This week I thought I would write a little bit about “process.” By process I mean the way we as individuals and groups work our way through something, whether it’s a project, a press release, a benefit, an exhibition. As leaders you’ve all been there. Not only do you have to bring whatever it is to fruition, you have to bring your staff along with you. Hopefully, along the way, you play to their strengths, engage them, light creative fires, and make something that is better than any one of you would have made alone.
But before we talk about process, a story. I spent my vacation in Maine in a tiny coastal town that is about as far from the state’s moniker of “the way life should be” as possible. It’s a town that never quite pulled itself out of the mess of 2008. There is too little work and there are too many houses for sale. In the center of the village, though, is the library, which shares space with the historical society. They are both housed in a handsome mid-nineteenth century house and have a huge group of volunteers who keep the place running. They are also in the middle of a $100,000 fund raising drive. Last week as part of that campaign, they held a pie sale. Here are the particulars: Volunteers bake pies and quiches. They deliver them to the library before 9 a.m. the morning of the sale and people like me spend $12 to $15 per pie. I have to assume that purchases are a bit of a gamble because all the bakers can’t be as good as the person who made the three-berry pie I bought. In any case, at the end of six hours they made almost $1,000.
I spent a lot of time at the Library around the pie sale, and it made me ponder the question of process. I learned that the volunteers scour tag sales throughout the year for pie dishes and that when you buy a pie the dish is included. I learned they buy personal size pizza boxes to put each pie in. I learned that the pie sale spawned a silent auction and an art sale.
All of this made me think about process, about the way, we as leaders and department heads, volunteers and board chairman, make something happen. Because I think too often what we forget, and we do it for the best possible reasons, is to begin with a vision statement. Why are we selling pies? And to make sure everyone has the same answer, which might be: To make a lot of money for our fund raising campaign. What needs to happen next, but often doesn’t is an outline to keep people moving from A to D and so on without wandering into the weeds of art sales and silent auctions. It might also help staff or volunteers save time. Maybe it isn’t necessary to scour tag sales for 11 months. Maybe there’s another way to get pie pans.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions at our Library, but merely to ask if part of your leadership mantra is clarity. Before you head into a meeting, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Do you deliver your vision clearly? Have you learned to pull staff back when in their enthusiasm they want to add the art sale to the pie sale? Can you curb their enthusiasm kindly while channeling it into pies? Is your staff used to tossing ideas in the air and batting them around? Are they kind when someone offers up an idea that seems a bit loony and out-of-the-box? To the best of your abilities, does everyone leave the room ready to take on their part of the project?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you and your staff are in a good place. And, I suspect, will sell a ton of pies. If not, think about the places where you stumble and go into the weeds. Is it during the delivery of the idea? Perhaps you think your ideas are clear as a bell, but they’re not. Are you someone who’d rather not direct the meeting too much and as a result it zigs and zags, before becoming a contest with pies as prizes? Or are you the leader who has trouble pulling staff back on track. It’s rough sometimes, but know you’re not the only one who is suffering. Colleagues all around the table are waiting for you to pull the group out of the ditch. You will not only get the project back on track, your staff will applaud in their heads, and as long as you are kind, the person who’s off-track will get over it.
Leaders don’t get a lot of rest. At least not at work. And as a leader, meetings are your time to shine. So next time you deliver the news about a project, event, exhibition, make sure you’re on track so your staff can follow. Remember, an unclouded vision spawns creativity, which leads to a great “to-do list,” which leads to a meaningful event or program or project. Good luck. And share your “pie stories” with us here at Leadership Matters.
Perhaps because I work at a school, September always marks the start of the year. And as this summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a new leader, not only because we have an interim head of school, but we are in a search for a new long-term leader.
Our interim head is an experienced person who, if he were a different sort, would be taking long walks on the beach and thinking deep thoughts, his working life over. But he’s made a life not only of leadership, but of being an interim. And we’ve all pinned a lot on him. Will he be change agent or maintainer?
