There is a saying that we’re all dying, just maybe not today. Something similar might be said about the nonprofit/museum workplace, that we’re all looking for a new job, just maybe not today. Unless you see retirement’s taillights gleaming in the distance, I would hazard a guess that everyone else has their periscope up more than they’d like to admit. It’s a way of day dreaming, of trying on new professional identities. Is that museum really as pleasant as it looks in the photos? Is living there a lot more expensive? Could I do the job? Could I move? What about my partner, children, parents? Is it reasonable to think about a new job in the middle of a COVID spike?
But the fact that a lot of us look casually or seriously isn’t the point. It’s what drives the looking: curiosity, better pay, new goals, a change in a partner’s position are likely a few of the positives. People also seek new jobs because they’re miserable. Maybe they are harassed or bullied at work; maybe their work is monumentally boring or maybe they work for a control freak where their only creative choice is choosing lunch. In fact, if we believe Resume Builders recent report, 23-percent of currently employed individuals plan to find a new job in 2022. Another 9-percent already have new jobs, while an additional nine-percent will retire. That’s 41-percent of sturm und drang, which is a lot of workplace churn.
And then there is this: In addition to all the other ways it’s complicated the museum workplace, COVID has tightened budgets to the point where many people do their original job, plus bits and pieces from staff who resigned or retired, leaving current staff with a constant feeling of whiplash. There is a direct connection between the speed with which those additional tasks become permanent and a staff member’s ability to perform them well. Succeed and they are yours forever. Fail, and you’ll get additional tasks as leaders spitball work at the overtasked. Funny thing though, these random tasks are most often assigned to the so-called rising stars, the driven, the scarily competent.
Then why do the leadership–otherwise known as your organization’s deciders–always seem surprised when those same scarily competent people look elsewhere and leave? Do they really think having a job that’s like a daily game of Jenga is the way to entice talented employees to lean in? Have the deciders forgotten that overloading current staff–even if it’s only until COVID is over–means they may loose staff in whom they have an investment? How does it make sense to have a multitude of tasks that need filling, but say you’re in a hiring freeze, and yet it’s the addition of those same tasks that cause current staff to look for work elsewhere, putting the entire HR picture into a kind of death spiral? Where’s the logic in not being able to hire for work that needs to be done, but allowing that to put you in a position where you loose staff with training, institutional history, and talent precisely because you’ve overloaded them? And it’s not like hiring doesn’t cost. At a minimum, it’s a time suck. Even doing 75-percent of a search on Zoom, you still need to bring finalists to your heritage organization or museum, and that costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. And then there is the time current staff invest in searches, in mentoring, in training, and onboarding. Time taken away from their already overloaded to-do lists.
So what do I think the deciders should do? Well, in a perfect world, communicate up so trustees understand the organizational employment picture. Make sure they’re clear about the costs associated not just with hiring, but in keeping talented, engaged, creative, competent staff. Make sure they understand that not hiring brings its own costs, and further, that an individual who is depressed and dissatisfied because their job mutated because of a staff freeze isn’t a bad person. Wanting to do what you were hired to do isn’t a character flaw. I’m not saying one conversation or even a series of conversations is a panacea, but at least when you have those conversations you’ll have something to report when you communicate down or across to your colleagues and leadership team. And that’s key. You’re asking for sacrifice in a situation that’s gone on for two years and shows no sign of let up. Your colleagues need to understand that a) the shared sacrifice applies equitably (even to the leadership), and b)what the organization’s plans are for moving forward.
- If you have an HR person, consider involving them in discussions regarding future planning. Ditto your CFO. There is more to both of those jobs than the bottom line and benefits.
- Make sure your board and your CFO understands a hiring freeze can lead to loosing staff, and what a talent drain means in terms of both overall expenses and your brand. If you emerge from the COVID years, a pale imitation of your former self, unable to hire the talent you once had, will the hiring freeze be worth it?
- Emphasize or re-emphasize your organization’s core values. Does the combination of freezing some positions while overloading others fit your organizational value statement? If not, this might be the moment to talk about it openly and transparently.
- Is your hiring freeze global or does it apply only to new positions? Whatever decision you make, be transparent about it, and stand by it. If you suggest it only applies to new positions, and then refuse to back-fill an existing position, your ability to maintain trust can be sorely damaged. Why should staff believe you moving forward?
- Your staff and your colleagues aren’t stupid. Explain the why. If you’re an organization whose endowment grew during COVID, and yet you’re still tightening your belt, explain why. Again, trust your staff to listen and ask questions.
- Be authentic, truthful and honest. Offer a future check-in. If the bulk of your money comes in between May-September, set a meeting now for early October to update colleagues on staffing.
