Make Your Next Museum Leadership Hire a Group Effort

interview-sample-hi

Choosing a new executive director is a big deal. Whether you’re a teeny tiny historical society or the Metropolitan Museum of Art much rests on the selection of a single human. This week, both in conversations with a colleague, and in class discussion with our Johns Hopkins University students, it became clear that a lot of museums and heritage organizations don’t allow staff to meet the candidates. Too often, that opportunity seems to belong to the board and the board alone.

It’s hard, however, to see how that makes any sense. Admittedly, I work at an organization that’s taken the interview process to extraordinary levels. Except for the lowliest positions, every candidate spends at least five or six hours on site, moving from meeting to meeting, and often participating in the proverbial lunch where she or he is asked to eat while simultaneously answering questions from well-meaning staff. At day’s end, everyone submits evaluations to their direct reports. Could staff really sway a decision? I don’t know, but I can tell you that everyone feels as though they’ve participated. At the very least, they can put a name to a face when the final decision is announced. Why does any of this matter? Because “they,” whether they are a leadership team at a huge organization, or the entire staff at a small one, will be the candidate’s team. And the team is important.

One of the many misconceptions about interviewing is that it’s something that happens to you. And it does, but it’s not an entirely passive experience, nor should it be. Too often the whole job process feels like a do-or-die proposition. You turn on the charm and hope they pick you out of what must be — in your imagination at least — hundreds of capable applicants. But you’re also interviewing them, whoever they are. And how they come off, especially at a moment when everybody’s on their best behavior, matters. What does it tell you if you spend half a day on site, and never meet the staff? Granted, if you’re interviewing at the American Museum of Natural History, The Henry Ford or the Victoria and Albert Museum, you couldn’t possibly meet many staff. But, at the very least, shouldn’t you meet your future peers and/or direct reports? And what does it say about the board and the leadership if you don’t? At the very least, ask for those opportunities if it appears they aren’t on the agenda. (You never know, the staff could have fruitlessly pushed for meetings. If you ask for and get meetings, you could become the staff’s hero.)

Sometimes organizations can’t seem to get out of their own way. And boards, like an abandoned spouse after a divorce, sometimes hire quickly, frequently selecting a version of the person they just lost, perpetuating a host of organizational ills. So, if you’re a museum board member or a museum leader, and 2019 is going to be your year for an important hire, think about the following:

  • Know what qualities you’re looking for. Sounds obvious, but these aren’t the standard qualities that every job advertisement lists — courage, vision, intelligence, self-awareness — they are the qualities that will take your museum or heritage organization and move it forward. And they shouldn’t be confused with qualifications. Only you, the board and the museum leadership know what your organization needs. Is it experience as a collaborator with other organizations? Is it the ability to be decisive and carry out a strategic plan? Is it an understanding of how digital and web-based content can impact your organization?
  • Be open about where you might find this person. It might not be in a traditional spot. Try to shed your biases or at least acknowledge them, and be willing to look outside the box.
  • If this is the top spot, decide how to engage your leadership team and/or staff. Who will give candidates a tour? Who will meet with them in small groups? Who will answer questions about living in your area?
  • How can meetings with staff and candidates give you the most bang for the buck, providing information for the interviewee, while also giving staff the opportunity to listen and ask questions?
  • Does your staff or board need coaching on which questions are legal and appropriate and which are not? A refresher never hurts.

Hiring, particularly for the top spot, is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. Presumably, you’re proud of your museum and the work it does. So showcase it. Let candidates meet with staff. Give them a mechanism to report back. Listen. Listen. Listen. Choose wisely. Choose for the team you have and the organization you want.

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “Make Your Next Museum Leadership Hire a Group Effort”

  1. Cassidy says:

    Related to your last bullet point – what do you think about having set questions that are used for interviews? Is this efficient and fair, or does it hurt the hiring process? Is it appropriate for job candidates to ask if the committee has more questions for them outside of the set?


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