Thinking about the months to come, made me wonder how many of you are starting new jobs, either as directors or department heads, and as you step into your office for the first time, whether you ponder what your staff think about you. Because I can assure you, they are all expecting something different. There are the naysayers, who are certain you and any other new leader will fail. In their minds, the job is too complicated and you can’t possibly understand what’s happened. They see the institutional history as a lengthy mistake-ridden narrative iced with gossip. You, poor benighted soul, cannot lead in a way that’s meaningful because you simply can’t cope with such a complex plot line.
Then there are the completely disengaged, those who tell you it really doesn’t matter who’s in your office, it won’t affect them. Or there are the folks who are convinced you’re the second coming. They have an almost Messianic zeal for your institution and they are waiting for you to right every wrong and also take care of the leaks in the west wing, and raise enough money so the museum won’t have to do that Holiday fundraiser, which they loathe. What’s interesting about these people is they have a very specific agenda and assume it must be yours as well. They also assume that their needs are everyone else’s. They will become naysayers when you don’t seem to be following through on their list.
There are also genuinely happy folks, busily engaged in work. Their needs may be more personal. They may hope you will challenge them, push them toward goals they haven’t yet thought of. Last, there may be some new staff, just like you. They are the ones who look like deer in the headlights. Not only do they not have a clue about what’s going on, they’re also terrified that what little they do know will change when you start talking.
So who will you be? And how will you adapt to the myriad expectations of your staff? Wait for it….yes, I’m going to say it…be yourself. It’s an old saw, but I assume, as you should, that whoever hired or promoted you, did so because they liked you. They intuited the youness of you and that’s what made them select you out of the thousands of eager souls with newly tweaked LinkIn pages.
And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know when we say be yourself, we mean the same authentic self you leave home with in the morning and bring to the workplace. That self knows where true north is, but doesn’t let its hair down and over share.
Clearly if you’ve met any of the folks in the list above, you know that pleasing all of them is about as likely as emptying a pond with a sieve. You can’t do it and you will make yourself and everyone else crazy if you try. In fact, I would argue that you’re not there to wave your wand and grant the staff’s wishes. You’re there to speak for the institution, which holds the public trust, and can’t speak for itself. You’re there to chart its course, in concert with your community, your board, AND your staff. So be your one true self. Bring your institutional vision to meetings, but be willing to wait. Hear all those folks with their different needs and agendas out. Lead, don’t manage. Listen, don’t dictate. And, above all, enjoy the adventure of charting a new course.
If you ARE new to your organization or your position, let us know about your experience.
Happy last weeks of summer,
We all want to be liked. Being loved is not half bad either, but sometimes one of the things museum leaders struggle with is how empathy versus sympathy plays itself out in the workplace. A lot of museums–at least here in the United States–are small. They are run by dedicated boards of trustees, long-serving volunteers, the director, and a small paid staff, that may range from as few as three to as many as 15 people. In a workplace that intimate, it’s easy for “we’re a family” culture to thrive. I know, I sound like a workplace Scrooge. And perhaps you’re saying, “But my staff is a family.” And my answer is: if it works for you and your peeps, go forth, and do good. But make sure it really is working and you’re not confusing silence on the part of some staff with complicity.
At this time of year, with the summer coming to a close, leaders–museum leaders and others–open meetings with a “What did you do this summer?” question. The intent is generous. Get everyone talking, they will see each other as human, they’ll bond, life will be good. But perhaps that’s a moment to be empathetic. It’s fine to open a meeting with an open-ended question, but be mindful of what you are asking and who is answering. There may be staff members who genuinely do not want to share. They feel they are there to work, and they don’t want to talk about their backpacking trip in the Cascades with anyone but friends. There may be others who have family issues that absorbed their vacation time. They might not want those revealed. Or staff may feel judged by sharing their vacation choice. Bottom line: whatever you’re asking, it’s not about whether you would answer it, it’s about you putting yourself in another’s shoes and imagining them answering. If , on your way to work, when you imagine the post-summer meeting playing out from your staff’s point of view, you imagine even the slightest whiff of anxiety, think of another question. Instead, ask something that begins with the personal, but points to work, which is after all, the common thread. For example, what thing, adventure, reading material, music, theatre made them think of their work in a new way?
