Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
When I talk to museum professionals, especially those just establishing themselves
in the field, there is often a romanticized view of consulting work. You get to focus
on your passions, you keep things fresh, you have flexibility. And you can make a
living. All of these can be true, and working as an independent professional can be a
wonderful fit for many. However, I think it does all of us a disservice if we gloss over
the unique challenges independent professionals face, whether they remain for
many years or see themselves returning to employee status in the future
“Consultant” and “Founder” is a title that I’ve held for four years, starting when I left
my full time job to stay home with my baby. I was lucky I had that choice, the
position I left would have meant long hours away from home, and an uneven
schedule that I didn’t want. However, I also knew that I had professional passions I
wanted to nurture. The best (and most fiscally reasonable) way to balance giving up
a full time income was to become a consultant.
That makes it seem so simple, but of course it is more complicated than that. I was
lucky that my professional networks kicked in at the right moment, and I landed a
fulfilling project that helped me jumpstart. There was also the fact that we could
depend on my spouse’s income. It also doesn’t address the long stretches where I
had no projects to work on or the project I lost when I became pregnant again.
That is my story, but I knew that other independent professionals had a different
experience. I created a survey that I shared online to get feedback from others on
the benefits, challenges and motivations for getting into consulting.
The results came in fast and furious, and people were eager to share the many
benefits of being an independent professional. You have independence and
flexibility in your schedule, pay, location and projects. It can help bridge the gap if
there is a lack of full time work or give you a chance to collaborate with
organizations you are interested in. You can also focus your work on your passions.
Along with the benefits, the survey provided a cleareyed look at the challenges.
Freedom and the flexibility is often the main draw of independent work, but it is
exhausting to maintain. Balancing multiple projects sometimes results in a “feast or
famine” scenario where you are either overwhelmed with work or trying to keep
busy. You may be constantly on the hunt for projects or trying to prove your worth
on just one so when it’s time for a contract renewal you feel secure.
Sick days don’t exist…or parental/caregiver leave. Those are just times when you
aren’t working and aren’t getting paid. If you are the primary breadwinner it may
not feel stable. I’ve also experienced a different feeling as the trailing partner, I feel
like I need to pick up all the slack at home to compensate for my lower paycheck.
Within projects it can be hard to feel part of the workplace social aspect. Maybe you
aren’t onsite, maybe you are in at odd times or move from project to project. The boost you get from colleagues can be vital to mental wellbeing at work, and is often
missing from contract work.
That seems like a long list of negatives, but it is not meant as a complaint. Instead, it
is meant as a reminder of the challenges that come with all those benefits. If you are
considering contract work it is important to think about how it will affect all aspects
of your life including personal and longterm professional. If you are already an
independent professional, it is good to remember that the challenges you face are
unique to this type of work, and it is ok to acknowledge them, and look for solutions
that work for you..
The number of independent museum is professionals is growing. At the 2015
American Alliance of Museums conference 18% of attendees identified as
consultants, the largest group represented (Museum Magazine July/August 2015),
but it isn’t something that is frequently talked about or well understood by people
entering the field. For every person who does it by choice, there are others who
consult because jobs don’t exist or they aren’t able to take a full time position and
meet other responsibilities.
As contractors or potential contractors, we need to know our rights so we can
protect ourselves legally and financially. As independent contractors, we must speak
up when we need support from our professional networks, so that we are informed
and make sure potential employers are also informed. We also need to acknowledge
specific challenges we face in the work/social environment, and in our personal
lives. One of the points that survey respondents made again and again was not to
undersell your talents or the value of your time just because you believe in the cause or have a passion for your work. Your expertise deserves to be acknowledged and
your work fully compensated.
If you are a museum leader, you need to make sure that you know the legal
definition of “contractor,” and also think about why the position you’ve advertised
should be filled by a contractor not a staff person.. Keep your oversight expectations
in mind, (Are you a hands on or hands off manager?) and the scheduling needs of the
organization. Also, don’t forget the social aspect of work. Do you want your
contractors to participate in the daily life of the museum? Is it a requirement or a
choice? Remember, you are bringing in a consultant because they have expertise
and can provide you with a service. Respect their contribution and skills.
Including independent professionals in museum work can be a huge benefit to both sides. The contractor does work they are interested in, on a schedule that meets
their needs, while the museum gets some outside expertise and completes a project
that might otherwise get left behind. However, it isn’t a perfect fairytale fix, and it
doesn’t look the same as a staff position. If we acknowledge that, and keep it in mind
going forward everyone will be better off.
Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Who Am I?
The IRS is the final arbiter of whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” There are lots of resources on their website , but the details can be a little confusing. In general, if you provide a service to an organization, you are
probably an independent contractor. However, if the organization controls what will
be done and how it will be done then you are an employee. They have three
guidelines that you should assess to determine what your relationship with the
1. Behavioral : Does the company control or have the right to control what the
worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
2. Financial : Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the
payer? (These include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are
reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)
3. Type of Relationship : Are there written contracts or employee type benefits
(i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and
is the work performed a key aspect of the business?
For independent contractors in museums, it is critical to look at the “type of
relationship” assessment. The IRS specifically details that if the person provides
services that are “key aspects of the business” then they are more likely to be
controlled by the organization and therefore are employees. Also, the permanency
of the relationship needs to be looked at. “If you hire a worker with the expectation
that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or
period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an
It really does matter whether you fit the legal definition of employee or independent
contractor because it changes the tax and compensation responsibilities of you and
your employer. If you aren’t sure, you can file IRS Form SS-8, Determination of Worker
Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding
(PDF) but it may take 6 months to get a determination. For additional help, you can
also see if there is a small business development center, state office or nonprofit that provides guidance.
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explores how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at cabinetofcuriositiesva.com/blog/
Recently there have been a number of questions from Gen Xers on Museum-L and AAM’s Museum Junction about getting a job. You can find some of them here: Museum Career Ideas. As people moving toward the end of their careers, we’ve found these discussions distressing. First, there’s the whole issue of not being able to get a job with an undergraduate degree, and then there’s the discussion of whether getting a master’s degree is in fact worth it. And last, there’s the whole demographic thing about whether the Boomer generation is ever really going to retire, and whether millennials and Gen Xers will move into their spots. It is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess.
Here are some thoughts for those out there contemplating a dream job because honestly when you walk around the Phillips Collection or the Kansas City Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village on a crystal summer day or a gazillion other organizations, how can you not imagine what it would be like to work there, and how perfect it would be?
So…if you’re recently in possession of a bachelor’s degree in art history, American history, science or education, and think you want to work in a museum, some thoughts: Yes, you can try to get an internship or possibly a job interacting with visitors, as a guide, docent or museum teacher. Try. If that’s what you want: try. But be strategic. Recognize that a lot of the same skills needed to work in non-profit communications, development, even education, also apply to museums. So if you’re a writer longing to work in a museum, but failing to get a job, expand your search to all non-profits. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, then apply to a museum or to your favorite museum. That goes for development and education too. Searching for money in a development office takes the same skills, just a different mission. And if you’re an educator or a wanna-be educator think about how you can leverage and grow that same skill set in a museum or a similar organization.
Graduate school is tough call. There are more than a few museum jobs where you need a graduate degree. And you’d have to have lived in a Kimmy Schmidt bunker not to realize it’s going to cost you a bundle. So, again, be strategic. You’re about to make an investment. A big one. Measure what you’re going to get at each university you look at. Can you move or are you restricted to programs in a particular region? Does the school you’re contemplating offer job counseling, internship placements, mentoring? What percentage of graduates get jobs post graduation? Can you work while participating in an online program? Know what you want, and more particularly what you need. Would you be better off at the Bank Street College of Education or in a public history program? Are you an art history major? Go online and look at the educational backgrounds of staff in museums you wish would hire you. Best of all, if you know you want to work in education at the Smithsonian, for example, contact someone on staff and ask for a chance to talk. This is not an interview. This is a chance to ask a staff member what she would do differently if she were to begin her career again.
Should you volunteer while you are applying for jobs? Again, tough question. Are you able to volunteer? What will you give up to volunteer? Will you gain more than just work experience with no pay? Will you have the opportunity to meet and interact with museum staff? Are there mentoring opportunities built into your volunteering?
Our advice? Be strategic and be a bit selfish. Give, but get something back. If you’re not sure what museum department’s calling you, consider volunteering in the director’s or CFO’s office if that’s a possibility. You will see more and it may help you make a decision.
Some final thoughts:
- Learn everything you can about the field.
- Don’t be too starry eyed.
- Understand your own skill set and how it applies to the museum field.
- Understand how your skill set applies to other non-profit work.
- Be strategic in your choices.
- Find a mentor or mentors.
- Meet people who do what you want to do, and ask them questions.
