This is a letter to museum folk who are not leaders. It’s a letter to those of you who work on teams, in departments of one or many, who carry out the hopes and dreams of someone else. It’s also a bit of an apology. Many writers, bloggers and TedTalkers describe leading from anywhere. They write (and talk) as if leading from the back of the room were the easiest thing in the world. We’ve even been guilty of saying it a few times here.
While we believe it’s possible to always behave like a leader, we want to acknowledge the difficulty of having responsibility–sometimes huge responsibility–but no authority. And we want to note that in the world of bad museum leadership, a position that is all responsibility and no authority, particularly topped with gender and generational differences, is its own special hell.
What’s the difference between authority and responsibility? A person with authority is someone who has the power, resources or status to get stuff done. An individual with more responsibility than authority is a person who bears the consequences of someone else’s actions. Most leaders wear both hats, and it’s a tricky business. Understanding that leadership is about interdependence not authority is something it takes new museum directors time to figure out. While they learn, their staff sometimes suffers. What should you do to maintain your sanity if you work for someone who believes being a museum director is about making her staff carry out her wishes? Well you could quit, but let’s suppose you don’t want to.
- Don’t get caught in the blame game: It’s easy to lash out when you feel powerless, and to be honest, it sometimes makes you feel better. Save the sassy comments for after work with friends you trust. Instead, figure out whether you can move forward with whatever you’re charged with on your own. Make sure you understand your own behavior: Are you someone who needs the metaphorical gold sticker to know you’re doing a good job? In other words, do you really need the ED or does talking to her just make you feel better?
- Your ED, supervisor, board won’t listen to you: Look around. Who are they listening to? What qualities do the people being heard have? Can you do what they do? Have you been clear about what it is you need, and more importantly, the consequences if you don’t get it?
- You are totally overwhelmed by the 8 million things you’ve been asked to do, none of which were even remotely on your radar in grad school, nor do they even have much to do with American material culture which is why you got a master’s degree in the first place: Break your list into parts. Pick off the low hanging fruit before moving to something more complex. Don’t be the lone ranger. Work with your team or colleagues to conquer what’s more difficult, and then be the person who brings in something delectable to celebrate and say thank you.
- Working with your colleagues has all the appeal of a middle school group project. Once again, you feel like you’re carrying the weakest member of the team. And sometimes you will be, but don’t assume everyone approaches work like you do. Try and figure out your colleague’s work styles and play to their strengths. Whoever coined the phrase “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” was not kidding.
- If one more person tells you that you’ll understand whatever it is when you’ve got more experience or takes your idea, rephrases it and gets all the credit, you’re going to scream. You know your own work culture best, but if smiling and suffering silently has gotten you no where, you can challenge people. Be polite, but prove you know what you’re talking about. Remember the first step in getting woke is getting woke. And perhaps, most importantly, if you see this happening to another colleague, step in and help her out.
So…we’re not saying it’s easy, and we are here to acknowledge that in the course of every museum career you will encounter weak or authoritarian leadership. But don’t let it stop you. Keep a list of your successes and read it over when you’re having a dark day. Use your words. No ED can intuit what’s going on in your head. Be clear about the challenges and risks you see ahead, and ask for help. When you talk to your ED, make it about work, not about your unhappiness. Don’t wait for permission for every single step. Have a plan for the project ahead, get it approved, and move forward.
Tell us how you deal with the authority/responsibility dilemma.
Recently Zélie Lewis wrote a piece for Mike Murawski’s blog, Art Museum Teaching, titled What Am I Supposed to Do Now? In it, Lewis wrote about how COVID-19 affected not only her personal life, but the last semester of her museum studies master’s program, and, most importantly, her future. From my place in a chapter far ahead, safely working from home, reading it was uncomfortable, but it made me think. Again and again, I went over what advice I would offer Lewis if she were one of my own students, faced with finishing graduate school at the very moment the museum field plunges into the toilet along with the economy.