Which brings us to the question of sympathy. Sympathy is another symptom of a work culture where the staff thinks of itself as family. Webster’s online dictionary defines sympathy as ” the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble.” In contrast, it describes empathy as ” the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Note that in the former, all you need to do is feel sorry for someone; in the latter, you share and understand their feelings.” Again, I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge. And I’m certainly not advocating throwing sympathy out the office window. If a co-worker experiences a personal tragedy, all but the meanest of us, feel sorry. But in the workplace, especially a small workplace, leaders sometimes become chronic sympathizers. They feel sorry for a staff member for whatever reason–they’re sick, they’re emotional–and that “sorriness” becomes the template for actions going forward. It enables and it allows a staff person to tread water, never resolving what’s happened, and worse, never moving ahead with work, which is the reason you, the leader, see them every day. And, the bottom line, it’s not fair to other staff, staff who are, perhaps, more reserved, and choose not to share their personal lives in the workplace, but who can plainly see who is excused (again) from staying late or working the weekend because of their problems.
So what’s a leader to do? Well, be self-aware. Understand the differences between sympathy and empathy. Use them appropriately. Encourage your staff–especially your front of the house staff–to use empathy. Maybe then the red-faced mother with the wailing toddlers won’t seem like something from a horror movie. And last, if you think of your staff as family, make sure that you understand what you’re asking and be alert to how your staff buys in.
Enjoy the dog days, and be in touch.
Are we not of interest to each other….It’s much deeper than that. Are human beings who are in community, do we call to one another? Do we heed each other? Do we want to know each other? There are a lot of ways that people that are aggrieved can be addressed, we all have our grievances, when grievance is really heard on the intimate level I think that does a great deal of the work of moving people forward….. We speak out of what we know and what we have lived and hopefully out of that comes something we might call the universal.
Elizabeth Alexander, Poet and Professor, speaking on “On Being” with Krista Tippett, July 26, 2015. You can find the full interview here.
It’s mid-month and time to talk about gender and museums again. As you’re aware Anne and I are embroiled in another book project, Women+Museums: Lessons from the Field. This is a book that addresses some of the inequities in our field in addition to what’s wonderful about it. If you are expecting a cringe-worthy rant, you’ll be disappointed, but we do want to raise some questions about gender in the museum workplace and about gender on the interpretive/exhibition side of things.
A few weeks ago we sent some questions about gender in programming and exhibitions to a group of female colleagues. After exchanging emails we decided that questions this weighty deserve answers that don’t have to be typed so we’re waiting for our schedules to calm down to talk. In the meantime, I thought I’d pose the same questions to all of you in the hopes you will have thoughts you’d like to share. And if nothing else, perhaps it will start a dialog in various museum workplaces. Here is the first one: When your institution discusses marginalized groups, are women mentioned? And by marginalized, we mean groups excluded from the mainstream by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or class. For example, if your museum is doing a thematic exhibit–let’s say art or objects based around memory–when your staff checks the boxes about who’s represented, does anyone mention women? If not, why not?
Here is the second question–and this is particularly for folks who work in history museums: Do you think women’s lives are interpreted in museums and house museums in a fair and empathetic way without presentist judgement? And by that we mean, do we talk about how women lived rather than interpreting their lives through the objects they used in a slightly pitying way because they aren’t evolved enough to have, say, heating systems that can be adjusted from the office or the car?
We didn’t just ask our women friends these questions. We also posed them to Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of New York’s Historic House Trust, and the founder and principal writer for the blog “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic Houses.” (Just FYI, if you’re not a fan, you should be.) Actually, we asked Frank twice because we’re so deep in this project, we seem to be losing our grip. In any case, here is some of what he had to say: “In my opinion, historic house museums tend to not think of the female voice as a primary player (unless it is Hull house etc.). They are just now getting to see that the female can actually expand the narrative in very interesting places. I think historic house museums understand women as marginalized when its women’s history month – after that, they get pushed in the background (not always – but a lot of the time.) The odd thing is that most of the people employed at house museums are women – In my experience, I, as a middle-aged white man (gay), have been the one to push women’s narratives at house museums that I have been involved with – pushing them beyond cook books and pretty dresses…”
And about the second question Frank wrote: “I do not know how we can do anything without some bias of our times shading our actions and interpretations. The best we can do is try to flesh out the broader aspects of the narrative in ways that may not fully ‘fit’ today’s view.”
