If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?
Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.
But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.
Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.
Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.
Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.
So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….
- Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
- Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
- By building museums that are value driven.
- By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
- Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
- Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
- Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.
Be well and be kind.
Well, there’s nothing like an article on museum pay to get people’s hackles up. Last week, in listing the workplace issues the museum world contends with, I mentioned the gender pay gap, writing, “Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power.”
One of that post’s comments came from Michael Holland. In addition to being a natural history exhibit person with a passion for all things dinosaur, Holland has been a longtime voice for equitable wages. Google him, and you’ll find this piece he wrote for AAM three years ago. He concluded his comment on my post with this: “If we want underrepresented people to join us, we need to make sure that they too can afford to stay. At minimum, we should stop financially pushing against the very diversity, equity, and inclusion that DEI initiatives aim to address.” Too true. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s no point in museum workplace DEI initiatives if at their heart the institution supports and enables a system that perpetuates racism.
As I wrote in my original post, the gender pay gap has long been aligned with white women’s feminism, and is often seen as a white woman’s issue, but the data doesn’t bear this out. And like everything else about race/gender issues, both a White and a Black women can suffer from the gender pay gap, but the Black woman’s suffering is different and greater. In fact, in practical terms, it’s 17 cents on the dollar greater than a White woman, and for Indigenous women, it is greater still, not to mention Latinx women’s who make 25 cents less than the white man’s dollar. So the diversity of a museum’s staff is not the whole story. It is window dressing if the organization hasn’t done a pay equity audit to make sure its salaries are equitable; otherwise, it only perpetuates a broken and racist system.
Recently I had a conversation with a member of the leadership at my own institution. My employer sees itself as fairly enlightened. Its hiring practices have all been revamped in the last five years, but pay remains shrouded in mystery. When I raised the issue of a gender pay gap, I was told that our pay was carefully calculated against similar positions in similar institutions. When I suggested that other institutions, and in fact entire fields have gender wage suppression so comparisons are moot, the conversation kind of ended. But that’s the issue. It’s why certain groups like Museum Hue and GEMM fight for transparency about salaries in job advertisements and why women in particular shouldn’t be asked for their salary at a previous job.
So…bottom line? Maybe if we can see the gender wage gap, not as already privileged white women’s whining, but in fact the superstructure for wage inequity, we can make change. If–and I realize it’s a big if–
- AAM and AASLH can talk about the gender wage gap and how it perpetuates racism.
- If they can offer solutions and examples of how to do a pay equity audit…..
- ….while also continuing to support and encourage organizations dealing with bias surrounding the hiring and onboarding process…
- If they would be willing to support the kind of information available for librarians, women entering the museum field might have a better chance of lobbying for more equitable pay. Indeed, just acknowledging in every bit of information surrounding HR issues that the gender pay gap is a thing, would go a long way toward women of all races not feeling gaslit by the system.
- How can we–as individuals and organizations– build on the growing labor consciousness in the museum workforce in ways that are helpful and regenerative? How can we build on labor’s use of Instagram as a venue to air out grievances and hurt?
As Michael Holland points out in his comment from last week, the road to successful museum employment is littered with a landmines. There is education–Do you have the right degrees?–Cost–If you get the degree, can you cope with the potential debt?–And daily life. Can you afford to live near and commute to your museum? All those questions have to be answered before starting a job. Staying in a position, and indeed in the field, depends on finding a humane workplace and equitable pay. And equitable pay ONLY works if the gender pay gap is addressed otherwise no matter what your museum says about how important workplace DEI issues are, it’s all a lie. Remember Nina Simon’s great Tweet: When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it. That doesn’t only apply to museum issues that are front facing, but most importantly to those that take place “backstage” and involve only a museum or heritage organization’s workforce.
Be kind, be truthfull, and be well.
P.S. I also want to acknowledge Paul Thistle’s work and concern for the museum world’s wellness. (See the other comments and reposts from last week.) One of the many contributors to workplace stress is an inadequate paycheck. A stressed staff is an unhappy staff, and an unhappy staff is bad for community and collaboration.
In the United States, this weekend is three days long. For those not coping with displacement and disaster due to fire or flood, it’s Labor Day, and an extra day off from the weekly grind. So it seems like an appropriate moment to check in and take the temperature of work in Museumland, what’s good, not-so-good, and what’s truly awful.