- Understand the job market. Have a plan B.
Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?
SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.
What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.
If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”
If you read anything about leadership, you will hear the words teamwork. It’s used in job descriptions as in “We want a team player,” and in dismissals, “She wasn’t a good fit, not a team player.” In short, it’s the 21st-century building block for organizations big and not so big.
In small museums your team may be everyone–trustees, volunteers, administrative assistant, the director (you) and another staff member–while in larger institutions, the people in your department constitute your team. In giant institutions, your team may be the folks you work with daily. You may see others from your department only weekly or monthly.
Webster’s lists three definitions for the word team: a group of people who compete in a sport; a group of people who work together; and last-for all of you in living history museums–a group of two or more animals used to pull a cart or wagon. By contrast, the Business Dictionary defines team as “A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project.” It goes a step further by pointing out that “A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.”
Let’s pause here to point out that a well-functioning team doesn’t necessarily adjourn to the neighborhood watering hole after work or have pot luck dinners together. It can. But as a museum leader, it’s not your job to create friendships. It’s your job to define the team’s goal and provide the resources (money, additional people/expertise, and time) to achieve it. Everyone may agree that your mission is to serve public, but there are likely as many variants of that ideal as you have staff members. Your role as a leader is to define how you want that goal accomplished. Otherwise the work you assign is simply a variation of that old story of the leader sending a worker out to bring home a rock. When he sees the rock, he says, “No, not that one.” Do not make your team guess what you want. Conversely, if you’re a team member and feel as though you’re being sent to look for a rock, ask your director to define what she’s looking for. Repeat it back. Make sure you understand. (And she does too.)
Next, you need to insure that your team has the right composition. Perhaps some of you are sighing right now, the thought bubble over your heads reading, “Who is she kidding, there is no money to hire the perfect team or will to fire chronically weak members.” True enough. But all business research points to more success and innovation when teams are diverse, meaning not just racially, but age, gender, and professional focus too. So what do you do? If you work in a medium to large institution, consider pulling in team members from other departments. Don’t make them tokens. They will hate it and so will you. Bring them on because they have skill sets and points of view you need, and be transparent about it. If you need a 25-year old who Tweets on the way to work, then let your team know that’s why she’s in the room. And if you work in a tiny or small institution, consider team building as a way to grow your organization. Ask the folks whose skill sets you need to join for the duration of a particular project. Tell your team to take an afternoon off once a week so that the new director of the Boys and Girls Club can join you in the evening because that’s when he’s free to volunteer.
Last, and most importantly, make sure your organization can support the team in whatever project you’ve assigned from the most mundane–is there adequate meeting space and IT support for them to work–to money and board or leadership consent. There’s nothing worse for team members than working on a project only to be told that leadership isn’t supportive, and all their work is for naught.
Hopefully, if you provide your team with a clear goal, have the right people around the table, and adequate support for them to do their work, they will develop a shared mindset around the project whether it’s a large exhibit, a benefit, or a new way of working with your community. If you are a director, build in periodic check-ins to look at how well the team understood the project mission, absorbed new members, and is moving toward a successful conclusion. And remember to say thank you. In the museum world there’s no such thing as end-of-year bonuses, so make your thanks genuine, not perfunctory. And if a team member steps out of her defined task to take on a new role, be sure to ask if there are ways you as leader (along with the organization) can support that new skill.
Tell us how you work with teams.
It happens in many careers: the thing that called you in the beginning disappears as you climb the ladder. You become a teacher because interacting with students charges your batteries, but when you’re catapulted into administration, those opportunities diminish. You become a librarian because you love research, but you’re good with people so you’re promoted. Soon you rarely interact with the public. Now you manage staff and go to meetings. Sound familiar? How many of us have similar stories? They are the professional equivalent of an origin myth–the moment you understand people actually —create exhibits, catalog collections, study insects–you fill in the blank–for a living? Your answer is count me in. But then things change. And on one hand, that’s good. You got a promotion! That’s great. But is it?
What brought you to the museum world in the beginning–passion for history, art, natural science, good people skills, combined with imagination, humility, humor and self-awareness–pushes you up the museum ladder, away from objects, plants, rare books, paintings, whatever drew you in the beginning. Suddenly you’re miles from what once delighted and inspired you. Your new skill set includes HR minutia you never knew existed, combined with anecdotal information on fire suppression, and how best to motivate staff when it’s 90 degrees and the air conditioning fails. And then there’s the constant drum beat of money. Who’s got it. Will they give it? Under what conditions?
