Think of this post as a letter, a letter to all the boards of trustees searching for new directors, to headhunters, to museum administrators in large organizations looking for new curators or department heads, and to graduate school professors charged with molding the leaders of the future.
You write the job description with its list of characteristics and set it loose online. Based on AAM’s current list of job openings, here’s what museums, science centers and heritage organizations want from aspiring leaders. They need to be collaborative, intelligent, thoughtful, problem solving, ethical. They should possess high emotional intelligence and be community minded. They must also be able to make decisions, be creative, solve problems, and exercise good judgement.
It is probably unfair to criticize job descriptions randomly, but if you read enough of these you wonder why anyone yearns for a museum leadership position–clearly you take the world on your shoulders–leave aside why an organization feels it necessary to say it wants applicants to be intelligent. Really? Is the opposite “We’re looking for an average sort of person who will maintain this organization without challenging us too much so we as board members can fulfill our terms with a modicum of energy?” What is important here is that leadership doesn’t just reside in an individual. Organizations that matter own their leadership.
Recently I’ve turned back to one of our interviews for Leadership Matters, this one with David Young, the Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia. Young is well-spoken, thoughtful, and courageous. What sticks with me about his interview is his insistence that leadership is organic and organizational. In fact, the last line of his interview is, “A lot of organizations have to allow leadership. It has to be needed and wanted.”
Of course museums want great leaders, but it is a rare individual who is the sole catalyst for dynamic, systemic organizational change. No one works alone. Change happens because organizations are open to it. Dynamic organizations begin a search by recalibrating, checking in. Who and what have they become during the outgoing leader’s tenure? Are they happy with it? If yes, how can it be sustained? If no, what changes do they need to make? New directors aren’t magicians, lion tamers or psychologists although at times they may have to master skills from all three professions. And they don’t make change alone. Good leaders inspire, motivate, and outline a vision for the future that pulls board, staff and volunteers in is wake. But the board’s role is to understand the organization, to know where it wants it to go, and most of all to be open to change and to challenge.
Does your organization own its leadership? How do you know?
As many of you know I am the curator at an independent school. Recently a colleague approached me to ask why there weren’t more paintings of women teachers and administrators in our hallways. While I think my colleague has a pure heart and means well, there are so many ways to answer a question like that. A deep breath might be in order. Banning puzzlement and frustration from your face is also a choice. I opted for an explanation that portraits don’t arrive at an institution without someone commissioning and paying for them, and in 2016–as opposed to 1916–we spend money to build our collection differently. But what I really wanted to say was school portraits are window dressing. What really matters is how organizationally we deal with gender. Which brings me to values.
You likely have your own set of beliefs and values. They may anchor your work and your personal life. But what about your organization? Whether you work (and lead) in an enormous urban museum or a small-town historical society, it’s important to know not just what you want to do and be–your organizational vision–what you do–the mission–but also what you stand for. Does your museum, historical society, cultural heritage organization, science center have a value statement? Do you know what it says?
Our colleague Linda Norris writes about museums and values in her blog The Uncatalogued Museum. As someone who thinks about how we translate and give meaning to inanimate objects, Norris is frequently focused on museums’ public face, but she is no less interested in how organizational values translate behind the scenes. Here she is writing about institutional integrity: Do you divvy up your jobs into a number of part-time positions so you don’t have to pay benefits? That’s a value judgment about your employees and their value. If you’re a director, do you hoard information from both your board and your staff? That embodies a value. Do you actively seek out collaborations and partnerships. That’s also a value in action. I think we tend to think about values as warm, fuzzy things, when in fact, all values are not positive ones–and it’s the not-so-positive ones we sweep under the carpet. If you want to read her whole post, click here: Walk the Walk, Not Just Talk the Talk.
So yes, like the importance of a strategic plan, a values statement is a guiding document. If you’re groaning about the thought of the conversations (and meetings) necessary to create such a document, re-read Linda’s comments above and think instead about how a values statement works. And before that, consider that just because your programs and exhibitions serve a diverse audience, that doesn’t mean your workplace values reflect your programmatic values.
