Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.
There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”
Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean? Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.
Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change in your organization, department or program.
- Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
- Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
- Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
- Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
- You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
- Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
- Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
- Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
- Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.
How does your organization make change?
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
The museum workplace is full of feelings: Success–you got the grant; terror–the second floor bath really leaked and your insurance deductible is that high; delight–a child told you this was the best school trip ever; accomplishment–you might actually finish cataloging that collection; anticipation–the fall benefit is tomorrow. All these feelings and emotions connect to work, but you’re not a product of artificial intelligence. You arrive every day with your own jumble of emotions, and it’s the moment where these two paths cross that we need to think about.
You’ve heard that oft-mentioned workplace trope, “We’re like a family.” Maybe. Strong families are committed. They communicate well and regularly. They are resilient. They share values and belief systems. They like spending time together, and they are affectionate. Those are all good things, although not all are workplace appropriate. In addition, not everyone working in your museum or heritage organization comes from a healthy family. Some arrive with a host of baggage. Advertising the workplace as a family sets it up as a place that fills a host of unmet needs. Work quickly becomes a spot where individuals feel comfortable discussing their failed relationships, their children’s problems or less dramatically, a venue where they let go of the frustrations of modern life. And while some colleagues share too much, others don’t share at all, yet their silence says everything. They can’t focus, are absent or on the phone frequently. When the over-arching culture says “We’re family,” it’s hard for museum colleagues (and leaders) to separate the hum of personal drama from the day-to-day at work or to know what level of help or participation is appropriate.
Once, a boss I didn’t much care for, an individual who met alcoholism head-on so he knew a bit about controlling feelings, told me that the hardest thing about work is exercising restraint. At the time, I brushed it off, but it’s stayed forever embedded on my personal hard drive, a home truth about saying less. That’s true both as a leader and a follower. It’s a reminder to all of us to create a museum culture for the public AND for staff that is warm, embracing and empathetic, but at the same time clear that our first priority is the communities we serve and the objects, living things and buildings we care for. In other words, work is about work.
Not being like a family doesn’t mean museum leaders can’t or shouldn’t address staff’s problems when they interfere with work. But here’s a caveat: Do your homework first. If you have an HR department, consult them. Know what you can and cannot say, and what you can and cannot offer, and whether HR needs to be in the room when you speak to your employee. Too often people suffer through massive personal drama because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them. If you don’t have an HR department, use resources in your community — perhaps through your Chamber of Commerce — to get the advice and counsel you need. Make sure you’ve documented the employee’s behavior so you’re not offering vague descriptions that only add to the misery. If inattention costs your organization something, be prepared to explain. Work toward:
- Creating a climate where staff aren’t afraid to say they need to press pause.
- In the event of a personal tragedy, make sure staff know who to talk to.
- Remember that accident, illness or broken relationships can happen to anyone. Don’t blame an employee for circumstances beyond her control.
- Separate legitimate tragedy from a staff member who uses the museum to shed emotional load.
- Work with HR and your board personnel committee to understand what alternatives you might offer–sick leave, FMLA, short-term disability–and know what those mean.
- Build a museum workplace that is warm and empathetic, yet focused on work.
Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
Here is a simple truth: If you are a museum leader, you can tell your staff they’re a team any day of the week, but unless you make it mean something, the word “team” is just a random noun.
We think of teams as good things. They seem democratic. They flatten hierarchies. They bring people together. And, depending on how your museum or heritage organization defines victory, they’re sometimes winners. But if you have even a passing acquaintance with sports, you know some teams always deliver, and some never do, so it’s not about the name.
Recently I witnessed an incident where a department leader brought his team–his word not mine–together to plan a meeting of peer leaders. Although staff felt there was too little time to deliver a cohesive program, the leader wanted to push ahead. In the end, the event took place, and the leader ignored his team’s input, forgot to introduce or mention members of his staff, consistently interrupted others in their presentations, and made many believe they’d wasted brain power in planning for the event. Lesson one: Teams aren’t for everyone. As with so much in leadership, know yourself first. If teams and team work drive you crazy, you can opt out. We’ve all experienced the moment where–pick one–a board member, staff member, or volunteer misses a meeting and the chemistry changes. Discussion moves along. Decisions are made. Boxes are checked. If teamwork isn’t for you, let your staff plan. Go over the results with your assistant directors, make any changes you feel are necessary, and watch as they deliver the goods. Lesson two: Good teamwork, especially from the leader’s point of view, requires trust. Every time you authorize staff to act on your behalf, you say “I believe in you.” Say it enough, and they start to trust you.
Lesson three: If you’re going to lead a team, know where it’s going. In the scenario Leadership Matters observed, there was little understanding about why this presentation mattered, and if it did, why the team leader waited ’til the last minute to plan. If an event or grant application matters, be clear about why. Tell your colleagues why an event demands all-hands-on-deck, not because they’re dense, but because they deserve to hear it from you.
Teamwork doesn’t guarantee Nirvana. Productive teams often argue. Lesson four: Be prepared for push-back. Value your staff. Being willing to argue about something doesn’t automatically indicate staff hate each other (or you) or enjoy being disruptive. Instead, it may indicate they care about the museum and its programs. And yes, every team needs the one member who’s going to say the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because it makes everyone look at the question, project or event with new eyes.
Teams are about group, not individual, behavior. That’s why a soccer team practices drill after drill. Their individual skills are in service–literally–to the goal. Lesson five: If you’re a team leader, you have a role in helping the group do its best. That means for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s not about you. Instead, your role is to manage the team: To be positive and encouraging; To pull it back on task; To ask if things are clear and make sense; To make sure everyone understands their tasks; To ask the group to reflect on what they’ve done before pushing on to the next goal. And perhaps, most importantly, to decide what tasks are best left to individuals rather than the group.
Do you work in a museum where staff are referred to as a team? Is that a good or bad thing?
It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”
Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.
The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.
It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.
Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.
It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny. How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.