The Board’s Imprint on Organization Values, continued….


While Leadership Matters is thankful for its loyal readership, our readers rarely — unless we’re writing about poor pay — comment much. Surprisingly, last week’s post on board culture generated some meaty discussion both here and on AAM’s Open Forum. Comments ranged from T.H. Gray’s definition of a Board of Trustees: “Museum amateurs charged with leading museum professionals,” to Steven Miller’s response on the Open Forum. The crux of much of the discussion was whether and how museum boards influence workplace culture.

Several of you, including Conor Hepp and Steven Miller, suggested that it is staff leadership who create organizational culture which the board monitors. Miller too pointed out that museum boards are distanced from organizational daily life, and their lack of training causes problems. He wrote: “I agree with Conor’s points that trustees are usually removed from a museum’s daily internal life. There are exceptions, of course, and they usually play out in small museums or with trustee committees that are close to certain museum offices, departments or operations. There can be many cultures within a museum, some known to trustees some not known.” Leadership Matters‘ Anne Ackerson also responded to Hepp, pointing out that “the leadership team is responsible for nurturing (or stunting) the day-to-day institutional culture. Don’t forget, though, that the board also has a culture that permeates staff leadership ranks.”

So which is it, chicken or egg? Do boards create and influence workplace culture or is that the responsibility of the leadership team? We agree there are likely many cultures at work in any organization, and the bigger the museum, the more likely that multiple cultures will flourish. That said, what’s the board’s role? And what about Anne’s idea that board behavior sets an example (and a culture) for the entire organization? If a board relegates women to event planning or overseeing the volunteer program, doesn’t that set an example for the organization’s attitude toward women? If the ED came to a board like that with questions about salary equity or the gender pay gap would the board step out of character and work for change?

Except in the tiniest organizations, boards cannot and should not be involved in micromanaging the workplace. But in the case of these big-ticket issues involving institutional values, we agree with Anne: The board sets a tone. In a perfect world, the board is both a microcosm and a mirror. It reflects the community it serves by making sure everyone is at the table, and, once seated, that everyone has a voice. In addition, it understands that its behavior — inclusive, empathetic, and creative — is a model for the museum itself. Last, it knows that a value-driven board attracts and retains museum leadership with similar qualities.

To circle back to last week’s post, if Wall Street is a bellwether for anything, executive behavior —  both on and off the board — is important. For Wall Street good behavior, setting values and acting on them suddenly seems to have monetary value, which is not nothing when mergers and acquisitions count in millions of dollars. How long will it be before a nonprofit board is taken to task or taken to court for its knowledge and complicity in sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic behavior? In the Lake Wobegon of nonprofits, where all museums are above average, we’d like to think boards behave well just because it matters and that’s their job. But in a world where victims can share their  stories in a heartbeat, everyone needs to check their biases and, most importantly, be empathetic. Here at Leadership Matters, we believe that begins with the board.


We’d like to end this week’s post with a hearty congratulations to Local 2110 UAW, a chapter of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), organizing for union rights across New York City. After 122 days it reached an agreement on behalf of union members at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As reported by Hyperallergic, the agreement means all employees will receive raises of 3% or $1,600, depending on which amount is greater, with the lowest-paid 25% of workers receiving 4% greater additional income or higher. MoMA staff will retain their single coverage health benefits without employee contributions, and employees utilizing family coverage will not see an increase in their contributions as a result of their new raises. To learn more about Local 2110, click here.

Joan Baldwin


4 Comments on “The Board’s Imprint on Organization Values, continued….”

  1. Michael Holland says:

    Perhaps it’s challenging for many museum workers (especially at mid-size and larger museums) to quantify or recognize the influence that their boards have on their institutions simply because they have no (or very little) interaction with the board members themselves. I’ve had instances working as a museum staff member where I’ve had visitors to my lab brought in for a look “behind the scenes”, learned that they are a board member, and had the realization that I’ve never seen or met them before. Often, staff interactions with board members are limited to the executive level, and I’ve wondered if this creates a situation where most of the board doesn’t really know much about what we do, and vice versa.

    • That’s true Michael, but the fact that a staff member doesn’t recognize or know a board member doesn’t mean that the board doesn’t exert influence over an organization does it?

      • Elizabeth Simon says:

        For me, Michael’s post emphasizes questions of the quality of the board’s influence. A board with little or no knowledge of the museum’s employees–implying a similar lack of knowledge of the museum itself, on a basic level–may be exerting influence that is antithetical to the culture and needs of museum staff. That board would be making decisions based on incomplete data, and it certainly would not be fostering an inclusive culture where everyone has a voice. Doubtless, the board always has an influence, but it seems to me that a board divorced from the reality of the museum could not have a truly positive influence.

      • Michael Holland says:

        Oh, the board members certainly exert influence, whether or not they are known by any given staff member. Elizabeth’s remarks have drilled down into the essence of my concerns about minimal interaction/dialog between board members and a diverse population of staff members. Some executives may do very well communicating the concerns/needs/priorities of their staff to board members (I imagine that the best ones do). However, even with the best intentions, they’re still relaying information to the board, (which then by default is getting second-hand info), and they have the option (for good or otherwise) to filter staff input as they see fit.

        Decisions made by the board can have significant impact on the museum and those working in it, and it seems like measures that enable the staff to have a high level of confidence in their board could be beneficial to the entire organization. Creating opportunities for board members to spend some time with staff learning about what they do may enhance that confidence. Perhaps having a non-executive staff member serve on the board as a “member at large” might bridge some gaps.

        As always, thanks for the discussion!


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