You’ve heard me say this before, but when I began this blog in 2012 there weren’t a lot of people talking about working conditions in museums and heritage organizations. Every organization was its own entity, and its basic humanity and worker care came down to who ran the museum. There was, and still is, a sort of every person for themselves mentality. Sometimes staff ended up with a humane leader, sometimes not, and when the worst happened they were counseled to stay quiet because “It’s a small field,” and basically no one wants to be labeled as “difficult.”
There were few public conversations about leadership, and when they happened, the assumption was that yes, abysmal leadership happened in small, pitiful historical societies somewhere, but not in the large, well-funded urban museums with elegantly dressed directors. Well, we know that’s not true. In fact, over the last decade, and particularly over the last five years, the scales seem to have fallen from our collective eyes. Museumland isn’t the Nirvana we wanted it to be. There are examples of bad leadership everywhere from large urban art museums to small heritage organizations.
That said, it’s not all dreadful, and in some areas the needle’s actually moved in a good way. Some examples:
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2020, there are more women in the field (63.6%) than ever before, and presumably many of those women are in leadership positions across the museum ecosystem. That’s definitely a change from a decade ago, and a good thing.
- The BLS also predicts museums are a growth field. (I know, hilarious, right?) But the BLS isn’t a bunch of comedians and their data predicts we’re a growing industry–much faster than average–is the way they put it, and we should expect 11-percent growth over the next decade. Could that be the sound of retirement parties as Baby Boomers finally exit stage left?
- Even though I mentioned it above, I think the fact that museum folk, led last week by AAM, are speaking about the issues of leadership, and by implication, HR, hiring, and bias, that’s a good thing, and something that couldn’t or didn’t happen five years ago.
- Millennials seem savvier to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older (still), but they seem less willing to settle for a job in the museum sector simply because an organization wants to hire them.
- And even mired in COVID, all the major service organizations have managed to address leadership, workplace gender harassment, and HR as part of their annual meeting schedules, a far cry from the days when we were told, “We don’t talk about those things,” even though staff were literally being belittled and harassed as service organizations put conference schedules together.
- More staff at large museums are joining unions. Unions are not a panacea, but they give members a powerful voice and a way to negotiate with organizations who don’t want to negotiate. And a new Economic Policy Institute report on unions points out that unionized workers make on average 11.2-percent more than their non-unionized peers. In addition, Black and Hispanic workers get even more of a boost receiving 13.7-percent and 20.1-percent respectively as union memberships pushes past the racial stereotyping and class bias in non-union situations.
And how about the not so good?
- The pay is still not good. According to the BLS the median pay for archivists, curators and museum workers is $52,140, which is up from two years ago, but still doesn’t match the median pay of librarians ($60,820) or teachers ($62,870). Not that either of those numbers is a benchmark especially when you consider Dan Price just raised his company’s minimum annual pay to $70K.
- Too many museums and heritage organizations still don’t have HR policies, and utilize a seat-of-the-pants method where the director or the board makes decisions which inevitably result in inequities.
- In a world that’s 63.6-percent women, questions around family care, parental leave, personal time off need to be decided for the organization not on a case-by-case basis.
- If we believe the BLS, as of 2020, the museum world was 94.6-percent White, .6-percent Black, 7.6-percent Hispanic, and 4.4-percent Asian. (And yes, even I, a math cripple, can tell that all those added together is more than 100-percent.) So no matter how much change appears to be happening on social media, when the government crunches the numbers, it’s a field that’s NOT diverse.
And the truly awful:
- Given the field’s entrance ticket is still a very expensive graduate degree, salaries are low. Unlike boards of education, museums don’t hire newly-minted undergraduates and then support them while they earn their graduate degree, forcing new museum staff to invest first, before they even know the field, and pay later.
- There is a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to pay in the museum field, a lot of you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone talk, but until boards realize staff are an investment every bit as important as a new HVAC system or a new storage facility, nothing will change. Someday, maybe, AAM or AASLH will take a stand about salaries and publish a page like this one from the American Library Association.
- DEI is not something that is spun. It’s not something you fabricate so your organization looks good in public and on social media; it’s a process, and it takes a lot of work to re-center institutional DNA, but ultimately creating diverse teams makes us all better collaborators.
