorry I’ve never thanked you.” But I’ve just been doing my job.

Some days I feel like “Thank God I’m leaving” when I’m in really boring meetings. Other days I just feel sick. I’m really torn. Really torn. But I think part of it is that I don’t know what I’m going to do next so I’m feeling a bit lost. I had a job to come to seven days a week for ten years so what am I going to do? I’m going overseas. I’m going away for a month. But it will be weird when I come back because normally when I come back from overseas, the next day, I come here. And I think, once I know that she’s got a new leader, I’ll feel a bit less worried too. But then I need to think about what I want to do. Because I’ve actually no idea. No blue clue. I’ve always been in charge, I’ve always been the CEO or owner. Working for this Board was the first time I had to answer to someone and justify my mad ideas. Can I go to a smaller job where I’m still in charge but don’t have to work as hard? That would be the ideal. But where? Lots of people have said to me everyone will snap me up but then other people have said other places won’t want me - they’ll be scared because I used to be in charge of a really big enterprise. Will I get bored? Or will I get difficult or be naughty? Because I know I could do that. I could be really difficult (…) I’m not nervous about it. It’s just the unknown. As I said, it has been so obvious every day what I’m going to do and then there are all these things that are part of a routine. My car even drives me here automatically. It just shows up here in the morning. That will be a difference.

I have absolutely no interest in worrying about risk but I know that you have to do it. If there’s no risk, there’s no fun. I couldn’t do anything sexy anymore.

When I came here I thought we would just get the money and build the buildings and get it all dusted in a year or two. But everything just takes so long because there’re so many stakeholders, so many operational issues and so many bits that you didn’t even think about or they just appear. Patience is probably my biggest number one (lesson) but also coping with surprises. Someone ran into the office five years ago and asked “Maggie, do we have a policy on naked people in the swimming pool?” I've never forgotten that because it sort of became a catch line. When the team talks about policies, I go “Naked people in the swimming pool” because there were naked people in the swimming pool and what was our policy on that? I didn’t know. We had to make a policy. I’ve got all kinds of policies in my own head that I’ve been putting in the bible like no plastic furniture, no jumping castles, no face painting,...

Happy for me, in my context, not in the context of the Convent, is being with a bunch of mates, cooking and drinking and laughing. Some of my very good friends have bought a beautiful old house down in the country and I don’t go as often because of here but I might go there more. As soon as I walk in, I’m sort of the kitchen queen. And it’s great because you can cook for lots of people. I only do large, I can’t cook little. I love having dinners, like on New Year’s Eve, I did dinner for 30 people. It’s just so much fun. Spending the day cooking and cutting and talking and these are all people I’ve known for 30 or 40 years so we’ve got lots of gossip and connections. So again, it’s about community, it’s about people, it’s about breaking bread with people, it’s about drinking wine with people, it’s the conviviality. But at the same time, I love, if I’ve done all the other things I have to do in a weekend, I love going back to bed on a Sunday afternoon with a book. Just quiet time and Max, my cat, and me in the bed.

I think, because I’ve been quite a good actor, I think people would be surprised about how much I’ve made it up. I think people often think it’s a really clear and strategic plan but some of it was a complete fucking accident. It’s actually a miracle that it all worked. But I’m also old and grumpy enough to just say “Fuck it, we’re just going to do it my way and I’m sorry but that’s what we’re going to do.” That’s the thing about being in charge. But the kids have learned to trust me, I think. We do sometimes fuck it up and then we just go “Oh well, that didn’t work. What are we going to do now?”

Inspiring, right? To conclude a final word from Maggie, a truly fascinating leader and woman:  "Maintain her point of difference. Respect the unique thing she is. Foster the culture and protect the community." If you want to learn more about The Abbotsford Convent, check out their website. No doubt that you will be amazed by their activities!