COVID continues to damage the workplace as it damages families and individuals. If there is any lesson to come out of this period, it’s that we need to be truthful with ourselves, those close to us, and our workplace colleagues about our capabilities both individual and organizational.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
I want to begin this post with a brief comment about this blog. It’s called Leadership Matters after my book with Anne Ackerson of the same name. If you’re a regular reader you know this blog isn’t only for people in leadership positions, nor is it written only for folks who believe in leader-modeled leadership. Instead, it is for humans who understand change begins with you, no matter where you are in the museum food chain or as Halla Tómasdóttir, former Icelandic presidential candidate put it, “”There’s a leader inside every single one of us, and our most important work in life is to release that leader.”
Those of you who know me or who read this blog weekly, know I suffer from a bit of an organization streak. I love lists. The strikeout feature gives me chills. My love language is planning. I am happiest when it feels like the future is laid out, and might actually move according to plan.
In the workplace, these attributes sometimes win you kudos because you appear organized and forward thinking. In some cases that may be true. You finish the project on time. You come in under budget. You don’t drive your colleagues mad by changing your mind every few seconds and never having a plan. You are orderly. You may be this person or you may know this person. If so, you should have no trouble imagining what COVID has done to them, myself included, because COVID is the great unsettler.
I have two exhibits waiting in the wings. One which focuses on generosity and justice, with a nod to Darren Walker, and another explores the color blue as mood, hue or symbol through the work of 24 contemporary artists. Needless to say, COVID lurks in the background of both like a fault in the earth’s plates. From paint, to plexiglass, to gas prices, to the very presence of other humans–And what artist doesn’t want or expect an audience for their work?–to staffing, there’s literally nothing COVID hasn’t messed with. If you’re a planner, COVID redefines the word disruptive. You find yourself planning not just for one future, but for many. If this happens, I will do this, but if something else transpires, I need to do that.
The Generosity and Justice exhibit was supposed to follow our school community’s Martin Luther King Day activities. The day, traditionally one of no classes, dedicated to exploring the man, his mission, and Black culture as a whole, was derailed by a post-winter-break quarantine. Changing a date in the age of COVID means working around completely unreliable schedules because thanks to the Omicron variant, at any moment one or more staff could test positive while not feeling actually sick. So what do you do? You plan for all the possibilities you can imagine, and the future becomes not a path ahead, but a hydra headed beast.
I think we’re way past the age of the hero leader, the lone individual who works everything out in the sanctity of her office before sharing decisions with her staff. Successful museum leaders in the age of COVID are the ones who say “I help lead the blah de blah Museum,” not “I run the Blah de Blah.” In a world that’s continually changing no single human can master everything they need to know. They depend on a team to navigate the volatile nature of the pandemic world. So what does that mean for people like me who adore planning for the future, and really love having those plans work out? I think it means:
- Living firmly in the present because no matter how much you want the future to comply with your wishes it likely won’t. I mean did we ever think there would be a time when our loved ones could be hospitalized and die without our being there?
- Working to protect our teams so they feel safe.
- Working with our teams, creating a variety of answers to every problem so we can pivot, maybe not happily, but easily, knowing there isn’t one path, but several.
- Acknowledge our mistakes speedily and publicly to earn trust and thus increase colleague’s feelings of safety.
And for those, like me, who live for checking the box, living a little more in the present, with all its possibilities, might not be the worst thing.
Be well, get boostered, keep your colleagues safe, and do good work.
We’re only a few days into the New Year and already it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, if I were cleverer this is the moment to cue the music and hear “COVID is Here to Stay,” to the tune written by George Gershwin and made famous by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. I mean doesn’t it feel like….???
In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But COVID is here to stay.
It’s hard to believe this winter could be more difficult than the spring of 2020, but it may be. This week I read an NPR article quoting Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University who studies how humans make decisions. Suri says humans are tuned to make decisions around stability, not surrounded by rapid-fire change. No kidding. And you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know uncertainty makes us anxious. That, coupled with the real-life possibility of giving or getting the COVID virus, makes life super stressful.
How are museum and heritage organization leaders supposed to lead when everyone is constantly on edge? How can we keep work from becoming a relentless marathon of worry and anxiety as we spend days trying to do our jobs, often in new ways, while trying not to get or spread the virus? There are likely a million different answers to that question, but one might be to make 2022 a year for workplace wellness.
Not everyone can follow the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lead and press pause, but it is a great example of how an organization prioritizes staff health and wellness. It’s especially farsighted since it now appears many organizations will need to either reduce visitation or close entirely this month. CMA is closed from January 3-12 and staff is fully compensated. According to the article, the museum suggests employees “choose to reconnect with family or work in a food bank, this pause allows us to grow individually while we all grow collectively.” Awesome, right? Not only because it acknowledges what staff gave their community over the past 18 months, but because it says CMA prioritizes staff well being, not just as productive museum educators, exhibit designers or shop sales assistants, but as good-hearted humans.