So, to Zélie Lewis and museum studies graduate students everywhere, here goes: Some of what I offer is cold comfort, in part because we have so little control over a vast, ever-changing situation, but also because I’m not walking in your shoes. That said, my first thought is congratulations, and also thanks. Congratulations on joining the 8-percent of the United States’ population with master’s degrees. Thank you for wanting to join the museum field. And thank you for assuming the potential debt necessary to get the degree considered the field’s admission ticket. In normal circumstances, you’d undoubtedly have a bright future. And you may yet.
Don’t forget the hard work you’ve done, but remember to put it in context. Your degree is more than a quid pro quo, permitting you to apply for jobs you couldn’t before. It is, hopefully, a set of skills and ways of thinking. You planned on being a museum educator. You know how to use an object, a painting, a document as a lens for learning. Those skills are useful beyond the museum world. You also write clearly. That’s an accomplishment too few possess. As a museum educator you know the world isn’t siloed. Each object, each artwork, each Tweet, each Instagram holds connections you have the ability to parse. You are an educator and you teach experientially. You planned to do that in a museum, but you don’t have to. You’re probably armed with skills you haven’t even tried to use yet. Believe in them. Understand them. And don’t let anyone define who you are. Do that for yourself. Remember what James Baldwin wrote: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
Life comes at us all fast, and despite what you read, only a few, lucky souls have a straight shot at the career they imagine. For most of us, and particularly for women, our work lives zig and zag. The job we thought was nirvana wasn’t. We fall in love; we break apart. We follow a partner somewhere and start again. Our parents fall ill and need us. We go back to school (again). We have a child. What’s different now is your pain isn’t only yours, it’s echoed everywhere. There are a thousand stories on the news every day to make you sadder and more disheartened then you already are. But if the worst that happens to you is a delay in your career trajectory, count yourself lucky.
Don’t hold too tight to your dream. Be open to change. Being agile and adaptable is a building block of leadership. If need be, consider this an in-between period, a coda between graduate school and your future life, a time when you change your definition of success. Make the best career choices you can. Utilize your skills. No matter what you end up doing in the post-COVID chapter, you’re still a person with a graduate degree.
Be patient. I know. Easy for me to say, but sometimes doors open and we need to step through even though it doesn’t seem appropriate at the time. It may be months or even decades before the pieces fit and you understand what was asked of you.
Even though you may find work perhaps outside of museums, try to stay engaged with the field. Who do you know? Who is your kitchen cabinet or your peer group? How often do you meet with them? Are they capable of giving you clear, unvarnished advice? Are they just enough ahead of you career-wise to have contacts you don’t have? Are they capable of helping you get a mentor if you don’t have one or need a new one? Just because the train is stuck in the station doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out for advice and support.
Adulthood, like leadership, isn’t a plateau we reach, it’s a place we grow into through the tough work of deliberation and reflection. And while you don’t have complete control–who does? We’re in a pandemic–you still have choices. So while I wish we could wave a magic wand and put the world back to the way it was six weeks ago, we can’t. We’re hunkered down in pause. It may take more than a year for museums to sort themselves out, and who knows what our field and our graduate programs will look like post-pandemic. In 2019, women made up 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. Post-COVID, that number will undoubtedly change because while women occupy half the jobs, they cluster in departments–like education–that have already been decimated by layoffs. One thing we can be sure of: The museum world we return to will be forever changed. So write down, not the courses you took, but the skills you learned. Think about the paths open to someone with your competencies. Think about how you will pay the bills. Put your support group together. Revise your resume. Be ready for whatever comes.
Last, and this is for your life decades from now: Remember the spring of 2020. Remember you were the COVID-generation. Remember, what it felt like, and don’t judge the generations coming after you. If and when you get the position you want, be kind. Reach back. Help those who follow you.
To Zélie Lewis and the classes of 2020 at museum studies programs, be safe, stay well and do good work. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the field is counting on you.
Image: Jeppe Hein
Thank you to our 875 Leadership Matters followers around the world and thousands more readers who looked at our pages a remarkable 55,300 times in 2018. And just in case you are new to Leadership Matters, here are our five most popular posts for 2018.
- The Silent Treatment
- Museum Pay (Again)
- 5 Pieces of Advice
- What’s Missing from 7 Factors….
