Making It About People Not Process

Invest II


One of the things Anne and I focused on in Leadership Matters is the need for the museum field to realize how important people are. What do we mean by that? Just that too often organizations tend to invest time, energy and tons of hard won money in stuff. For museums that might be a new building; a new storage area; a new van with air suspension; the annual gala. You get the idea. In another world, in education, in healthcare, in the environment, there are probably variations on this theme. And in truth there’s nothing wrong with building or buying a new anything. But sometimes, we feel, museums in general, and perhaps smaller museums in particular, are more ready to invest in things than in people. One of the lessons we learned from the leaders we spoke with is that investing in people brings an enormous pay back.

More than a few of the leaders we interviewed spoke about the time their institutions had invested in them. Some were wealthy museums that provided coaches for new leaders; some were more modest institutions that provided time (and money) so their new directors could participate in leadership training with the local chamber of commerce. It’s not really about how much money is spent, but it is an acknowledgement from the leadership, whether that’s the board, the president, or the department head, that the organization believes in its new employee. That right out of the blocks, it puts faith in you and trusts you will use your new training wisely. How could a new employee not respond well? It is a metaphor for caring and value. It says we’re investing in you.

The flip side of that is that well-governed organizations who value employees also hold them accountable. And by that I don’t mean that they assume the work will get done, that employees aren’t coming in late, leaving early or spending two hours at the gym at lunch. That’s understood. What I mean is accountable to each other. This week my colleagues had another meeting about meetings–our second. Sadly, it veered quickly down a rat hole of process, resulting in a complex and multi-colored chart of the types of meeting our department could have and how they might be run. What was missing was no one ever asked us to bring our best selves to  meetings. To be self-aware enough to leave the person who interrupts at the door along with the eye-roller, the looney Pollyanna who says yes without thinking and the strong, silent person who won’t risk anything–even an idea. My point is only that an organization can show it values its employees in lots of ways. And they’re all important from the overt–health insurance, paid time off, sometimes housing or childcare particularly if it’s located in a neighborhood of one percenters–to the more subtle–accountability, respect, kindness, and the idea that while you’re at work, you’re putting the organization and its myriad projects, needs and concerns first. It seems like that should be a given, but too often organizations fail to set the expectation, fail to acknowledge that expectations haven’t been met, and are too scared or uncomfortable to talk about them. Long ago, I had a family member who when children (not his own) behaved inappropriately, would say, “You get the kids you want.” Yes, it’s a generalization, but you get the employees you want too.

So invest in your staff. Invest in your leadership. A strong organization needs a strong staff. And sometimes it needs it before it needs the new wing.

Share your thoughts. And if you’re at the Museum Association of New York annual meeting this week, come talk to us or find us at AAM in Atlanta at the end of the month!

Joan Baldwin


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