What Teamwork Means for Museums

Team

If you read anything about leadership, you will hear the words teamwork. It’s used in job descriptions as in “We want a team player,” and in dismissals, “She wasn’t a good fit, not a team player.” In short, it’s the 21st-century building block for organizations big and not so big.

In small museums your team may be everyone–trustees, volunteers, administrative assistant, the director (you) and another staff member–while in larger institutions, the people in your department constitute your team. In giant institutions, your team may be the folks you work with daily. You may see others from your department only weekly or monthly.

Webster’s lists three definitions for the word team: a group of people who compete in a sport; a group of people who work together; and last-for all of you in living history museums–a group of two or more animals used to pull a cart or wagon. By contrast, the Business Dictionary defines team as “A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project.” It goes a step further by pointing out that “A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.”

Let’s pause here to point out that a well-functioning team doesn’t necessarily adjourn to the neighborhood watering hole after work or have pot luck dinners together. It can. But as a museum leader, it’s not your job to create friendships. It’s your job to define the team’s goal and provide the resources (money, additional people/expertise, and time) to achieve it. Everyone may agree that your mission is to serve public, but there are likely as many variants of that ideal as you have staff members. Your role as a leader is to define how you want that goal accomplished. Otherwise the work you assign is simply a variation of that old story of the leader sending a worker out to bring home a rock. When he sees the rock, he says, “No, not that one.” Do not make your team guess what you want. Conversely, if you’re a team member and feel as though you’re being sent to look for a rock, ask your director to define what she’s looking for. Repeat it back. Make sure you understand. (And she does too.)

Next, you need to insure that your team has the right composition. Perhaps some of you are sighing right now, the thought bubble over your heads reading, “Who is she kidding, there is no money to hire the perfect team or will to fire chronically weak members.” True enough. But all business research points to more success and innovation when teams are diverse, meaning not just racially, but age, gender, and professional focus too. So what do you do? If you work in a medium to large institution, consider pulling in team members from other departments. Don’t make them tokens. They will hate it and so will you. Bring them on because they have skill sets and points of view you need, and be transparent about it. If you need a 25-year old who Tweets on the way to work, then let your team know that’s why she’s in the room. And if you work in a tiny or small institution, consider team building as a way to grow your organization. Ask the folks whose skill sets you need to join for the duration of a particular project. Tell your team to take an afternoon off once a week so that the new director of the Boys and Girls Club can join you in the evening because that’s when he’s free to volunteer.

Last, and most importantly, make sure your organization can support the team in whatever project you’ve assigned from the most mundane–is there adequate meeting space and IT support for them to work–to money and board or leadership consent. There’s nothing worse for team members than working on a project only to be told that leadership isn’t supportive, and all their work is for naught.

Hopefully, if you provide your team with a clear goal, have the right people around the table, and adequate support for them to do their work, they will develop a shared mindset around the project whether it’s a large exhibit, a benefit, or a new way of working with your community. If you are a director, build in periodic check-ins to look at how well the team understood the project mission, absorbed new members, and is moving toward a successful conclusion. And remember to say thank you. In the museum world there’s no such thing as end-of-year bonuses, so make your thanks genuine, not perfunctory. And if a team member steps out of her defined task to take on a new role, be sure to ask if there are ways you as leader (along with the organization) can support that new skill.

Tell us how you work with teams.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 

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5 Comments on “What Teamwork Means for Museums”

  1. Kal says:

    “If you need a 25-year old who Tweets on the way to work”…

    What’s with the constant dig at young museum professionals? Why can’t it be a 55 year old who tweets on the way to work? As someone who is under constant attack for my age in my workplace, I do find that sentence somewhat obnoxious.

    • Kal–
      While that may have felt like a dig, it was not meant to be one. I think we were talking about skill sets people bring to the table. Sadly, and I may be jumped on by the over 50 set for this, if I were imagining a demographic with social media skills it would not be the boomer generation. So while you’re right, it could have been a 40-year old who tweets on the way to work, the tweeting was meant not as a dig, but a compliment and a skill set that a museum team might need.
      Joan Baldwin

      • Kal says:

        Hi Joan,

        Thanks for the response. I may be overly sensitive to the age issue. I wish we could leave age out of work related things all together. Being older or younger doesn’t make a person any more or less qualified for something. I guess that was my point!

    • Kal says:

      Thanks! I took a look at it. I wish some people knew how to leave their snarkiness in the car but alas, I don’t think that will happen (here at least).


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