Maybe you can’t institute an organizational wellness pause. Maybe no one would listen even if you suggested it. So…. what can you do instead? First, start with yourself. As a leader, do you model wellness and self care? Think about how hard it might be for staff to ask a leader (you) for time off when you arrive early, stay late, send after-work emails, and seem permanently stressed. So start by modeling personal self care coupled with some sharing and transparency.
Sharing doesn’t mean an exhaustive account your toddler’s gruesome stomach virus, you and your partner’s lack of sleep, or how food makes you vaguely nauseous, yet you still soldier on. Instead, it might mean saying “I have a sick child, an exhausted partner, and for the next two days I’ll be leaving early. Please let me know if you find yourself in a similar position.” And remind everyone that the rules from when they were in day care or kindergarten still apply: Even if you don’t have COVID, stay home for 24 hours after a fever or vomiting.
Think about taking meetings out of doors, while walking, if possible. Many of us work in beautiful places. Encourage your team to take 15 minutes a day to walk–inside or out–to change perspective or feel the sun on their face. Even walking to a favorite gallery or room in a heritage site and doing some slow looking can help break the relentless cycle of stress, more stress, crabbiness, repeat. If it helps, encourage staff to listen to music. Some organizations have a room for quiet study, where staff can retreat when they need uninterrupted me-time to re-focus and regenerate. And encourage staff to share anxiety-coping ideas with one another. For example, begin a meeting by asking everyone to share an app, a tool, a practice for stress relief that works for them. Supporting one another is increasingly important as the workplace fluctuates between home and office, causing the personal and professional to overlap in ways it didn’t prior to the pandemic.
I say this often, but if you lead an organization, as opposed to a team, when was the last time you looked at your HR policy? Sometimes small changes mean a lot. Does your policy offer personal time off (PTO) as opposed or in addition to sick time? Offering sick time as the only way NOT to come to work is different from providing personal time-off. PTO gives employees the agency to make their own decisions, something every adult needs. Granted paid sick time off is better than no time off, but why should an HR plan encourage employees to be less than truthful? And if it’s a choice between coming to work feeling stressed over leaving a sick family member or losing pay, what do you think employees do? They come to work stressed and quasi-sick. They aren’t their best selves, and they open the door to making others sick, not just with COVID, but with everyday viruses as well.
Whether you’re dealing with staff who are clinically ill, caring for others, or weary and stressed, you need some self-understanding. To return to neuroscience, remember what Brené Brown says about connection: “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” and we feel shame when we think we have to explain we’re not up to the task. Brown says we all feel that we’re not enough. We’re not thin enough, fit enough, smart enough, cool enough, and on and on. Yet people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worth it. Some how they learned vulnerability makes them beautiful and necessary. Brown reminds us we can’t treat others with compassion if we don’t treat ourselves compassionately. If you haven’t heard her Ted talk on vulnerability, start your New Year with that. Start with not being certain, start with being compassionate, start with being whole-hearted. It won’t end COVID, but it will help take your team through what promises to be another challenging year.
So…begin 2022 by making sure your HR policy provides a structure for empowerment on the part of your employees. If you’re into New year’s resolutions, make one about finding the courage to access the vulnerable part of you, and give it a little daylight. And then take that courage and compassion and pay it forward. Your colleagues, your team, your staff will thank you, and they will pay it forward too.
Be well. Stay safe. Get your booster. Wear your mask. Do good work, and despite the mess the world is in, or maybe because of the mess the world is in, I hope 2022 is a year full of creativity, kindness, and compassion for all of you.
In 10 days 2021 will be in the history books and we will be living 2022. At the moment though, with Omicron duplicating, it feels like a meaner, angrier version of 2020 where every choice demands serious thought. Should I go? Should I stay? Are they vaccinated AND boostered? How much do those home tests cost? What was my life like the last time prices were this high? And on and on.
Today, I went back and read my final post from 2020. In it, I laid out five ways I hoped to make change in the coming year. They were:
- Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
- Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
- Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
- Grow empathy.
- Nurture creativity.
Although I don’t feel hugely successful, I did, weirdly, succeed in at least three out of five. We hired a new leader, someone who’s smart, kind, empathetic and supportive. Having worked for someone who was none of those things, I can tell you it makes a huge difference. I continue to work at acknowledging and then shifting my own white privilege so the lens is more inclusive and empathetic. I try daily to nurture my own and other’s creativity while also being empathetic. Creativity needs time, however, and some days it feels as though it is trapped on a container ship off the coast. The area of change that’s proved hardest is diversifying our collections mostly because turning that wheel means money. Our donors are often older, white and male, making them not always enthusiastic about building collections that are non-white and female. Nevertheless, it remains a written goal, and one that’s easy to point to when we’re offered a gift.