- There is STILL a gender pay gap, and as the field is increasingly populated by women, the issue of the pay gap becomes more acute. Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power. And anyone in museum leadership who says they are a feminist or supports women’s rights, but hasn’t done a gender pay audit isn’t being truthful.
Be well. Be kind. Do your best.
Last week there was an interesting and lengthy exchange on Museum-L, the museum discussion list, prompted when someone asked whether their hopes of getting a museum position with only a bachelor’s degree were unrealistic, and then followed up by asking how important a graduate degree is in breaking into the profession.
The responses were all over the map, from suggestions that museums aren’t higher education, and hands-on experience is more important than degrees, to the idea that most of what museum studies degree programs teach is a mystery taught by people with little or no experience. There were also voices saying that what matters is soft skills, which can’t be taught, as opposed to basic museum tasks which can be learned. Coincidentally, no one in this email string mentioned the word bias although these questions speak directly to the accretion of barriers in museum land over the last 50 years that have kept and continue to keep deserving people out of the field. Since last summer and George Floyd’s murder there’s been a lot of woe-is-me about the whiteness of the job sector, but this question of whether you need a master’s or doctorate speaks directly to the barriers in museumland.
But back to the question of whether graduate school is necessary or not: In full transparency, I have co-taught for the last several years, although not this semester, in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program. Co-teaching one course in museum leadership doesn’t give me the right to comment on the program as a whole–although FYI to the Museum-L commenter JHU’s course descriptions are all available online so no mystery there–but I will say that by and large the students are impressive, smart, creative, and verbal. Almost all of them work full time with a portion of them working in museums across the country and around the world.
Coincidentally, my own program issued a job announcement this week, and went through a parallel discussion regarding graduate school requirements. Granted libraries are not the same as museums, although it is an allied field with many larger museums housing a library or an archives, while in my case, archives and special collections sit under the library umbrella. So, as you might imagine, there was some discussion about the question of whether our new job description would require an MLS. In the end, the answer was no. The position is front facing, and the overwhelming hope is that the person who fills it will be long on people skills. Everything else can be learned. Being kind, intuitive, empathetic and efficient on a campus of driven and often stressed adolescents, can’t be learned, and the damage done while an employee sorts out how to treat their co-workers and the audience can do a boatload of damage.
So, what’s the answer? In a perfect world I wish museums could get over themselves a bit and hire for the skills they really need, not for some artificial content-driven degree. Graduate school is huge investment. Johns Hopkins charges $4,554 per course, and 10 courses are necessary for the degree. And as an online program since way before COVID, JHU is cheaper than the more traditional in-person graduate programs requiring students to press pause on work while going to class each day. If you’re going to make such a huge investment of money and time wouldn’t it be great if you could spend time in the field first to see if it really moves you? Not to mention whether you can afford to stay in a field where according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there is a median salary of roughly $48,500.
If your passion is curatorial, you’re going to need content–potentially a lot of content and research–to make your mark in an art, history or science museum. You may do that by combining an art history masters with real world experience or perhaps your PhD in entomology will land you a position in a natural history museum. But for many other positions, the field demands a knowledge of the museum ecosystem, an understanding of the positions within the job sector, and a passion for collaborating with your audience, combined with an understanding that it’s not what you look at that matters, but rather what you see.
COVID has left museumland in tough shape. There are fewer entry level jobs thanks to the decimation of the ranks that took place when organizations had to close. Yes, more organizations are unionizing, but salaries remain crappy and benefits not great. If your organization is hiring in the next six months….
- If you haven’t read AAM’s most recent blog post on equitable hiring, read it now.
- Diversity isn’t just about who’s in the staff photo. Is your organization ready to do the work necessary to challenge itself, changing its workplace DNA, to make hiring changes?
- A degree requirement is another way to favor a white-dominant culture. Is the position you need to fill one where a degree is necessary or are there complementary skills that might work just as well?
- All new hires need support and mentoring, particularly during their first year. Is your organization ready to press pause long enough to get its HR house in order?
One of the lines I like best in AAM’s blog post is “Stop seeking “perfection” and recognize that all candidates will have both strengths and areas for improvement.” You could write a whole blog post on perfection and museum HR. Accept that none of us is perfect, but everyone does their best. That mindset supports the idea that there isn’t one way a job can be filled, but many.
Be well, hire well, and be kind.