So, not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s going on here? Why are women silent about women? Are those of you who work in 19th-century historic houses worried that you’re telling a different, more jovial, story than the time period that saw the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the lives of women like Emily Dickinson and Matilda Joslyn Gage? Is yours a story that glorifies ironing with a flat iron, walking the floor with a sick child in a world without antibiotics, or the menial act of getting dirt out of a carpet without a vacuum? How do you deal with issues of color versus issues of gender? What are the differences in the lives of an urban black woman versus an new female immigrant? Do you tell the story common to both or only the story of ethnicity? Does your audience know that women didn’t receive the vote until 1920 or that the first birth control clinic didn’t open until 1916? If you’re interpreting an historic house, is birth control or its lack part of the narrative or do you simply announce how many children a family had? I realize I am sounding rantish, but it is a teensy shocking that a gay man, aka Frank Vagnone, has to push the women’s narrative at historic house museums.
So please, if you disagree, let us know. We’re waiting to hear from you.
Two things happened this week. My husband and I spent time with some elderly relatives and I read a review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in The Times. The intersection of these two experiences, an example of life’s synchronicities, made me ponder the idea of renewal and its importance for museums and their leaders.
Here’s the back story: Being around elderly relatives makes those of us who are slightly younger think about what that chapter might be like. After 72 hours, a group of us, ranging in age from barely 40 to 65, decided that our favorites among the geriatric set are the folks who keep reinventing themselves: Grandparents who talk to their grandchildren on Facebook; retirees who join the Peace Corps or run 5Ks for the first time, the great aunt who is absolutely authentic every time you speak with her. You get the idea. These are folks who don’t sit still, mentally or physically.
Then there was the Times’ review. While it made me want to read Nelson’s memoir/personal exploration, it also reminded me about the story of the Argonauts. If you recall your Greek mythology, Jason and his crew set off on a long quest across the Black Sea to reclaim the golden fleece. The journey takes them through the Straits of Bosphorus and sees Jason return with a potential bride. While that relationship doesn’t work out, what’s important here is the journey, not the destination, and the fact that during their adventure the sailors replace and repair much of the good ship Argo, creating a new vessel with the shape and the lines of the original one.
It’s summer and many of us will go on vacation this month or next. We will return, hopefully, rested, renewed and rejuvenated. In doing so, we model a form of personal renewal for our staffs and colleagues. We unplug. We read what we want to read not what we should read. We play with our children. We eat good food and exercise out of desire rather than duty. We are renewed. And we serve as not only individual examples of renewal, but also as examples for our organization because sometimes as leaders, it’s important to press the pause button long enough to repair the ship. The vessel’s lines stay the same, the name doesn’t change, but we tweak and we improve, creating a constantly renewed organization behind the scenes.
One of the things my co-author Anne Ackerson always asks is “Who gets up in the morning and says I’m going to be mediocre today?” Hopefully not too many of us, but if you’re dragging yourself to the office to go though the same motions that are neither original nor creative, think about renewal. How do you re-charge? If your organization is treading water, think about the Argo. How can you lead in a way that involves creativity and change, while keeping the same ship? How can you model those traits for your staff, your department, your organization?
Sometimes museums get so caught up in their own narratives, they forget they can change. They pride themselves in stability rather than innovation. They are your parents’ house that you return to for the holidays and find the ice bucket in the same place it was a decade ago. It’s comforting, but is that what you want for your organization? We’re not talking about change for change’s sake, we’re talking about change that is driven by mission. You want the journey to continue; you want the ship to look the same, but you want to task your team with new ways to do the same thing.
So we wish you good vacations, and hope that you return ready to strive for something more than mediocrity. You may not capture the golden fleece, but you may take your organization to a place it’s never travelled.
Be well and let us know how you find renewal.
