Inspirational Woman: Sharon Canavar | Chief Executive, Harrogate International Festivals

Meet Sharon Canavar

Chief Executive of Harrogate International Festivals

Sharon runs Harrogate International Festivals, an arts charity that delivers wide ranging festivals and events right across the year, from large scale installations and international literary weekends to singing with teen mums and developing literacy with a range of communities across the north of England. 

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I totally fell into the work after a music and arts business degree and started working at Kuoni when they were buying up music tour businesses, so I had an amazing time working for a huge corporate, travelling the world but celebrating great music in amazing spaces, and I’ve done similar roles for different travel, place, arts and cultural organisations since.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No. Now I’m getting older and more reflective I do wonder if I should have made different decisions or been more strategic. However, I’m lucky enough to love the job I do and given every day is different and every annual cycle is never repeated I’m always learning and kept on my toes. I know I’d be bored and getting itchy feet otherwise.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Where to start…. I think events and festivals have always been challenging and that’s what makes it fun. I think it’s an addition to fixing things. Venue flooded, artist MIA, no tourists so no income due to foot & mouth/terrorism, and more recently the pandemic where events closed down for the longest period, losing amazing staff, knowledge and depriving communities of opportunity along the way. Keeping the festival alive over the last couple of years and then rebuilding the team in the last few months has definitely been one of my larger career challenges. I’ve learnt a huge amount along the way too

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

For me it’s about building a resilient and trailblazing arts organisation that offers fantastic opportunities for celebration and entertainment alongside meaningful participation opportunities for communities & young people. 

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I’m choosing two. Resilience, as I was never allowed to give stuff up as a kid – music lessons, sports teams, Guides even if I was rubbish at them! I think I can keep going even when stuff feels uncomfortable or it’s not in my skillset. That and working with amazing teams of people, I’ve had great mentors across the years and worked with new starters with amazing enthusiasm and new skills. Always learning.

Sharon Canavar

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it is an underused resource for people at all stages of their career. I’ve been lucky enough to have great people who gave me advice and opportunity when I started in the workplace despite the fact I had no idea what I was doing. Mentoring wasn’t a thing then, but it’s absolutely what they did. There’s also the point that it doesn’t have to be a formalised relationship, it can be enough to be getting a regular coffee in with someone whose judgements you value and can offer guidance and support in a totally objective way.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

It’s about opportunity. I’m still stuck in meetings where often I’m the only woman. Is it changing quickly enough? We need to do more to invest in opportunity, education and providing positive role models at an early age. I also think we still lose a significant amount of skills in the workplace due to childcare or caring challenges. What more can we do as businesses to create flexibility and opportunity to retain skills and knowledge in the workplace.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

It’ll be ok.

I’m a terrible worrier – when you work in events it’s often polarised between how do we make this fantastic balanced against what’s the worst that can go wrong, and how do we avoid it. After a few decades in events this mindset can leak into other decision making and I need to watch it!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Short term, getting the team bedded in within a great working environment, sharing skills, growth, training and hopefully celebrating success along the way. Medium term, taking some time to reflect on the last couple of years and planning what a post pandemic festival fit for the 21st century should look like. Then make it happen!

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