Museums are People

Paper figures

So it may seem disingenuous to quote anything Bill Gates says after his comments about museums last fall. Remember him telling the world that donations to museums are morally reprehensible? Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, and this post isn’t about philanthropy or really about Gates. It is about one of Gates’ favorite books though. Business Adventures by John Brooks, a New Yorker writer. Why should you care? Well, because if you’ve been paying attention here, you know we keep advising, coaxing, and encouraging everyone to read, listen, watch everything you can about leadership, business and organizational behavior. Much of the best stuff written is by writers about the for-profit world, and while Business Adventures was written before many of you were born, it’s still a good read. (If you’ve given up reading books in favor of what’s online, check out Seth Stevenson’s post on Slate about the book.)

So…how does Business Adventures connect with the museum world? Well, in describing the Ford Co. and the disastrous launch of the Edsel, Brooks makes the point that Ford failed because of the decisions made by the men running the company. Some of those decisions were random, some were wrong, and a few resulted from poor communication. Brooks finishes by reminding readers that corporations run on people. Why don’t museums think like this? If anything, museums might say they run on collections, yet the rarest of pieces is meaningless without the care, interpretation and governance brought by  museum staff and volunteers.  In a world where just about everything is available online, the role of people in the museum equation carries more weight.

If you’re a leader do you put your staff and volunteers front and center? Does your board treasure its staff, acknowledge the free-will talents of volunteers, and make a point to invest in them? Do you invest in yourself? Are you open to opportunity and not mired in process? We believe museums reflect the people who work in them. Strong organizations care for and about their staffs and their volunteers. Do you? Does your organization? Share your stories with us.

Knowing When Enough is Enough

Stay or Go?

In our last post we talked about what to do when you work for a less than savvy leader. This time we thought we would follow up by discussing how and when you should leave. What, leaving, you say? Yes, quitting. Because sometimes it’s the right choice. In the last post we reminded all of you to take care of yourselves. Giving yourself permission to quit is part of that. Yes, there are exceptional leaders out there, but the ratio of mediocre to excellent is probably 10 to one. Know who you work for and what it’s doing to you.

We do not under any circumstances mean to suggest that there aren’t a million mitigating circumstances that might keep you in a job — from graduate school loans to partners’ careers to children — but remember, leaving, if your decision isn’t about failure, it’s about choice. At the very least it demonstrates self-awareness and courage.

Leaving isn’t easy. Ending something never is. But sometimes people are trapped by inertia. Why? Because they will tell you they owe something to their employer, because they have a contract, because they have to stay two, three, five years before moving on. If you are burdened by one of these arbitrary constructs, ask yourself why.  You know yourself. Is your job making you sad or angry or frustrated? If you have experimented with the suggestions we offered in the last post: developing networks; using employer perks to build your resume; tweaking your job description, and you are still sad, mad, frustrated, maybe it’s time you thought about going. Don’t write the script about why you can’t, start looking, just apply. Remember, a museum has to say yes before you even get to interview, and if you are lucky enough to get an offer, you can always say no. So be bold. You got into this field because you liked it; liking the field isn’t a reason to condemn yourself to a horrible work situation.

And here’s a P.S. about leaving, for those of us who are baby boomers. We came of age when graduate student loans were small(er); many of us presided over organizations during the golden age of history museums; and now many of us are lucky to be leaders. And while there are a million mitigating circumstances to keep us in place–paying for children’s college loans; waiting for retirement funds to recover from 2008; any number of family situations—we need to be self-aware. Know when work life is more about repetition than innovation. If it’s the former, be gracious. Step aside. Leave at the high point.

Thinking of quitting? Tell us your thoughts.

When the Leadership Isn’t Good

frustration aheadThere’s a presumption in these blog posts that most museums leaders are good at what they do.  Or at least that they strive for something beyond mediocrity and plain vanilla management. And that their employees do, too. We’ve met enough really great leaders to know that not everyone in museum land is struggling with bad leadership. But it’s probably too much of a Kumbaya moment to believe everyone out there is blissful, so we’re going to use this post to try and think about what to do in the case of failed leadership.

One of the most problematic things about working for or with a poor leader is that it’s not always something you can talk about objectively or even constructively. Friends are sympathetic to a point. Spouses, partners and significant others take your side and feel angry for you. Therapy’s not for everyone. Then there’s quitting. That’s obviously a solution, but it’s often not the easiest. So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about being an employee when the leadership is weak:

  • Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to do. Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many organizations haven’t updated their job descriptions. Is your skill set lightyears from your job description? Making sure the two are in synch may change expectations–yours or your CEO’s.
  • Take care of yourself. Check in. Don’t allow yourself to be used, made uncomfortable or insulted. Ignorance is not an excuse.
  • Take ownership for what you can control. If your institution allows one professional development opportunity a year, make sure it serves your needs. If you are allowed to take an online course at work, make sure it builds your resume, not just the organization’s.
  • If things are uncomfortable, write it down. Know when the dumb jokes started, when you stopped being part of senior leadership team or how long it’s been since you had an employment review. Even in the digital age, it’s not a bad thing to keep a work journal in pen in a spiral bound notebook.
  • Be the leader your boss/department head or director isn’t. That doesn’t mean trying to take their job, it means taking the high road, being kind, being collegial, pulling the team together even when bad management makes everyone feel unsafe.
  • Network! Obviously the lack of leadership at your own institution is a drag, but it isn’t the end of your career. Find your role models elsewhere, whether they’re digital or colleagues you meet locally or regionally. And if there isn’t an organization, call up six people who do your job in your city, town or state, and ask them for an after-work drink or an early morning latte.
  • Learn to speak for yourself. That’s not the same as speaking about yourself, but look for openings to tout your own successes.
  • Know when to leave. Sometimes we are so inured to bad management that we allow inertia to hold us in place. Yes, there are a million complications from significant others to aging parents to college tuitions to keep us in place, but if you’re going to stay, understand why and give yourself a time limit or a goal–I’ll stay ’til my car is paid off, my partner finishes graduate school, my child finishes eighth grade.

