Museum Leadership: the staff you have versus the staff you want


Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark to American troops in 2004, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It’s become a kind of trope for dealing with things as they are rather than as we’d like them to be. And unless you’re lucky enough to start a museum from the ground up, in the world of museum leadership it’s something all of us understand. From lazy boards to poorly-trained volunteers, to staff whose idea of great is your version of mediocre, leadership is rife with situations where directors, chief curators or department heads find themselves leading folks they might not have hired in the first place.

So what do you do? First, understand your role. Were you hired to be a change agent? Do you work for an organization that embraces change and is willing to raise the money for new staff and new salaries? If so, lucky you. If you weren’t make very sure you understand your role and your organization. Change isn’t easy, and when it comes to HR, you need wholehearted support from your board or director to persuade long-time employees that their jobs, work habits or responsibilities may change.

Second, get to know your staff. By that I don’t mean whether they raise chihuahuas, compete in triathlons or collect orchids. I mean get to know them at work. What the heck do they do? And how do they do it? For all you know they may have had spectacularly poor mentoring for the last however many years. Or the previous director’s understanding of that particular job was very different from your vision. So meet with them; shadow them.You may learn their concerns are similar to yours, but they’ve had no one to talk to, and neither the power nor the support to make change. Remember, no matter what you’ve been told about the leader you replaced, unless you worked for them too, you have no idea what it was like to be their employee. And here’s a little leadership truth: Being someone’s employee is very different than hearing that person talk about being a boss.

Last, before you review job performances or re-write job descriptions, make sure you provide staff with clear expectations and a safe, empowering environment in which to work. Don’t micro-manage. They will wonder why you’re getting the big bucks if you have time to wander in the weeds. Give them responsibility and let them run with it. Show them you trust them. Some will need more hand holding and check-ins, others not so much, but with clear expectations, it will be obvious when benchmarks aren’t met. Then and only then can you begin to winnow the staff you’ve got in order to create the staff you want. But this isn’t a recipe for letting staff go. Trust is a powerful engine. Call me a Pollyanna, but believing in staff members and gently pushing them to achieve is a good thing. Just make sure your equation is job understanding + clear objectives = benchmarks met. And don’t forget to say thank you.

What’s your strategy for moving your organization forward with what you consider a less than stellar staff?

Joan Baldwin

2 Comments on “Museum Leadership: the staff you have versus the staff you want”

  1. Rhonda Newton says:

    Thank you for addressing this. I get frustrated when leadership discussions around personnel focus on hiring and firing, which is not always possible if you are in a government environment where a manager often has little opportunity to change staff.

  2. A brief but good attempt to cover an important aspect of managing staff in museums. As a culture, museum professionals are already challenged by the fact that so many of us have a more highly developed sense of passion and commitment to the mission than we possess the needed insights and skills to actually manage other individuals to produce results.
    The indication to me of someone who might not be best suited to be in authority in any cultural institution is an over emphasis on hiring and firing. You don’t get to wait to achieve excellence until you have your “dream team” in place. You do have to get the work done with what and who you have to work with now. That is what we are paid for. Regardless of our place in the food chain, our job is always to foster the success of both our supervisor on the one hand and of our direct reports on the other. Clarity of expectations in combination with providing appropriate measurable results, establishing best practices and policies all supplemented with the kind of consistent communication needed to foster improvement in willing staff members is what we are paid for if we supervise or manage staff.

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