Your institutional values statement provides shared guidelines for how staff should get along in your organization. And just like your strategic plan, which is nothing if it languishes in a Google folder, your values statement needs to live and breathe, and you, as the organizational leader, along with your board, need to demonstrate those values in action. First, however, you need to understand your own organizational culture. Unless you are the founder, you inherited a boatload of behaviors and ways of doing things that you need to tease apart before you can understand how the place works. For example, suppose you lead an organization that is very siloed. How do you know? Well, the IT department or the design department or collections seems to live in their own universe. They “work” for their department head, but don’t necessarily serve the institution as a whole. That’s an embedded value. If you want to change that, you’ll need to bring the department heads together and help them work as a single team.
If this sounds like leadership 101, it is, but the importance of the values statement is that it puts behavior–trustworthiness, creativity, kindness, equity, whatever you deem important–out there for all to see. An organization with an active values statement is not likely to tell two employees with an ongoing disagreement to work it out themselves. Instead, HR, the director or both is likely to work through what’s wrong based on the organizational values. So no, you cannot, nor should you try, to legislate every employee action, but if you discover that bad blood between staff members is the result of generational conflict, race, ethnicity or gender, you can point to your organizational value statement. Of course one assumes you embody (and act on) most of those values already.
If you’re interested in reading more about organizational culture, we recommend this article from Harvard Business Review What Is Organizational Culture and this one from Forbes about values: Two Ways to Ensure Your Corporate Culture and Values Align. Finally, if you’re not a fan of Nonprofit Quarterly’s Dr. Conflict, you may want to read this: Dissension and Tortured Alliances. Let us know how and if you use your values statement.
In a summer that’s seen a White House Summit on the United States of Women, the first-ever nomination of a woman candidate for president by a major party, and the President penning an op-ed on his own feminism for a national magazine, isn’t it time the museum world got on the bus? Can you imagine if museums were the gold standard for gender equity in the non-profit world?
Wouldn’t it be remarkable if museums–that are on the cusp of becoming a pink collar profession or one dominated by women and beset by low-paying, undervalued jobs–reversed course and went out of their way to become leaders in gender equity? For over a century the heroines of this field, from Laura Bragg to the Hewitt sisters, to Susan Stitt, and more recently Elaine Heumann Gurian, Adrianne Russell and Monica Montgomery, have worked tirelessly for inclusivity. Each worked or works within her own time and culture, but the goal remains the same: Museums are for all, visitors and employees. Wouldn’t it be stunning if rather than being places where only those with entitled parents or partners choose to work, museums were an example to all non-profits for their policies about equal pay, paid sick leave, paid family leave and child care?
If you are a museum leader, board member, teacher in a graduate program or an employee, consider what you can do to further the field’s gender equity goals within your own organization. That may mean looking at everything from recruitment and hiring policies to work evaluation, to workplace tone, and mentoring.
As a result of our session, “What we talk about when we [don’t] talk about women in museums” at the 2016 American Alliance of Museums conference in Washington, DC in May, Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, Marieke Van Damme, and I want to continue the conversation about gender equity in museums. If you’re interested too, we would like to hear from you.
If you missed our presentation, you can purchase the session recording here. (Since a good chunk of the session was audience conversation and report out, the recording might leave you wondering what was happening for 30+ minutes!) But, you can access a free copy of our slides here.
Want to Join in the Equity Conversation?
At AAM, we also discussed the idea of bringing back some kind of women’s caucus–first launched by Susan Stitt in 1972– and we’re continuing to talk about this. One of our ideas is to create a Gender Equity Committee (GenComm) in the coming year. If you would like to help, please fill out this short contact form and survey, and be sure to tell us what a group like GenComm, if initiated, could do for gender equity in the museum workplace.
Once we’ve heard from everyone, we’ll be back in touch with updates about the the way forward. In the meantime, feel free to email us with any questions, comments, or ideas!