So we’re guessing not all of you out there in museum land are blissful. Tell us how you manage.

What We’ve Been Listening To…


There are lots of places and people who can teach us about leadership, some expected, some unexpected. Here are three we heard the first week of June. If you didn’t hear them, listen.

First, we loved Michelle Obama’s tribute to Maya Angelou. Great speech making and some good lessons about what it means to be an authentic leader.

Next up is Chelsea Clinton who spoke at the University of Maryland, touching on many things including leadership and how to take constructive criticism.

Last, we move to a bit more cerebral realm with NPR’s Krista Tippett’s show On Being. Last week she interviewed social psychologist Ellen Langer who spoke, among other things about mindfulness. What makes this interesting is that unlike the rest of the world, Langer has been talking, writing and thinking about mindfulness for about 30 years, which is about three times as long as most of us. It’s a fascinating interview. Listen for the last bit about creating work environments that are creative not evaluative. Take note. Let us know what you think.

There and Back: East Coast to Seattle in Three Very Full Days


For all of you who were able to travel to AAM, we hope you had as good a time as we did. The Leadership Matters session took place Tuesday, May 20 at 3:15 before a SRO crowd. Joining us were three museum leaders interviewed for our book: Edward Bosley, Director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, California; Jennifer Kilmer, Director of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma; and Robert Kret, Director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We don’t use the word awesome very often, but our session truly was awesome. So, we raise a proverbial glass to the three leaders who shared the podium with us. The handouts from our session, Leadership Matters: A Look at 21st-Century Museum Leadership, are available on AAM’s conference site. In the meantime, here are three takeaways, one from each of our presenters. First, there was Robert Kret, who gently reminded all of us that the museum field has had a tendency to forget the importance of human resources, both as a concept and an actuality. Without judgement, he pointed out the changes in his own organization with the arrival of an experienced HR director. We believe Kret’s comments are worth thinking about. Many museums talk, write, challenge, and support their communities, as reflected in art, history and culture. If, internally, their own organizations fall short of best practices, not to mention ethics and the law, it puts staff in an uncomfortable position, talking about one set of values, while coping with another. That is by no means the sole reason to have an HR professional on board. Keeping and attracting staff is another. We’re sure you can think of more.

Second, was Edward “Ted” Bosley who reminded us of the twin values of humbleness and listening. A true servant leader, Bosley reminded the audience that leaders go last; that you should never ask an employee to do something you are not only willing to do, but have done; that sometimes shutting up, not preaching, but listening brings its own rewards.

Last, Jennifer Kilmer reminded all of us of the power of objects; that cynicism about why we’re in the museum business is misplaced in the face of a four-year old’s discovery that objects are metaphors. Perhaps the lesson is that breathing the same air as something we’ve only heard about or seen online is truly awesome.

We look forward to seeing some of you at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in September, where you can meet four more of our interviewees. Until then, you’ll find us here. Stay in touch.

AAM Bound


We are off to the American Alliance of Museums meeting in Seattle, WA, tomorrow. If you plan to attend, we would love to talk with you about leadership, museums, and our new project, women in museums. If you have thoughts, opinions, or comments, here’s where we’ll be:

Monday, May 19, 7:30-8:30 am, at the Early Morning Table Talks.

Monday, May 19, 1:00 pm, meet up to talk with whoever wants to get in the convo about women in museums outside the AAM Bookstore.

At the AAM bookstore from 3-5 pm, Monday, May 19 for a book signing.

At a presentation on Leadership Matters Tuesday, May 20 at 3:15 pm. If you can’t be there or if you are there, but don’t want to waste paper, here’s the link to our Leadership Revolution Agenda.

We look forward to talking with all of you.

Leading When You Know What Your Organization Means

CHSA Invitation

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall–the shops–are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.

Caitlin Moran from Libraries Cathedrals of Our Souls, Huffpost, The Blog, November 2012

No judgement against libraries because we love them. But we wish Caitlin Moran had been writing about museums. And we want to ask why, because although she’s among the most eloquent, Caitlin Moran isn’t alone.  Is it as simple as writers naturally waxing poetic about their childhood love of libraries, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to their love of libraries now? Maybe. Do writers not go to museums when they were children?  Do people–not just writers–not think of museums in the aggregate the way they think of libraries? Is it easier to think of libraries as a group?

It seems to us that museums need to be in the middle of their communities. Maybe they aren’t quite the emergency exit, life raft/festival hybrid Moran envisions, but what are they?  And what do they — should they — mean?