What Does Knowing Your Organizational DNA* Mean?

 

Organizational DNA

*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.

In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.

You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA?  Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.

Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.

To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”

Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?

An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.

Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:

  1. Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
  2. Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
  3. Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
  4. Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
  5. Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.

It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.

Joan Baldwin

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3 Comments on “What Does Knowing Your Organizational DNA* Mean?”

  1. Last year I tried to visit the Society of the Cincinnati and arrived about 5 minutes early than opening time. It was a cold blustery D.C. morning and after waiting for some time, I was greeted by a woman who barked at me to say they were not open, there was no one to take me around as one cannot roam on their own. She went on and on about not having any help and was clearly not a happy employee. Perhaps the SOC knows who they are but they certainly did not take care of this museum visitor. Audience is primary.
    Geri Thomas, President, Thomas & Associates, Inc./artstaffing.com

  2. Kim says:

    While they’re direct about their expectations, the tone is impatient and condescending. Your workplace culture is conveyed in how you communicate with candidates. This posting says “Do you enjoy the challenge of working for, or with, a jerk? Then this might be the place for you.”

    “Please don’t tell us you’re perfect for the job. We’ll be the judge of that.”

    • Cassidy says:

      I have to agree. “Your cover letter should explain your interest and why you think your qualifications and experience fit our description. Please don’t tell us you’re perfect for the job. We’ll be the judge of that. Remember that humility is a virtue.” That’s an extremely fine line they’re asking an applicant to walk – tell us that you’re good enough, but not that you’re great, and don’t think you’re great, either, but don’t apply unless you know you’re objectively a superb writer/editor. All the while being very vague about the expected duties for this job?

      It’s awfully strange and disrespectful. Kudos to them for putting the expected salary, but …


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