Enjoy the last weeks of summer,
Joan Baldwin with Anne Ackerson, Jessica Ferey, and Marieke Van Damme
This is a check-in for all the Baby Boomers out there in MuseumLand. Because I am a Boomer, as is Anne Ackerson, we’re well positioned to comment on our demographic. Since we began this blog three years ago, we’ve encountered frustration, anger, and snarkiness about Boomers. Principle among characteristics attributed to Boomers is their overwhelming failure to retire. They are also characterized as the folks fond of commenting about why change can’t happen because they’ve already lived through or tried every variation of a project their younger colleagues might propose. And, sadly, they are sometimes regrettably ignorant about the world of the “Interweb.” All of this might be and probably is true. At least in certain instances at certain museums.
But here’s a thought. If you’re a Millennial, Gen-Xer, or post-Millennial, remember age comes to all of us. You may think at 25 or 37, you’ll never be the story-telling, dithering, social media ignoramus, who drives you insane in staff meetings. And we hope you won’t. But begin by practicing some forbearance. To put it bluntly: cut everyone some slack and presume they are trying their best. And listen. Really listen. You may learn something. Of course you may be bored to tears, but we’re being optimistic. And in the meantime, listening and mild forgiveness are good workplace skills to cultivate.
And if you’re a Boomer who plans on a late retirement, for goodness sakes, get up every morning and look forward to learning something new. Challenge yourself. Reinvent yourself. You will be a better more interesting person. And show some humility. Age doesn’t always confer wisdom about everything. Get yourself a mentor who is not in your age demographic. Partner with your younger colleagues. Be respectful. Just because a colleague looks like one of your college-age nephews does not mean he doesn’t bring a bucketful of experience and knowledge to the table. Be ready to experiment. And bite your tongue when you want to say that something won’t work. Look at what’s being proposed and ask questions. Let yourself be persuaded. Save what you know for the project evaluation.
It’s easy to reduce a whole demographic to negative stereotypes, and that’s not the point of this post. But Boomers are us. And there are many of us who are (still) smart, imaginative, contributing members of the museum world. Yes, there are a lot of us planning to work beyond traditional retirement age. In some cases that may be because too many MuseumLand salaries are dismal. And a dismal wage even after a lengthy career doesn’t add up to comfort in the golden years.
In some cases people want to work. And honestly, why shouldn’t they? Diversity in the 21st-century is code for race, but it’s actually so much more than that. In a perfect world, it’s all of us at the table. That may sound a bit too Kumbaya for some, and we are the first to admit that getting to the table means negotiating numerous museum land mines from access to graduate school to breaking through glass ceilings and floors, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all belong. Here are five suggestions for a better Boomer/Millennial workplace.
- If you’re a Boomer, and you’re asked, however impolitely, about why you’re still working, be transparent: You love what you do and you’re not ready to imagine life without it; you still have a contribution to make; you have children to launch and college educations to pay for.
- Encourage succession planning. Succession at every leadership level opens doors to Millennials and Post-Millennials.
- Whatever demographic you’re in, be open to working, mentoring, and partnering across generations.
- Seek ways to reinvent yourself at home and at work. Do something new.
- Burnout can happen to anyone. Know when you’re burnt out. If your A-game is mediocrity, move on.
Image: “The Garbageman’s Guide”
Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
When I talk to museum professionals, especially those just establishing themselves
in the field, there is often a romanticized view of consulting work. You get to focus
on your passions, you keep things fresh, you have flexibility. And you can make a
living. All of these can be true, and working as an independent professional can be a
wonderful fit for many. However, I think it does all of us a disservice if we gloss over
the unique challenges independent professionals face, whether they remain for
many years or see themselves returning to employee status in the future
“Consultant” and “Founder” is a title that I’ve held for four years, starting when I left
my full time job to stay home with my baby. I was lucky I had that choice, the
position I left would have meant long hours away from home, and an uneven
schedule that I didn’t want. However, I also knew that I had professional passions I
wanted to nurture. The best (and most fiscally reasonable) way to balance giving up
a full time income was to become a consultant.