- Guest Post: The HR Problem
Things & people who inspired us
- AASLH posting salary ranges and the National EMP Network for giving voice to the salary transparency effort.
- Colleen Dilenschneider for her clear, insightful look at the non-profit world.
- Susie Wilkening for her research about who visits museums and why.
- Appointments of Linda Harrison as President and CEO of the Newark Museum; Kaywin Feldman as the National Gallery of Art’s fifth director and Anthea Hartig as the first woman director of the Museum of American History, plus many others — the diverse list of directors and curators is growing and, for that, we are very inspired!
- MOMA Protests
- Hannah Hethmon’s great list of museum and library allied podcasts.
- Our Johns Hopkins University graduate students.
- The men and women attending the AASLH Leadership Forum this year and our colleague, Greg Stevens, with whom we developed and led the Forum’s agenda.
Looking Forward: Where to Find Us in 2019
- February 5, 2019, Baylor University, Waco, Texas: Where we will deliver the Largent Lecture on the topic of women in the museum workplace.
- Two Webinars for the Office of Programs and Outreach at the Wisconsin Historical Society: Leadership Matters: Thoughts on 21st-Century Museum Leadership, January 30 and Women in Museums on March13, 2019
- Pennsylvania Museums Annual Conference, Keynote Address, April 7-9, 2019
- AASLH Annual Meeting August 28-31 in Philadelphia
Our 2019 Wishlist
- For the American Alliance of Museums [AAM] and the American Association of State & Local History [AASLH] to join forces to combat sexual harassment in the museum/heritage organization workplace.
- For museums, their boards and leadership to lead the non-profit world in closing the gender pay gap.
- For museum and heritage organization boards to commit to spending a minimum of two meetings a year on why they do what they do, what it means, and how to be better leaders.
- For museums, their boards and leadership to work toward eliminating tokenism, bias, and stereotyping throughout the hiring process.
- For AAM & AASLH to follow the lead of the American Library Association and pass a living wage resolution.
Full disclosure: Anne and I are both teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program this fall. It is a great experience and we’re honored to participate, but here’s what’s worrying. Since this is online education, some of our students already have museum jobs. Maybe not their dream job, but they are employed. It’s the others I worry for. When I read a post like the one on Emerging Museum Professionals this week where the rightfully depressed writer was one of hundreds chosen for a final in-person interview, and then didn’t get the job, or when I hear about huge organizations who conduct multiple interviews via Skype for the lowliest form of employment, it makes me frantic. And if I had more faith in board governance, I wouldn’t question how we got here.
All things being relative, my generation of museum workers got the same crap pay as today, but, on the history/American culture side of things, it felt like there were plenty of job opportunities. Applications were sent via the U.S. Post Office so there was a leisurely pace to the whole business. The field was young, and there were only a handful of actual museum graduate schools, and another handful dipping their toes in the field via public history or American studies. Many of us had parents who believed this was something we’d actually grow out of. They spent years waiting for us to settle down to take the law boards.
So that was then. Who knows if it really was better or if it just appears that way in retrospect. Now it’s 2017. AAM and the New England Museum Association, for example, have online Career Centers that are full of resume samples and advice. Are they helpful? And I know AAM, in cooperation with the regional museum service agencies, conducts annual salary surveys, but who collects data about the number of job openings versus the number of applicants? What does the application process look like for the average museum job seeker? How long does it take? What factors seem to make it easier or harder? And what other kinds of support exists for folks with newly-minted graduate degrees vis a vis the job process?
I Googled the phrase “Finding a Museum Job” and got an assortment of blog posts–some of them hilarious in a dark way–and job-seeking sites about getting museum employment. Counterintuitively, the two biggest pieces of advice were 1) be flexible–which translates to don’t have any personal relationships that require a specific geographic location and 2) Network–which seems to mean emailing 75 resumes might not be the answer.
If there is an answer, we’d like to hear your thoughts. And if one of you has enough coherent thoughts about the museum job search, and might like to guest post, please let us know by emailing us at email@example.com.