We can’t tell you the number of people who have told us that scenario is not something they want. Yet the pattern repeats. And in a field with chronically low salaries especially for women, leadership and advancement go hand in hand. So what should you do? Not to sound too apocalyptic, but how do you accept leadership without losing your soul? Be strategic. Be aware.There’s a lot we can’t control in life, but there is a lot we can. And your career isn’t as arbitrary as next month’s weather map. So here are some things to consider when you are pushed to move beyond your passion.
- Understand your field. The museum workplace has many subsets, regions, communities under a very big umbrella. Do you know where you want to go?
- Do you understand your current organization, what its leadership opportunities are and what they entail. If you take the opportunity offered, where will it lead?
- What about your own life? What changes will more money and more responsibility bring? Do you have support outside of work to cope with those changes?
- Have you done a self-check in? Does it seem as though the stress of a leadership position is manageable at this point in your career? Is there time for what brought you to the field in the beginning? Can you retain that connection in a way that is meaningful?
If the answer to the last question was no, can you foresee a time when it might be yes? When your children are all in elementary school? When your parents don’t need you as much? When your organization’s building project is complete?
The point is leadership comes to many of us, and like most things, it’s better if it’s planned rather than having it feel accidental. And it comes in many forms. Being department head is not the same as being a lone leader at a small organization. Your skill set may fit one, but not the other. And more importantly, it may fit one now and the other later.
So embrace the old adage, “Never say never.” Instead, recognize responsibility when it’s handed to you. Know that you wouldn’t get it if folks higher up the workplace food chain didn’t think you could handle it. Organizations need good leaders at every level from project to program, department to museum wide.
And tell us how you choose…
Department on the Status of Women, City and County of San Francisco
For us, the last weeks of June mean scouring our manuscript for misplaced footnotes, erratic grammar, and broken links before sending it off to the publisher. Its title is Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace, and it’s a book about the working lives of women in museums. And it’s not surprising that in reviewing the text, it’s impossible not to reflect on women’s work lives in the museum field.
In thinking about our manuscript and our recent AAM presentation (What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women), here are the three areas where I think change needs to happen in women’s work lives: wages; how women treat one another, and childcare. You don’t need to be an astrophysicist to realize those problems affect women no matter where they work. They do. But as we’ve said here before, museums are peculiar environments that often advocate big values up front, while back stage employees languish.
But pause for a moment. Are those the areas you would pick if you had to pick three? If not, tell us. Here’s why: As we explained at the close of our AAM presentation, we hope to create a caucus group under AAM’s tent that will advocate for all women in the museum field. (We should note that AAM has advocacy groups for diversity and LGBTQ, but not for women who make up 46.7 percent of the field’s employees.) On the other hand, a caucus without a cause is pretty sad, so if you’re behind us, let us know and please tell us what is on your mind.
So…in the spirit of equitable wages, I want to alert all of you who haven’t followed the Obama administration’s change in the overtime laws, that now might be the moment to focus, especially if you are a woman, and/or a female leader. To be fair, AAM has been at the forefront of this discussion, urging museums and heritage organizations to prepare for the change which arrives December 1, 2016. You can read what the department of labor has to say here: The New Overtime Law. You can also read AAM’s article here: Changes to Overtime Eligibility. Why bring this up now? Because it’s going to happen to everyone, no matter your opinion, and because it may involve many museum women in discussions about salary over the summer.
By the way, my understanding is that if you are currently an exempt employee, paid less than $47,476, which is the new threshold for workers needing overtime protection, your employer does not have to return you to hourly pay come December. It can choose to keep you as an exempt employee, but clock and pay you time and a half for any hours over 40/week. Since returning to non-exempt status may affect your benefit package, you may want to investigate this option, particularly if your hours are steady throughout the year with one or two predictable exceptions. Last, and perhaps most importantly, if you are called to individual or group meetings where this topic will be discussed, read about it before hand so you can ask informed questions, and see if you can take the opportunity to ask about salary equity. Are women and men in your organization paid at the same rate for similar tasks? Does your board have a value statement about gender equity that it shares with employees? And let us know how an Equity Caucus could help.
Finally, and more on this in the future, be supportive of your sister museum employees. Life will never change for working women until we realize how similar our problems are, and reach out to help one another. Need inspiration about how a positive, happy workplace helps us all? Visit Joyful Museums.