Over this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in COVID’s crosshairs in ways men are not. I wrote about taking grief to work because this has been, and remains, a deeply sad year for me. I also wrote about creativity and trust, and I wrote about Nina Simon, who remains a she-ro for me mostly because she has the courage to walk away from all this museum stuff and write a novel. At least I think that’s what she’s doing because periodically I answer her probing questions on Twitter about one of her characters who seems to be about my age.
It’s time to say something about the coming year so here is my hope: My hope is that every museum leader, whether they lead a program or an organization, whether they lead 1.5 people or the equivalent of a small town, can, when they’re alone, say honestly and truthfully, “My staff is safe, seen and supported.” If that’s not true, if there are tiny things that need to be changed or great gaping holes, my hope is they make that sentence a truth in 2022. If your staff is safe, they are not harassed and bullied. Should they be, because you can’t control everything, you will have implemented processes to support and help them. If they are seen, they know you believe in them, in the person they really are, not some artificial version of themselves. And if they are supported, they are mentored, encouraged, and given space to be creative, no matter their assigned tasks.
If you–because you are important too–and your staff are safe, seen and supported, the constant gnawing need for self care will also lessen. It won’t be perfect. Life rarely is, but it will be a long way toward better. So think about what you need to do to move the needle toward those three simple words: safe, seen, supported.
I’ll close this end-of-year post with a poem. Given the space we’re currently in, we probably should read more poetry, and the title is fitting. In the meantime, be well, take care of those you love, and I’ll be back here in 2022.
Instructions on Not Giving Up
Ada Limón – 1976-
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
This coming week Leadership Matters celebrates its ninth birthday. That’s roughly 450 posts written since December 13, 2012. Phew. I started this blog to promote the first version of Leadership Matters, a book Anne Ackerson and I wrote in 2012, and then revised in 2019 as Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. In addition to the blog’s birthday, it’s also the time of year when we look back at the year past. 2021 remains a strange and confounding time. In December last year, those of us who hadn’t been relieved of our positions, found ourselves working largely from home, visiting our collections and sites when allowed.
Without a vaccine, it was a lonely, isolating time. And yet, as I’ve written so many times on these pages, the pandemic lifted the rock off a lot of problems. It didn’t fix anything, but for the museum world, it spotlighted a host of workplace issues around race, gender, pay, leadership and on and on. And now, a year later those issues are still here, made more acute by a new forthrightness. Some–myself included– think we need a do-over or at the very least, a series of conversations about where the world of museum work took a wrong turn, leaving so many underpaid, under-appreciated and angry.
I suggested such a conversation last week, posing a mythical group of people I’d like to see around the table. Whether that can or will actually happen is another story, but in the meantime, I want to underscore that change isn’t something that can be solved only from the top down. “They,” whoever “they” are in your world, aren’t going to sweep in and make things magically better. If you make this a board problem or a director’s problem, you shift responsibility from “ours” to “theirs,” as if this were only an issue of leadership. It is a leadership problem, but it’s also a systemic problem, meaning we all own a piece of it. If you’re enraged even reading that sentence, you, who feels powerless in your hourly job where you’re over-educated, under-compensated, and have far more responsibility than authority, remember how systemic issues concern the whole rather than its parts, meaning you play a part as well. What can you do? Perhaps only small things, but small things are still important. Be the kind colleague. Stand up for your fellow workers. Join the union if your museum has one. Attend staff meetings. Know what your personnel policy says. Don’t have one? Lobby for one. Lobby with your fellow workers. Ask them to lobby for you. Don’t be neutral. Speak up. Remember that even at the most enlightened organizations, women, and especially women of color, are paid less so when you hear complaints about pay, don’t discredit them. There is a pay gap. And it is meaningful. In a very bad way.
This week Fast Company surveyed 6,000 employees about the future of work. Fast Company is devoted to the business world, but it’s likely what their employees say they want has some crossover with the museum world. And what do they want? Flexibility. They’re happy working from home, and they don’t necessarily want to change. Apparently 78-percent of their respondents named flexibility as a top priority. Second on the list? Almost half (49%) want to share values with company leadership. I’ve written a lot about workplace values on these pages. Museum jobs are hard to come by, and precisely because the process is so fraught, I’m not sure applicants ask about organizational values, when they should. Fast Company also commented on how for some companies who hired during the pandemic, many employees have never worked on site, never had a hallway conversation, never been to a face-to-face meeting, and no surprise, it’s hard to hold a team together without human interaction. With many museums open again, staffers are back in the building, but the article underscores once again, the need for imaginative, humane onboarding.
This is also the time of year when I look back at the top posts for 2021. If popularity indicates readership, the most-read posts confirm the dark place we’re stuck in. For the third year running, Leadership and Workplace Bullying tops the most-read list, a sad testament to the climate and concerns in museum and heritage organization offices. In the second spot is last week’s post Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon? followed by, Is the Chicago Firing So Different from the COVID Firings? and On Labor Day, Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature.