Have you ever been around someone who tells you they love you randomly and too often? I’m not talking about the love of your life because hopefully their words resonate differently, I’m talking about a friend or a colleague. And with every “I love you,” the phrase loses meaning so after awhile it’s like a verbal tic that you don’t really hear? Well, apologies can metastasize in the same way, quickly becoming hollowed out versions of themselves. That said, “I’m sorry,” is still an important, meaningful, and necessary phrase in the museum or any workplace.
So why is saying “I’m sorry” important? Well, it’s a bellwether. The ability to apologize indicates so many things about human behavior: You’re willing to make yourself vulnerable in front of others; you possess some humility; it also indicates a level of self-awareness that’s trust building for colleagues, and indeed to the whole office food chain.
I was once worked for someone who had huge issues with humility. He was blithe about his own mistakes, never running up against one he couldn’t overlook, explain away, or simply ignore, from small things like lateness, to the more obvious like Google chatting during meetings and then getting caught when his laptop was projected on the big screen, and ultimately escalating to more serious issues like missing deadlines, neglecting development or possessing a vision. As someone subject to his decision-making for almost a decade, I can assure you that when an individual is unable to apologize, the small, petty part of you rears its head and says “If he doesn’t have to, I don’t either” Why do I need to take personal responsibility if the guy making the big salary doesn’t? (I told you this was petty.) That, of course, engenders a workplace culture rife with blame, but absent humility.
There’s another thing about apologies: They indicate our acceptance and understanding of failure. A lot of leaders blather about creating a culture of experimentation and creativity, but unless it’s really part and parcel of institutional DNA, it only lasts until there is a screw-up. Then suddenly, as staff meets to address the issue, concerns about creativity and experimentation evaporate. What follows is a WTF moment where everyone scrambles to assign blame, while putting things right again. Creativity or its absence isn’t mentioned. Yet none of us is perfect. Far from it. We all love to work in an atmosphere where experimentation is encouraged and supported. And as any artist or scientist will tell you, many experiments result in failure or at least in more experiments.
So what’s a museum leader’s role? How do you protect your colleague’s right to experiment, acknowledging they are human, and will mess-up in big and small ways, while also building a culture that expects staff to own their own behavior? It’s a tall order. Begin with yourself. If you can’t or won’t do it, why should they?
- Give the apology you want to hear from a leader.
- Don’t delay too long. Collect yourself, calm your emotions, but don’t let so much time go by that no one can remember what you’re apologizing for.
- Take responsibility for your actions. It’s not your fault the benefit was spoiled by a fierce thunderstorm; it is your issue if the donor’s name is misspelled.
- Don’t over-explain. Saying I was rushed is preferable to a long and detailed explanation of your child chipping a tooth, leading to an emergency dental appointment, leading to car trouble, and on and on.
- Close with what you learned. Sometimes we learn we can’t be the autonomous super human we think we are, and that we need help from our colleagues, whether it’s editing, planning, or logistics.
- Look to how you might handle a similar situation going forward. If needed, ask for support in crafting a plan to keep whatever happened from happening again.
And if you are counseling a staff member or colleague who’s messed up?
- Do not channel your inner Miss Trunchbull. You may be furious, but your role isn’t to lock anyone in The Chokey. Listen to what happened. And listen for an apology.
- Ask what your colleague learned and how whatever happened can be avoided in future.
- As a leader, make sure you understand your own role and responsibility in whatever happened. Are there things you need to correct? Were staff given too much responsibility without the authority to resolve problems?
- Deal with the now. Help your staff move forward from where they are, not from where they wish they were.
- Moving forward, watch to see how staff members apply what they learned. Self-aware staff, even those who didn’t mess up and subsequently need to apologize, will internalize what happened and avoid doing it in future.
In my experience, which admittedly is not vast, museums, archives and libraries tend to attract individuals passionate about their work, often with huge internal motivation–all good traits–but traits frequently predicated on perfection. A staff who doesn’t make mistakes isn’t experimenting. A staff who doesn’t apologize can’t show humility, and therefore isn’t building trust. And who doesn’t want to work someplace where creativity is the driver, and staff, no matter where they are on the food chain, is trusted?
Be well. If you’re on the east coast, stay out of Henri’s way, and be safe.
