10 minutes of inspiration with Catherine Hearne CEO of Helix Arts

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Catherine is CEO of Helix Arts, a charity working with artists, in partnership with public and voluntary sector organisations, to create opportunities for people from the most disadvantaged communities in Newcastle to participate in high quality arts activity. Previously, Catherine enjoyed over 20 years working for the BBC as an Executive Editor, Director and Producer running multi-media output. Before entering broadcasting, Catherine trained and worked as a teacher in the North East of England for over 10 years. She holds an MA in Media and Creative Enterprise from the University of Warwick.


What inspired you into this career path?

I left university in the early 80s in the middle of a recession. I always had split interests in teaching and broadcasting but couldn't see a pathway for people like me into broadcasting whereas entry to teaching was clear and straightforward. I think the trigger point for me came out of volunteering. Alongside my very full-time teaching job I volunteered with a hospital radio in North East England called Radio Tyneside. It was then I began to realise that perhaps people like me can be broadcasters and can work in the broadcasting industry.
If someone had said to me 18 months ago that you are going to end up leading an arts organisation in Newcastle Tyneside, it would have been perfect. There is something very important about giving back. I loved being a senior manager at the BBC, it is a very privileged position and a great job, particularly working in news, which is exciting, and you never know what is going to happen next. Equally, I was always really committed to being rooted in local communities. 

This opportunity with Helix Arts is an opportunity for me to work with the most disadvantaged communities and when appropriate I can be out with my producers in a way that is almost back to my roots.

What have been some of the highlights?

There have been many but in terms of broadcasting it's been working on great programmes and great output. The most memorable news stories I worked on when I was as Editor of BBC London News was on Wednesday the 6th of July in 2005 when London won the Olympics.  My team produced brilliant planned programming. We left our building that evening on a real high because we were all inspired that London had won against the odds. Then less than 12 hours later we were running what was probably the biggest domestic story of a decade with the 7th July bombings.  That was the biggest unplanned programming. I hate to describe it as a highlight, it was absolutely memorable - the contrast between a mood of celebration on the streets of London to 24 hours later when those streets were empty and people were relying on radio and television for news of what was going on.

In broader terms, highlights have been working with clever, creative people and particularly concentrating on helping women develop their careers and grow both in the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire region and the Midlands. I remember the first time we held an event Birmingham around 30 women attended to listen to our guest speakers who told stories about their careers in engineering and the arts. The moment when women just open up their stories and there is a mood of wanting to help each other was a real highlight. I realised that all you have to do is bring together a group of creative, intelligent and passionate women and they will start supporting each other.
 
Have you encountered any challenges along the way and what helped you to overcome them?

The two biggest challenges for me have been the two career changes that I've made. The first back in the early 90s when I decided to leave a really interesting, well-paid, senior position in education where the pathway was probably mapped out to eventually lead to a senior management position within a local authority. To take the decision in my early 30s to make a television programme that was about young women in Tyneside converting to Islam.  I took  an eight-week contract on little more than half my salary. Even now, I can feel that little nervous twinge. 

I remember speaking to a man who ran TV studios in the North East who said, 'You do know that 90 per cent of TV researchers are out of work at any given time,' which wasn't helpful! It was a calculated risk that worked out for me in the end. I always had teaching to fall back on or could go teach English in Spain which I had done before. It was following my dream and challenging myself, there was one thing being the teacher that could help people make films and produce newspapers, but did I have what it takes to do it for real? It was a challenging time, not only financially but other people asking me are you mad? 

The second was two years ago when I decided to leave the BBC even though I adored my job. At the age of 53 I could see myself continuing working there happily for another two years but not for another 10. There were three things that helped me along the way to make a really tough decision. The first was career coaching that was offered in the BBC, the second thing was a big holiday with Australian friends through the wilderness of Tasmania and the third was contributing to a leadership course at the college of journalism at the BBC.
 
These three things confirmed to me that while this job was safe and I could continue a successful career I would always have this nagging doubt about whether I could run a creative business without the security of the BBC licence fee. It was about personal challenge and remembering there's a big wide world out there that I wanted to be a part of.  

Of course, I still miss the BBC but I have replaced it with other challenges like finishing my MA at Warwick University. The scariest moment was writing an essay again not having written one for over 30 years. And then to start as CEO at Helix Arts in a different environment which was a bit scary but absolutely the right thing to do. 

People have helped me along the way and I have remained close to my roots even though I am the person who has lived in practically every English region. It is about maintaining close relationships with family and friends and also building and maintaining supportive relationships in the workplace.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years' time?

In all honesty, I would like to still be at Helix Arts, I don't see this as a short term move. I want to be with an organisation that has been around for the past 30 years working with the most disadvantaged communities and helping Helix Arts develop to the next level. We joke amongst ourselves that we want to be the best participatory arts organisation in the world. And that's what I want us to be in five years' time.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?

The emotional advice; I wish someone had told me not to worry about what other people think, you have to be true to yourself and what is right for you.
Looking back, I was pretty confident and fortunate to have people around me who were supportive but it has always bothered me what other people think. When I made the decision to leave teaching, I was worried about what people would think of me when actually, this was about me and my life.

In practical terms; it is the value of careers coaching, if people offer it to you, take it. Sometimes you can have three sessions over a 6 week period and you will think I have no idea what that was about but in 12 months' time it all makes sense. It is really important at any stage in your career, particularly for women who may be juggling caring and families - taking that time out to think about your career.