That makes it seem so simple, but of course it is more complicated than that. I was
lucky that my professional networks kicked in at the right moment, and I landed a
fulfilling project that helped me jumpstart. There was also the fact that we could
depend on my spouse’s income. It also doesn’t address the long stretches where I
had no projects to work on or the project I lost when I became pregnant again.
That is my story, but I knew that other independent professionals had a different
experience. I created a survey that I shared online to get feedback from others on
the benefits, challenges and motivations for getting into consulting.
The results came in fast and furious, and people were eager to share the many
benefits of being an independent professional. You have independence and
flexibility in your schedule, pay, location and projects. It can help bridge the gap if
there is a lack of full time work or give you a chance to collaborate with
organizations you are interested in. You can also focus your work on your passions.
Along with the benefits, the survey provided a cleareyed look at the challenges.
Freedom and the flexibility is often the main draw of independent work, but it is
exhausting to maintain. Balancing multiple projects sometimes results in a “feast or
famine” scenario where you are either overwhelmed with work or trying to keep
busy. You may be constantly on the hunt for projects or trying to prove your worth
on just one so when it’s time for a contract renewal you feel secure.
Sick days don’t exist…or parental/caregiver leave. Those are just times when you
aren’t working and aren’t getting paid. If you are the primary breadwinner it may
not feel stable. I’ve also experienced a different feeling as the trailing partner, I feel
like I need to pick up all the slack at home to compensate for my lower paycheck.
Within projects it can be hard to feel part of the workplace social aspect. Maybe you
aren’t onsite, maybe you are in at odd times or move from project to project. The boost you get from colleagues can be vital to mental wellbeing at work, and is often
missing from contract work.
That seems like a long list of negatives, but it is not meant as a complaint. Instead, it
is meant as a reminder of the challenges that come with all those benefits. If you are
considering contract work it is important to think about how it will affect all aspects
of your life including personal and longterm professional. If you are already an
independent professional, it is good to remember that the challenges you face are
unique to this type of work, and it is ok to acknowledge them, and look for solutions
that work for you..
The number of independent museum is professionals is growing. At the 2015
American Alliance of Museums conference 18% of attendees identified as
consultants, the largest group represented (Museum Magazine July/August 2015),
but it isn’t something that is frequently talked about or well understood by people
entering the field. For every person who does it by choice, there are others who
consult because jobs don’t exist or they aren’t able to take a full time position and
meet other responsibilities.
As contractors or potential contractors, we need to know our rights so we can
protect ourselves legally and financially. As independent contractors, we must speak
up when we need support from our professional networks, so that we are informed
and make sure potential employers are also informed. We also need to acknowledge
specific challenges we face in the work/social environment, and in our personal
lives. One of the points that survey respondents made again and again was not to
undersell your talents or the value of your time just because you believe in the cause or have a passion for your work. Your expertise deserves to be acknowledged and
your work fully compensated.
If you are a museum leader, you need to make sure that you know the legal
definition of “contractor,” and also think about why the position you’ve advertised
should be filled by a contractor not a staff person.. Keep your oversight expectations
in mind, (Are you a hands on or hands off manager?) and the scheduling needs of the
organization. Also, don’t forget the social aspect of work. Do you want your
contractors to participate in the daily life of the museum? Is it a requirement or a
choice? Remember, you are bringing in a consultant because they have expertise
and can provide you with a service. Respect their contribution and skills.
Including independent professionals in museum work can be a huge benefit to both sides. The contractor does work they are interested in, on a schedule that meets
their needs, while the museum gets some outside expertise and completes a project
that might otherwise get left behind. However, it isn’t a perfect fairytale fix, and it
doesn’t look the same as a staff position. If we acknowledge that, and keep it in mind
going forward everyone will be better off.
Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Who Am I?
The IRS is the final arbiter of whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” There are lots of resources on their website , but the details can be a little confusing. In general, if you provide a service to an organization, you are
probably an independent contractor. However, if the organization controls what will
be done and how it will be done then you are an employee. They have three
guidelines that you should assess to determine what your relationship with the
1. Behavioral : Does the company control or have the right to control what the
worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
2. Financial : Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the
payer? (These include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are
reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)
3. Type of Relationship : Are there written contracts or employee type benefits
(i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and
is the work performed a key aspect of the business?
