On Salaries and Anyone Being a Leader

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I’ve been away from Leadership Matters for three weeks thanks to posts by Jackie Peterson and Anne Ackerson. So rested and relaxed, I’m back with a few things to say.

First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the salary/gender controversy that started at AAM/NOLA and continues to percolate. It ignited with Kimberly Drew’s articulate, passionate, and bold keynote. If you missed it, you can read the whole speech here, but  the lines below were important. For me, they speak not only to change, but to the dichotomy many of us live with: a field we love and are drawn to, but a workplace that disappoints as often as it pleases. The bold type is mine.

Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary which is here in the middle, but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary, ever, in my time at the Met.… Still very angry. That I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth. 

In the wake of Drew’s remarks museum workers across North America (and now globally) created a Google Spreadsheet documenting their place of employment,  and sharing salary information. Many also choose to include details of race and gender. By this weekend, roughly a month after AAM’s meeting and Drew’s speech, it numbers more than 2,500 people.

What’s the point? In a world where a graduate degree is de rigueur, and salary information shielded with uncommon zeal, this simple spreadsheet provides a chink in the walls erected around hiring practices, wages, race and gender. Unlike AAM’s own salary survey, which requires paid membership to use, this is free. Further, if you’ve dreamed of a position at a particular organization, you may be able to look it up by name, and discover what people in your line of work make.* In short, it matters because it provides knowledge for those without power. That’s important for anyone juggling the calculus of graduate school loans, trailing partners, mortgages, rent, children, and aging family members. Use it. Participate, and support one another.

And here’s something else: Since 2012 Anne Ackerson and I have preached the gospel of “anyone can be a leader,” also variously known as “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” While I believe in it, I’ve also struggled with it, but I couldn’t explain why except to say it’s harder than you think.

This week it hit me. Here’s my revelation: If everyone acts like a leader, everyone is being the best person they can be. You may be as far from the corner office, the flashy cocktail parties, and the trustees as it’s possible to be,  but if you’re self-aware, understand the museum’s mission, take responsibility, demonstrate courage, act with imagination, and align your values and the museum’s, you’re a leader. Further, you’re a great follower.

Where this all goes to hell in a hand basket is when a layer of a museum’s leadership chart is weak. Then everyone below is constantly “leading up,” grappling with their own job description and their direct report’s responsibilities as well. That alone is debilitating. Moving forward with your own tasks–and the person’s you report to–is exhausting, but since you have no authority, it’s also tricky. Every day you stand on the tracks. Some days you hear a train in the distance. Other days, you see it. What’s your obligation? Do you move everyone out of danger or do you step out of the way and cover your ears? A poor metaphor, but you get the point. Check out the beauties of Nexus’ Layers of Leadership to see how iterative they are. What you need as an individual isn’t as nuanced a set of skills as those you need to be department leader, just as those competencies aren’t as sophisticated as the ones you’ll need for organizational leadership.

Don’t get me wrong: Staff should complement their leader, fill in where she’s weak and shore up areas she’s ignorant of, but they shouldn’t and they can’t be thinking big picture–where is the train on the track?–when their direct report is in the station having a latte. What can you do about weak stratification within a museum or heritage organization?

FROM THE TOP DOWN: 

If you’re a trustee: What questions do you ask that get at organizational performance as opposed to staff performance? Do you ever chat with staff on their own turf?

If you’re a museum director: Have you ever had a 360-review? How often do you meet with staff, not just about the organizational to-do list, but about the way the list is accomplished? Do you delegate? And do you empower staff to run with an idea, not just  a to-do list? How do you measure your staff’s people skills?

FROM THE BOTTOM UP: 

If you’re staff: Try to understand your boss. If you know her and she trusts you, she’ll be more willing to let you help. Helping her will help you. Volunteer for stretch assignments. Be the person who gets stuff done without handholding and constant instruction. Use those successes to move forward. As hard, and as frustrating as it is, leave your judgement at home. You likely can’t change your leader, but a successful tenure at one organization may help you move toward a different position at a museum with stronger overall leadership, and one more aligned with your own values.

Do you find yourself leading up? If so, what strategies have worked for you?

Joan Baldwin

*It’s wise to arm yourself with as much comparative salary information as you can find. That may require looking beyond what surveys exist for museums to the wider nonprofit sector and, in some cases, it may be prudent to examine for-profit salaries, as well. Online sites like Glassdoor and your state’s nonprofit association are two places to investigate.

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One Comment on “On Salaries and Anyone Being a Leader”

  1. […] On Salaries and Anyone Being a Leader […]


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