Have you ever traveled, returned to where you started, only to find it looks completely different from the place it was when you left? After being away from my job as curator of special collections for a year, I came back last month. I had stepped away to be an interim leader for a year while our team chose a new, permanent director. Despite COVID, it was by and large a great experience, challenging, yet full of learning moments, and an opportunity to do good. But my return to my old position as curator of special collections has made me think about what being a sole practitioner means.
Yes, I work in a large organization, but I’m the only person charged with caring for a campus collection of art, sculpture and art photographs displayed over half a dozen buildings, and stored in sometimes challenging conditions. So as I returned to my curatorial work, I began to think about what it means to work alone, what skills are necessary, and perhaps most importantly how sole practitioners are selected.
As we all learned from COVID, working alone puts you in the driver’s seat. You set the pace, the agenda, and you prioritize. The flip side is that in setting the pace, the agenda and the priorities, when things go south, it’s all on you, and that is stressful. Too many times to count, these pages have been filled with the importance of collaboration, of the creativity that results when people, even people who don’t like each other much, team up and work together. Sparks fly, and that’s good. Lone rangers don’t necessarily have that interaction or support. Sometimes it can come from a task-oriented board or from volunteers, but in my observation that’s rare.
As with anything–cooking, crossword puzzles, tennis–we get better with practice. Decades ago, one of the leading female leaders in the museum world mentored me. One of the things she tried to help me understand was that leadership demanded a different skillset than a number of other positions, and my life might be less of a muddle if I committed to one as opposed to many. At the time I was a lone ranger and a first director for a historic house museum. With decades of hindsight and a level of self-reflection my 20-something-year-old self didn’t possess, I suspect she was also telling me that one of the huge challenges of being a sole-practitioner is that you need to be both a master of change AND a master of complexity. As a leader and a sole practitioner you’re the star in a one- person show. You are development, external relations, education, exhibitions, finance, and curatorial all rolled together. That’s not easy.
Lone rangers need to be generalists, good at many things, no in-depth knowledge necessary, but clearly we all have strengths. I play a lot of positions in my current job, as I did in previous sole-practitioner positions. There are definitely areas I’m better at than others. So if you’re a sole practitioner or want to be one….
- Know your strengths. Really know them. Have a plan B if you need quick help in a major topic area.
- Do a gut-check. Are your values in line with folks who are interviewing you?
- Be transparent about where you think your weaknesses are during the hiring process. Boards will advertise for a generalist, and smile about exhibits and school programs, but if what they really want is an advancement person, something you know little about, your relationship is doomed, and you will constantly feel as though you’re being asked to bring someone a rock and their response is “No, not that rock.”
- If there are gaps in your content base, work to fill them in. Take the bookkeeping class for small business at the local community college; take an online class in exhibit design for small organizations through a regional service organization; meet monthly with other educators or teachers from neighboring institutions.
- Create your own colleague group. Ask three or more folks you know or who you wish you knew better, how they’d feel about being sounding boards when things at work seem wonky. Will they read an email and respond or answer advice in person, on the phone or Zoom?
If you’re hiring a sole practitioner….
- Talk long and hard about what you and your board, feel your museum needs. There’s nothing worse than hiring your one and only staff person whose strengths are internal-facing, when what you really want is an externally facing extrovert.
- Acknowledge that if you’re a sole-practitioner kind of place, it’s likely the salary you’re offering is low, and your applicants will be young, emerging professionals or else folks in their last chapter, who want an easy slide into retirement. Talk about how both demographics might affect organizational growth.
- Few individuals possesses all the skills museum-land demands in one personality. Discuss how and whether your organization will invest in either professional development for your sole practitioner or growing the organization’s staff or both.
- Don’t saddle a lone ranger with money problems you as a board are too lazy to fix. Have the finance discussion, and come up with a plan, and potentially a plan B, to sustain the organization before entering the the hiring process. If you can’t sustain your collection, buildings, whatever, without an employee, it’s not going to be any easier with one.
For better or worse, we’ve lived through the hottest July ever. Now museums are trying to stay open, and run programs while dodging the Delta variant. It’s stressful. Be kind. Assume we’re all doing our best, especially our sole practitioners.
So it’s been a few weeks, in fact, almost a month since I last wrote. I like to think that if this blog has any redeeming qualities, one is consistency. So apologies for the radio silence. These pages were never meant to be self-revelatory. They were created to support the publication of both editions of Leadership Matters (2013 and 2019), and as such, be a springboard for the discussion of all things leader-like in museum land. But sometimes life just comes at you, slamming you in the face with your own worst thing. And that’s what happened to me. The specifics don’t matter so much except to say of the several cataclysmic things that can happen in a lifetime, this was one.