Leadership Matters last post for 2021 will appear next week. Then I will be on hiatus until the week of January 10.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
I took a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, and I’m back to make my annual ask for a museum world work summit. I’ve asked before. In March 2021, I used this blog to write a letter to Laura Lott and John Dichtl, presidents of AAM and AASLH respectively, but to date, nothing. It’s no secret that the world of museum work is a mess, and it’s popular to blame it on COVID, but is that the whole answer?
This week I listened to economist Lane Windham on It’s Been a Minute. Windham teaches at Georgetown and is is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor . She argues that we’re living through a worker rights revival. Economists also call it the “great resignation,” where people left low-wage jobs with no benefits, and then because of COVID, chose not to return, in some cases waiting employers out. But, while COVID may have been the reason to quit low-wage, no-benefit jobs–after all if your crap pay won’t cover after-school care and there’s no school, why stay?– Windham suggests their anger dates back to 2018/19 with a wave of strikes when, for example, 500,000 teachers and other workers took to the picket lines. She also points out that many of today’s strikers are women, reflecting mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1980s and 90s–women of color at Amazon and nurses at Kaiser Permanente for example–as well as women’s interest and leadership in unions.
I acknowledge that I am part of a group of museum folk who use social media to otherwise moan about the world of museum work. I guess crying into the Internet void is soul-soothing in a way, but it doesn’t move the needle, which is something I’m increasingly focused on. (When you work with high school students you want to model ways to create change that go beyond emotions.) And there are a lot of us talking and Tweeting about museum work from many different sectors around the globe. What would happen if–for example– you put Maria Vlachou, Aletheia Whittman, Franklin Vagnone, Monica Montgomery, Porchia Moore, Lonnie Bunch, and Elizabeth Merritt together with Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), Lane Windham (Georgetown) and Amy Costello (NPQ)? What ideas about the future of museum work might come out of a summit like that? What changes might they propose about board training? About leadership training? About the gender wage gap? About DEI training?
The museum work world isn’t simply a corporate giant employing massive numbers of worker bees à la Amazon. It’s complex. And yes, museums are more like other non-profits than big business, but I would argue, museums are still unique. They mix often hyper-educated folk with wealthy trustees, charged with hiring a single individual to run the organization. Then the trustees step back, re-focusing at regularly scheduled intervals to oversee mission and money, and leaving the director/president to hire/fire and lead teams that may range from a paid staff who could all fit in an SUV, to organizations with workforces as large as small towns. And that’s before we incorporate volunteer groups many of whom play an important–although increasingly charged–role in today’s museums. If you consider this picture also includes a group of leaders –at the director level and below–who may have had little training, mentoring or experience in actually leading humans, much less in creating policies for a transparent, equitable, empathetic workplace, you have a recipe for disaster i.e. a simmering pot of worker unrest.
Recently some of social media’s museum thought leaders have suggested museum directors need to solve these problems. While there are many steps an individual can take to make themselves a better leader, starting with a huge dose of self-awareness to check their own hubris and bias, I think it’s probably not an individual director’s role to ride into a board meeting with a flaming sword. How many directors need to have their careers crushed on issue of principle? How many self-sacrificing fights between director and staff have to happen? It’s almost always the director who loses. How many open positions do there have to be before organizations realize museum directors aren’t the board’s handmaidens, and that the board/director relationship must be cooperative and collegial?
One last thought: Sometimes you can’t solve a problem until you pull it out and examine it. I’m currently using Aletheia Wittman’s work on Institutional Genealogy for a project I’m working on. Her work is a clear, critical framework for assessing organizational history, for trying to understand, how your museum or heritage organization got to where it is today. What would happen if you gave that framework to our mythical group above and asked them to look at museum work as a whole, to open all the closets, bring out the skeletons, lift up the rocks, and get out all the dirty laundry so we can understand where we’ve come, where we might have lost our way, and how to find a more equitable path? Just a thought.
Be well, be kind and do good work.
If you are a regular reader you know my feelings about Twitter. It’s never been my favorite mode of discourse. That said, I had an exchange a week ago with my fellow blogger Robert Weisberg from Museum Human. If you’re not signed up for Museum Human, do so. He happily posts twice a week, once with a collection of themed links, and once with an essay of sorts, allowing for short bites and a long read.
But back to my Twitter exchange. Robert posted a comment from a McKinsey piece on apprenticeships, and asked whether this wouldn’t be a good idea for museums, tweeting, “What if museum jobs were treated more like (paid, of course) internships, emphasizing learning throughout the organization?” I responded that it’s an idea that’s long appealed to me, “but only if the museums hiring acknowledge their role as teachers and mentors. Otherwise they are just upholding the Cruella Deville mentality so many interns experience. There are too many bad leaders as it is. Are there enough to teach?”