For independent contractors in museums, it is critical to look at the “type of
relationship” assessment. The IRS specifically details that if the person provides
services that are “key aspects of the business” then they are more likely to be
controlled by the organization and therefore are employees. Also, the permanency
of the relationship needs to be looked at. “If you hire a worker with the expectation
that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or
period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an
It really does matter whether you fit the legal definition of employee or independent
contractor because it changes the tax and compensation responsibilities of you and
your employer. If you aren’t sure, you can file IRS Form SS-8, Determination of Worker
Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding
(PDF) but it may take 6 months to get a determination. For additional help, you can
also see if there is a small business development center, state office or nonprofit that provides guidance.
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explores how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at cabinetofcuriositiesva.com/blog/
Recently there have been a number of questions from Gen Xers on Museum-L and AAM’s Museum Junction about getting a job. You can find some of them here: Museum Career Ideas. As people moving toward the end of their careers, we’ve found these discussions distressing. First, there’s the whole issue of not being able to get a job with an undergraduate degree, and then there’s the discussion of whether getting a master’s degree is in fact worth it. And last, there’s the whole demographic thing about whether the Boomer generation is ever really going to retire, and whether millennials and Gen Xers will move into their spots. It is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess.
Here are some thoughts for those out there contemplating a dream job because honestly when you walk around the Phillips Collection or the Kansas City Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village on a crystal summer day or a gazillion other organizations, how can you not imagine what it would be like to work there, and how perfect it would be?
So…if you’re recently in possession of a bachelor’s degree in art history, American history, science or education, and think you want to work in a museum, some thoughts: Yes, you can try to get an internship or possibly a job interacting with visitors, as a guide, docent or museum teacher. Try. If that’s what you want: try. But be strategic. Recognize that a lot of the same skills needed to work in non-profit communications, development, even education, also apply to museums. So if you’re a writer longing to work in a museum, but failing to get a job, expand your search to all non-profits. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, then apply to a museum or to your favorite museum. That goes for development and education too. Searching for money in a development office takes the same skills, just a different mission. And if you’re an educator or a wanna-be educator think about how you can leverage and grow that same skill set in a museum or a similar organization.
Graduate school is tough call. There are more than a few museum jobs where you need a graduate degree. And you’d have to have lived in a Kimmy Schmidt bunker not to realize it’s going to cost you a bundle. So, again, be strategic. You’re about to make an investment. A big one. Measure what you’re going to get at each university you look at. Can you move or are you restricted to programs in a particular region? Does the school you’re contemplating offer job counseling, internship placements, mentoring? What percentage of graduates get jobs post graduation? Can you work while participating in an online program? Know what you want, and more particularly what you need. Would you be better off at the Bank Street College of Education or in a public history program? Are you an art history major? Go online and look at the educational backgrounds of staff in museums you wish would hire you. Best of all, if you know you want to work in education at the Smithsonian, for example, contact someone on staff and ask for a chance to talk. This is not an interview. This is a chance to ask a staff member what she would do differently if she were to begin her career again.
Should you volunteer while you are applying for jobs? Again, tough question. Are you able to volunteer? What will you give up to volunteer? Will you gain more than just work experience with no pay? Will you have the opportunity to meet and interact with museum staff? Are there mentoring opportunities built into your volunteering?
Our advice? Be strategic and be a bit selfish. Give, but get something back. If you’re not sure what museum department’s calling you, consider volunteering in the director’s or CFO’s office if that’s a possibility. You will see more and it may help you make a decision.
Some final thoughts:
- Learn everything you can about the field.
- Don’t be too starry eyed.
- Understand your own skill set and how it applies to the museum field.
- Understand how your skill set applies to other non-profit work.
- Be strategic in your choices.
- Find a mentor or mentors.
- Meet people who do what you want to do, and ask them questions.
- Understand the job market. Have a plan B.