My experience made me think of what Lisa Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum, said in her Leadership Matters interview. When I asked her about work/life balance, her response was pure Lisa Lee. She underscored that siloing our energy and thoughts isn’t productive, that our lives aren’t binary, meaning work versus home. She added “At the museum we pretend we’re not grappling with other issues, but we’re human beings all day.” That seemed like an important statement to me when I heard it the first time, and equally important today as I prepare to return to work. I can’t shut off my grief the moment I walk into my office or my first meeting. I have to look it in the face, carry it with me, and move forward.
One of my “sheroes” is Brené Brown. Her short film on the difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty stellar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, because all good leaders should understand that what you say isn’t as important as simply being present and reminding the person who’s hurt that you recognize pain, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, and you’re by their side. And it isn’t about you. Nothing is worse than a hurting colleague comforting the comforter. Nor is there some unwritten scale of dire events that ranks human reaction. It’s not a worst experience contest. As a leader, your job is to respect what happened to your colleague and empathize, not weigh a pet death versus chemotherapy or a car accident. Life is hard, and we all meet challenges differently.
Brené Brown always says presence trumps perfection. There is nothing about being a museum leader that makes you a people fixer, so don’t try. Today a colleague asked if she could stop by, and when I said yes, she simply wanted to tell me she was there for me–big or small–lunch companion, after-work walk, chair to sit and rant in. It was incredibly kind, and my only job was to realize she’s on my side. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that this colleague is someone I can trust because she’s willing to sit with me at my lowest. I know I can go to her office and weep if I need to, and she will share the space, metaphorically and actually.
The American workplace, which is the only workplace I know even a little about, is not a place where emotions are on parade. We’re not supposed to yell (well, men can, but that’s another post), nor are we supposed to cry (especially if we’re women), because crying means you’re emotional which is sometimes code for hormonal or menopausal which is definitely bad or wait, maybe just human? Sometimes checking our emotions at the door, and locking up our grief just isn’t possible because, as Lisa Lee reminds us, we’re human.
So 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this post. Maybe I would have suggested that we need to button up those emotions, park them at the door, and just get on with it. But in a world of climate change, systemic racism, pandemic fears, and gender discrimination, not to mention all the bad stuff that besets us individually, I don’t think that’s the workplace any of us want to work in any more. We need to know we can be our real selves–or at least as real as we choose to reveal–because it’s only in environments where trust flourishes that we, whether leaders or staff, feel safe, seen and supported.
Be well and be kind.
Mentors and mentorship seem to be having a moment. From annual meetings where mentors and mentees meet up, to organizations dedicated to mentoring, talk of mentors is in the wind. But here’s a little secret: There are likely as many different ideas about mentorships as there are people, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
About a lifetime ago mentors were the province of business. They were invariably white men and they were there to help give their compatriots a leg up. Sometimes they knew a ton about business craft, sometimes they possessed a wealth of connections. Either way, they helped when paths diverged and choices had to be made. And because like follows like, more white men were mentored than anybody else.
I could be wrong, but 25 years ago, mentoring in the museum/heritage sector was in its infancy if it existed at all. It’s possible the museum field was late to the mentor party because just as it ignored leadership, it also ignored its trappings, preferring to let curators spring fully formed into the director’s office, as if careers dedicated to research and exhibitions prepared anyone for dealing with human nature writ large. It’s also possible the museum world’s mentorship reluctance was slow to evolve because it seemed “businesslike.” Museums didn’t want to be seen as businesses. They were different. And while the for-profit world isn’t perfect, far from it–there is an expectation in the B-Schools that everyone will lead, making the leadership skillset a component of every degree. So while business trained leaders, the museum and nonprofit world laid the groundwork for some epic 21st-century HR and leadership failures. But I digress.
Leadership and mentorship are halves of a coin. As a leader learning never stops, and mentorship allows you to pay it forward while continuing to learn. I am lucky enough to work at an institution that assigns new faculty and staff mentors. That means my new program leader will partner with another human who will guide her during her first year on campus. One of the myths about mentorship is that older, wiser folk counsel younger ones, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s about organizational or job experience. In those cases age doesn’t matter. Your mentor could be 32 and know your heritage organization inside out, and you could be pushing 50, vastly experienced, yet still need to learn your new organization’s DNA.