At the end of the week, Weisberg also wrote a thoughtful piece on the future of museum conferences. In it he considers the merits of virtual versus actual, free versus paid, once a year versus once a month conferences. One of the lines that struck me is “It goes without saying that museum workers and influencers need to push their institutions to recognize that citizenship in the field is more than just 9-to-5 and spare-time extracurriculars.” Whew, there’s a lot in that sentence. It suggests all of us have agency over our employers and the museum service organizations we join. It assumes that among the top three things museums and heritage organizations do, are seeing themselves not only as collection builders and audience servers, but as field-builders.
There is great power in coming together with your colleagues at a conference. In a darkened auditorium, on a Zoom screen, around a conference table or over a cup of coffee, you harness the brain power of humans outside your own organization. You hash things out. Maybe you do a little ranting. In the best of worlds, you’re as good a listener as you are a speaker. And all on your employer’s dime. Why? Because in theory, you’re learning things that benefit not only you, but your sending organization. And, if you speak, your “fame” splashes back on your museum, making it the place that spawned this smart, creative human.
But something weird happens around conferences, whether virtual or actual. I would argue that too often the actual ones, but maybe the virtual ones as well, happen in a bit of a vacuum. You go, you talk, you listen, you see–since many conferences are also an opportunity to visit multiple sites–and then you go back to work. The trip closes over like quick sand. Your colleagues ask how it was, you tell them what museums or heritage sites you visited; you email your invoices and receipts, and a week, a month a year from now you come across your notes from that meeting and think about all the ideas you had. That’s a bit dark, I realize, but how many museums–much less individual staff–build in downloading time for colleagues returning from conferences? On the flip side, as Weisberg suggests, how many organizations see conference attendance as a museum citizenship experience? Because how many of them a) see themselves as building a field and b) that the wider field is something they’re responsible to and for.
All of that loops back to the question of museum apprenticeships. I believe in apprenticeships in part because it’s ridiculous to spend thousands of dollars for a graduate degree to enter a field where jobs are tight. Why not learn on the job, while deciding if this is the field for you? But to make that happen–essentially shifting the knowledge transfer from graduate programs to museum apprentice programs– museum staff has to see itself as teachers, teachers in service to the field as a whole
In a perfect world, museum leadership knows that at some meta level museum hiring and museum culture reverberates across the field. That with every hire comes an unspoken obligation to guide and mentor staff. Sometimes new staff soak up everything offered while others give as much as they receive. And when staff outgrow a particular organization then it’s our obligation to help them leave, and to leave well. Apprenticeships ask us to teach and learn, and so do conferences, whatever their format. But as Weisberg hints, what might make them more than one-offs is an understanding that every time we share information with our colleagues, whether in a formal apprenticeship program, in a Zoom with museum neighbors or in an auditorium at a national conference, we nurture museum citizenship. What does good museum citizenship look like? If it were a thing, how might the field change? Could urban museums work together to create apprenticeship programs? Would large museums make sure emerging professionals not only had a professional development money, but were encouraged to present–in whatever format–to the wider field? Would neighboring museums collaborate with one another more?
What are your thoughts?
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus next week, returning the week of December 6th. For those of you celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope it’s a happy one, and that regardless of the meal, you’re surrounded by people you love.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
Think about this: Think about a woman staff member at a medium-sized regional museum. Like many, post-COVID, she’s over-worked, doing her pre-pandemic tasks, plus new ones. In addition, she’s also taken on a new role supporting a part-time HR department where she listens to staff with issues involving possible gender and race discrimination. When necessary, she reviews what’s happened to staff, ranging from socially awkward conversations to potentially criminal behavior. She’s competent, organized, compassionate, but increasingly overwhelmed. Not only is she doing too much, but the HR support she’s offered has opened a floodgate of response. That’s good–staff trust her–so they confide, but bad because the more word gets around, the more people come to see her. Her boss is a white man. He’s smart, genial, and genuinely wants to do the best for his colleagues. So far so good. Except as months go by, the woman felt increasingly stressed. Finally, she approached her leader to ask whether she could take something off her plate. Her boss acknowledged she had reached her limit. One look at her face would tell you that. His response? A beautifully crafted email to her front-facing colleagues explaining she is overwhelmed, and asking whether they could step in for her over the next month or two. She felt torn, both profoundly disappointed, and not really helped.
Asking your colleagues to step in for you is what happens when you have to drive your partner to chemo or a family member is in ICU. This makes it sound like the employee a) didn’t know her own mind when she agreed to her workload or b) is too fragile to carry if off. In a time when a lot of employees are nervous about losing their jobs, now is not the moment to make staff feel inadequate. And make no mistake, this scenario is overlaid with gender: the “good girl” employee and the benevolent male boss.