In the meantime, good luck to ALL job searchers.
When we asked for possible topics as part of our 100th anniversary post, one of our readers suggested mentoring. Characterizing AAM’s page on mentoring as “sad,” she rightly called us out for mentioning mentoring often enough, but never really explaining it. So here goes.
First, if you care, mentoring is a gerund–meaning a verb form that functions as noun– and usually refers to advice or training offered by the old to the young. Second, we believe in it. And we think for the museum world in particular, mentoring should not be a generational thing. Too many of us think of being mentored as something museum Boomers should be doing for museum Millennials. While that’s a good idea, we would like to suggest that you don’t have to be a certain age to be mentored. Everybody needs one, likely more than one over the course of a career. And before we go any further, here is what mentoring is not: It’s not therapy. If you need a therapist, we hope you find one. And your mentor is not going to get you a job. That’s not a mentor’s job. Of course that may happen organically because of your mentor, but that’s not why you have one. You have a mentor so you can check in, talk, and receive counsel from someone who’s wiser, smarter, and more experienced than you are.
While it can and should be supported by graduate programs, employers, and service organizations, mentoring is an individual thing. You find them. You connect with them. Mentors don’t have to be your friends, and it’s often better if they’re not. They need to be folks, whether in the museum field or not, who can offer clear-headed career advice and a strategic 30,000-foot view of the profession.
And how do you get one? Don’t be shy. And don’t think if your graduate school professor is your mentor for a year or two, that she needs to be your mentor for life. Mentors change, just as you will. If you meet someone at a conference, seminar or workshop who seems smart, imaginative, and approachable, do not hesitate to ask them if mentoring is something they do. If the answer is yes, ask if they would mind if you called for an interview. If that goes well, you may want to set up quarterly calls, email exchanges, Skype, whatever works for you. But mentoring isn’t a once-a-year check in. You need regular contact to build trust in order for your mentor to keep pace with your career narrative.
If you and your potential mentor live in the same area, you may want to meet regularly face-to-face. And speaking of your local area, whether it’s a major city or a rural area, if there is someone you’ve admired from afar, you should feel free to contact them as well. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? They politely say they’re too busy? And we want to underscore that while this is traditionally the old(er) offering advice to the young(er), it doesn’t have to be that way. If there is a young, dynamic leader with a skillset different from your Boomer collection of talents, approach them.
What should museums or heritage organizations or service organizations do about mentoring? They should support it. It’s part of good leadership. In larger organizations it’s possible to offer internal mentoring opportunities. These have the advantage of access, but you may find yourself paired with someone who doesn’t work for you. Again, don’t be shy. If it’s not working, say so. On the other hand, some organizations offer one-to-one leadership training for their department heads that may come with mentoring. Or, if you’re in a less urban area, don’t forget about the Chamber of Commerce. It frequently offers leadership training and may also have opportunities for mentoring. And we support our reader in believing that AAM and AASLH should take a robust stance on mentoring, particularly at their annual meetings where the number of meet and greets is exponential.
We are always advising readers to read outside of the museum world. So here are some great mentoring pieces. If you’re not a Harvard Business Review reader, you should be. Read this piece: Demystifying Mentoring or this one Mentoring in a Hypercompetitive World. If you are a museum curator, the Association of Art Museum Curators, AAMC, has a formal mentoring program. In addition, the Center for Curatorial Leadership developed a Diversity Mentoring Initiative, and don’t forget about Museum Hue. In its role to increase diversity in operations, governance and staffing, it too provides mentoring opportunities. Last, we’d like to point to the UK’s museum organizations. We recommend these pages: Resources for Museum Mentors and Professional Development and Mentoring. Finally, there are people like Linda Norris who pay it forward by mentoring.
In closing, not everyone prospers in a mentoring situation. So know what you need. In order to work, mentoring means time, and a level of self-awareness so you understand enough about yourself to ask questions that are helpful. Don’t ask for a mentor if you can’t make the time to meet with one. Conversely, you may want to think about your life, if you know you need a mentor, but can’t find the time to talk with someone, perhaps something needs to change.