And that’s another mentorship myth: One person–the mentor–doesn’t do all the work while the other–the mentee waits for the magic to happen. Mentorships are two-way streets. If you’re the mentee, it helps if you spend time thinking deeply about your career plan, if you know where you want to go, but most importantly why. Your mentor can help hone your plan, point out places it may be unreasonable or suggest side roads that help you achieve your goals in a different way. Think Glinda the Good Witch. (“You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”)
And speaking of Glinda, here’s another mentor thought: Women need mentors now more than ever. In a workplace like the museum world, that’s 50.1-percent female, with a population whose jobs were hard hit by COVID, women need the alliances mentorships provide, particularly since a percentage of women may continue to work remotely. While remote work has its advantages–there is no trailing partner if one of you can work remotely, and it often makes child and elder care issues easier–it lacks the social networks of an office environment. It’s harder to make professional contacts over Zoom than it is around the coffee machine. And bottom line? Studies tell us that people in the mentor equation, whether mentor or mentee, feel empowered, have more confidence, and not surprisingly, get promoted more often than the un-mentored.
So…if you want a mentor:
- Remember, it’s not about age, but it is about compatibility.
- Mentoring doesn’t have to be about your entire career plan. You can be mentored around a specific skill.
- Be clear about your goals and your career plan. Sometimes mentorships begin around transition–you hope to move up or out–and want guidance as you take the next step.
- Asking someone you know to mentor you is clearly different from asking someone you don’t know: Either way be respectful of their time. Begin with a brief meeting and the opportunity to talk. See how things play out. If after meeting more than once, this is a person you still trust and admire, and the feeling seems to be mutual, ask about a mentor/mentee relationship.
- Self reflection is key. Do the work ahead of your mentor meetings so you know the questions you want to focus on.
If you’re asked to be a mentor:
- Say thank you. Acknowledge the courage it takes to approach someone a chapter or two ahead of you in the museum world, not to mention it’s an honor to be singled out for your wisdom and decision making.
- Mentees take time. Be clear in your own mind about the time you have to give. You may want to advise on one question–learning to speak up in meetings, for example– and see how the mentor relationship goes before committing to a full mentorship.
- Think about the skills you’re willing to help with. Do your potential mentor’s needs and your skills match?
- A mentorship isn’t a lifetime commitment. Know when to kick your mentee out of the nest.
For both mentors and mentees: Think outside the box. We’re all more comfortable with people we think we know, and sometimes that’s just what we need, but we learn more (and more quickly) from those whose life experiences are different from ours. And don’t forget to be an active listener. Mentorship isn’t about fixing someone’s career so much as holding up a mirror to help your mentee reflect on the right questions. (“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you’re on earth, the more experience you are sure to get.” The Wizard of Oz.)
Stay well, stay cool, and depending on where you are, stay dry.
See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn’t come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it’s because their work is satisfactory. Their budget–another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities– remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you’d call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn’t actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.
I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It’s not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who’ve demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what’s going on? There’s a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?
Admittedly, if you’re in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals–whether it’s a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee– are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it’s subtler than that. Maybe they’re in the top spot or maybe they’re launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing’s for sure: over the long haul, they didn’t get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you’re not learning, and you’re not getting better. You’re autonomous, but you’re also–deep down– unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague’s suggestions or your leader’s directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it’s not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn’t ask for all that. And now we don’t need it. And it’s costing us money. True of course, but that’s because they weren’t actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.
So what should you do if you’re asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?
- Celebrate. Leaders don’t give stretch assignments to losers.
- Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
- If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
- Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you’re still on track and driving in the lane?
- Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
- If people put you off by refusing to meet–they’re too busy, there’s a worldwide pandemic–set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you’ve accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
- If you’re not sure about something, ask questions.
And if you’re a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?
- Know what you don’t know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it’s cut?
- If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what’s happening. Your successors will thank you.
- Find the documentation about performance. What’s been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
- Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it’s good to know them and their skill set.
- Remember, if they’ve submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren’t the problem so don’t blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that’s on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
- Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.
It’s almost July. Be well. Stay cool.
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you’re in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.