Sometimes leaders aim to fix feelings rather than the decisions that caused them. Any leader worth their salt knows they need to be empathetic, but in empathizing, they often go for the quick fix–let’s get the crying staff person to stop weeping, let’s give the parent who just lost their day care a break or the elderly staff person who hates night driving a change in hours. In any of those scenarios, the leader might feel as if they’ve solved a problem, and the staff member as though they can manage in the short term, but their colleagues, not so much.
In your urge to “help” an employee have you ever solved an immediate issue while leaving overarching, structural issues unresolved? Would the better course for the characters in the opening story have been for the leader to empathize, but not try to fix the employee’s problem, and instead work on the organizational problems? How could this fable have worked out better for both staff member and leader?
If you need to tell your leader you’re overwhelmed:
- Don’t blame yourself for being overwhelmed. You want to do well, but you can’t if you’re not doing your best.
- Strategize before your meeting. Making the conversation your museum, not you, may help guide your leader to make a change rather than a quick fix.
- Come up with some alternate solutions for the organization. In our example, the staff member could suggest that while there might not have been a need for full-time HR in the beginning, data now points to making HR full time.
- Last, what are ways, short of quitting your job, that you can support and care for yourself in a situation like this?
If you’re the leader:
- Resist the temptation to make a quick fix, recognizing that a short-term fix for one may breed long term discomfort for others.
- Consider who you’re meeting with. If, as in our scenario, it’s an employee who’s dedicated, smart, kind and curious, think about all the ways they support the museum from minuscule to huge. Before deciding you’ve given them too much, think about possible organizational changes you might make. Begin with the notion that competent people shouldn’t be overloaded with tasks simply because they are competent. Doesn’t that enable the less competent in their disorganization?
- Consider talking to other members of your leadership group, and taking the temperature on overwork.
- Be transparent with other staff about changes you make.
Be kind, be equitable, and do good work.
Last week’s post generated some buzz. It also prompted me to continue thinking about race and workplace equity, so here goes:
My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th-century. A generation later she might have been a professor or a politician, but as a young woman who finished college before WWI, her rebelliousness ended when she married. When I was little, she frequently spoke in quotes, most of which sailed past me. A frequent flyer was “Do as you would be done by, ” a sentence that seemed so riddled with verbs and prepositions that it was unintelligible. But decades later, it has more resonance.
Many of our organizations either have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices or aspire to have them. They are there to help us right centuries of wrong doing, to re-center our overwhelming White world views, and to provide staff safety and security in knowing everyone, not just the powerful and well compensated, is treated equitably. In retrospect, what strikes me about the Chicago Art Institute’s decision to dissolve its docent program in favor of paid, BIPOC, front-facing staff, is not the decision itself, but about the museum world’s reaction to it. Equity isn’t equity unless it applies to everyone, even the people whose political views, values, and personal choices you don’t share. In other words, to quote my grandmother, “Do as you would be done by.”
It strikes me that this is likely one of the most challenging parts of 21st-century leadership. As a leader, you need to be fair or equitable, always. Not just because it makes your organizational optics better, not just because you’re trying to appease a particular group or board member, and not just because in your heart you’re more allied with one point of view than another. To be truly equitable, your bag of biases must be kept off-stage otherwise you’re liable to privilege one individual or group over another. Why? Because they appear to share your values? Maybe outside of work they’re your friends? Maybe they remind you of a family member? Who knows? But when push comes to shove, they stir your sympathies, and cause you to lean in ways others do not, and unless you acknowledge that behavior and interrogate it, your decision making will be flawed, and you will likely make inequitable decisions.
One of the symptoms of post-Trump, post-COVID America is people seem free to speak their minds whether one-on-one, on social media or through protest. That can be healthy–like when staff collaborates for better salaries and benefits perhaps through union membership–or unhealthy–when a museum visitor berates a staff member. It also means when decisions are made, it’s likely there will be a reaction, which is all the more reason today’s museum leaders need to understand their own value systems, to align them with those of their organization, and to make sure the two mirror one another.
Last week some readers pointed out that we don’t really know how the Art Institute communicated with its docents, whether it chose to speak with them face-to-face or ended the volunteer program via email. Fair enough. But it’s easy to applaud the dissolution of one program without knowing anything about what will replace it. Would it help if we knew the Art Institute had also revamped its hiring practices so candidates are assessed with a minimum of bias? Would it help is we knew the Art Institute had prioritized BIPOC hiring, onboarding and mentoring?
Workplace equity is critical for everyone. And at the same time, we don’t leave our values, our beliefs, our friendships and our families behind when we enter the workplace each morning. That means museum leaders, whether at the top of the organizational food chain or department heads, need to be endlessly empathetic, and constantly engage in self-reflection, working to ensure individual success along with the collective whole. They need to make challenging the status quo the the beginning, not the end game. In short, systemic change means there are no quick solutions. And they need to understand White people’s antiracist work can leave Black colleagues exhausted. Why? Because somehow it becomes a White thing, necessitating congratulations, acknowledgement, and once again making White staff the focus of the narrative.