As some of you may remember, Anne and I taught in a Getty Leadership program for international museum leaders at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Yesterday we, and our other teaching colleagues, received AAM’s report on both our on-site, face-to-face programs and the follow-up Webinars. While the evaluations were informative and immensely gratifying–it’s no surprise that despite the wonders of the Internet people still prefer seeing their instructor when they are learning something—there is clearly a hunger for more information about leadership. That made me wonder what makes leadership in museums different than say leadership in the for-profit world or elsewhere in the non-profit world. What follows are my thoughts, but we would love to hear yours as well.
1. In the museum world sometimes leadership is a bit of surprise. You start out with a specialty, an advanced degree, an interest in a particular subject, and if you’re willing to move up, you find yourself no longer in charge of objects but people.
2. Not all museum graduate programs teach leadership. Not all museum graduate programs even act like their graduates will be entering a world where everyone isn’t nice and doesn’t treat them like they are immensely talented. Which they may be. But as we all know, work is vastly different than graduate school.
3. Until you arrive in an office with a window and a door, you think leadership is management. Then you realize they’re different, that reading a spreadsheet is about numbers and leadership is about reading personalities and people.
4. The museum world doesn’t act like there is a leadership path. It acts like there are careers that end in leadership positions and by then you should have figured it out.
5. Some museum leaders and museum boards don’t think behavior and self-awareness have anything to do with leadership.
6. Many museum boards don’t invest in staff, including staff in leadership positions, the way they invest in capital projects.
7. Unlike the library world, backed by the formidable ALA, and even the public history world, which has AHA behind it, museum leaders don’t receive similar types of support from AAM or AASLH, particularly when it comes to salary equity.
We welcome your thoughts about how YOU think museum leadership is different than non-profit or for-profit leadership.
Our research for Leadership Matters tells us that a huge percentage of today’s museum leaders, at least in the United States, work in small organizations, often small history museums. Small museums–and by that we mean organizations with fewer than 10 staff–have their own leadership issues. One is certainly the line between friendship and work, and for the director, that may be the difference between authenticity and too much information or it may be the difference between being friendly and being friends. Because sadly, if you’re a director, your friends, your drinking buddies, the folks you let your hair down with, shouldn’t be your colleagues.
Why? Well, think about it from your staff’s point of view. Suppose you’re best friends with your curatorial assistant. Your children attend the same school. You see each other at soccer games. Your partners enjoy each other’s company. What’s not to like? Well nothing except for the moment when the board tells you that you need to make staff cuts. The obvious position to lose is the curatorial assistant, but, oh, wait, she’s not just the curatorial assistant. She’s your fellow soccer parent, sharer of red wine, and lover of Orange is the New Black. You’re smart. You see this isn’t going to work. And you see why. And yet, shouldn’t you be able to be friends with whomever you like? Yes, but not in this instance. In accepting a leadership position, you put the organization first, which may mean that friendships take a back seat to workplace harmony.
And what about the difference between friendly and friends or authenticity and TMI? As a leader you need to be your one, true self. You need to be that person for you AND for your staff, but there is a difference between your true self and your self on the Dr. Phil show. Understand the boundaries. Use your life as a metaphor sparingly. There is plenty your staff doesn’t want to know and could, in fact, be distressed by knowing. Instead, be true about your feelings rather than your biography. Model humility. Model the genuine good morning instead of abusing a social convention as you grab coffee and head to your desk. While real friendships can cause workplace boundary issues, inauthentic friendliness sets off warning bells.
Does this make you the lonely leader? Not exactly. But rather than making friends within your organization, assemble a group of peers from your region. My co-author, Anne Ackerson, refers to these folks as her posse. More honest than your parents, more understanding of your leadership role than your average acquaintance, these are the folks who know you and what you do. They are available when you’ve had one of those days or weeks. They show up with wine and food, but they’re not afraid to tell you that you’ve been a jerk.
So if you haven’t got a posse or you’ve never thought of your colleagues, friends and mentors like that, think about it. If you’re a leader–whether it’s an entire museum or a department–learn to be friendly, but don’t look for work to replace family and friends. And as always, let us know how you manage this boundary.