Change begins when an all-White volunteer program becomes BIPOC and paid, but it can’t end there. Is it enough that a predominantly White museum feels less bad because it changes the color of its front-facing staff without knowing whether they are safe, seen, and supported? Does a different staff who still bears the burden of a racist museum culture make for a different museum? In a perfect world, antiracist work is a process that hopefully deconstructs the ways White ideologies are prioritized in a museum, linking staff changes to larger internal organizational changes designed to create safe, equitable museum workplaces.
Be well and do good work.
In case you missed it, last week the Art Institute of Chicago “fired” its docents, effectively ending its 60-year old volunteer program. Its intent was to swap its public-facing volunteer staff, replacing them with paid and volunteer BIPOC museum educators. Not surprisingly, the folks with time to volunteer tend to be white women of a certain class. Thus, the 82 remaining volunteers received a letter saying a new model was in the offing where paid educators and volunteers would work together “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate.” The result was a kerfuffle at numerous levels. Museum thought leaders spoke out. There were Facebook posts, and a days-long discussion on AAM’s Museum Junction. And that was before conservative media–including The Federalist–got wind of what was going on, turning an internal communication from the Institute to its volunteers, into a firestorm of reverse racism. The NY Times quoted Institute Director James Rondeau saying, “Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”
The Art Institute isn’t the first museum, nor will it be the last, to diversify its volunteers and front-line staff to better reflect its community, and that’s a good thing. Privileged White people talking about art, inventions or living spaces created, made and owned by other privileged White people may be less than meaningful if you’re not White and privileged yourself, and even that’s not insurance against boredom. Instead, it’s not the decision itself that troubles me, but rather the way the Art Institute handled its staff.
What do I mean? Maybe it’s instructive to think about Spring 2020. Remember when the world shut down? We were barely going out or rather we were going out, but only to be outside, breathing air without COVID droplets away from other humans. The rest of the time we worked from home or we didn’t work at all because many, many front-facing museum folk were let go. Boards, museum presidents and directors will tell you staff were dismissed because with no visitation, they couldn’t be kept on the payroll. Remember how many of us deplored the way staff were treated? As if they didn’t matter, as if they hadn’t given a great deal to whichever museum or heritage organization was summarily letting them go. As if at the very moment the world was in crisis, it seemed like a great idea to fire folks via email.
Now forget which side of the Chicago Art Institute debate you’re on–forget for just a moment how important it is to have community based education staffs teaching in their own communities–and ask yourself whether a museum should fire anyone by letter or email much less 82 longtime volunteers? Is that a museum you want to work for? What does transparency mean if it doesn’t mean having the courage to talk to staff face-to-face? When your fellow front line staffers and educators were let go ostensibly because of COVID, the pandemic was an excuse for not talking to staff in person. Can the Art Institute not do a socially distanced meeting? We all say we want organizations that are humane and transparent? Shouldn’t that extend to volunteers?
What would have happened if the Art Institute had brought its volunteers together for a meeting and discussed the changes they want to make? What if they’d offered them the opportunity to partner with BIPOC staff and new volunteers? Would that have been challenging? Yes. Would some volunteers still felt unwanted? Probably. But if those alliances worked, imagine how dynamic they might be. Imagine a White volunteer of a certain age and a Black community teacher speaking to middle schoolers about a painting. Imagine them each engaging students, and treating each other with kindness and respect. In its best iteration, it might be like the verbal version of Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman vs. The Blue Boy After all, isn’t really seeing and talking with someone you don’t know the first step toward empathy and caring? Isn’t that what 21st-century museums need? Isn’t that how systemic change begins or is that just too naive and Pollyanna-ish?
Change is really, really hard, but it needs to be equitable. And, at an organizational level, museums need to stand behind the change they make by being willing to talk things through with staff, whether volunteer or paid. We all want museums to evolve, but successful DEI work isn’t just replacing white volunteers with BIPOC staff. An organization needs to understand its own DNA, acknowledge its faults, and move forward through collaboration. In this case, part of its self-reflection might be helping its longstanding volunteers understand how they–perhaps unwittingly–helped put it in a place that needs changing.
I want to be very clear here: I’m not objecting to the Chicago Art Institute seeking a new model. Docent tours hark back to an age of sage-on-a-stage, of museums that are all-wise, all knowing, and too frequently imperious. This particular docent program is sixty years old and undoubtedly needs disrupting. What I’m objecting to is the way it was done because it echoed the way big museums treat their front line workers. Museums need change. They need staff who reflect their communities in imaginative, smart ways. But they also need staff who feel safe, seen and supported. An organization that can “fire” 82 volunteers by letter can also fire 82 staffers. Systemic change might mean museums working toward changing organizational culture, creating models where staff –volunteer or paid–work together with empathy and respect.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.