Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
It’s mid-June and it’s time to talk Women+Museums again. As many of you know, Anne Ackerson and I are writing a new book to be published by Left Coast Press in 2016. You can read more about the project by here. Because of that project, we’ve dedicated one post a month to all of you–men and women alike–who consider yourselves feminists and/or want to think, read or learn more about gender and the museum workplace. If you’re bristling at the use of the word feminist, the point of this post is to talk a little about gender and language.
Perhaps you don’t think you’re a feminist. Perhaps it conjures up visions of angry, shouting women who left home without shaving their armpits? Maybe not a picture we in the museum world want to align ourselves with? And yet, ponder this: As background for Women+Museums I’ve been reading a great deal and one writer who strikes a cord is Roxanne Gay, author of a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. In an article in The Guardian which you can find here, Gay quotes Kathy Bail’s succinct definition of feminists as women who don’t want to be treated like crap. Actually Bail and Gay use a slightly more descriptive word, but you get the idea, maybe meaning that being a feminist in 2015 doesn’t have a lot to do with the way you dress or whether you wear make-up , but whether you are ready to stand up for those who aren’t treated equitably. Like those who make 77 cents to the male dollar. See how much baggage eight letters can carry?
Understanding some of the facets of the word feminist brings me to the actual point of this post and that’s another freighted word:”soft.” As in soft skills. Soft skills, in case you let your Harvard Business Review subscription lapse, are the ones long associated with women. These are skills like collaboration, the ability to read social cues, empathy, inclusion and intuition. They are often possessed by women and were once marginalized–think Mad Men’s Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen–but somehow the pendulum swung the other way and those soft skills are now the stuff of the new leadership even though they come with the girly label “soft.”
Here’s what we know about those “soft” skills. Once upon a time companies, and museums too, were interested in hard skills. At the leadership level, they wanted people with a demonstrated understanding of content who could also manage money. Typical leaders were sometimes double-degreed former curators with a gift for reading spreadsheets. Leaders learned content in graduate school and depending on what decade of the 20th century we’re talking about, sometimes learned the money piece as well. Hard skills stay the same from job to job. If your specialty is the Civil War, you can go to a number of Civil War museums and put your knowledge to use. Of course, your board might discover that while your knowledge is encyclopedic and your money management skills fantastic, that your interpersonal skills are dismal. And that’s where the “soft” skills come in.
They are, in fact, the womanly skills of interpersonal relations. And with the flattening of hierarchies, they are increasingly important. Whether we like the girliness of the word “soft” or not, women utilize them far oftener than men. People in business started to notice this a while ago. In a 2010 McKinsey Global Study the company reported that 72-percent of executives believe that there’s a direct connection between a business’ gender diversity and its financial success. And among Fortune 500 companies those who promote women to executive positions have a 69-percent higher return than those who do not.
So….I have a two-fold question for all of you out there in museum land: First, knowing this, why do the oligarchs who select men as CEOs and Presidents for museums with budgets over $10 million, and, in a profession that is 45-percent female, why are we women not better at valuing the soft skills we bring to the table? Last, let’s stop calling them “soft.” Let’s call them core leadership skills because that’s what they are. Let us know your thoughts about language, about the workplace, and about gender.
The other day a colleague sent me an email. It contained a photograph of a group of blue ribbons on a table. Each ribbon said, “I Survived Another Meeting that Should Have Been an Email.” I suspect my colleague and I are not the only people who see meeting announcements on Google calendar and are gripped with dread. Why? Because too often they’re not actual meetings but opportunities to pontificate. People prattle on, they dominate, they wander down intellectual rat holes dazzled at their own verbal skills while the rest of the group languishes, twitches, or gazes out the window. Why? Because no one is listening, they’re waiting to speak and there is a difference.
One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters told us a story. She was new to the field and new to her job as the director of an active historical organization. After a board meeting, a trustee pulled her aside. His advice? Shut up. Just listen. Really listen. Too many leaders, directors and department heads think the appearance of listening passes for the act itself. But it doesn’t and even someone with lame facial recognition skills can recognize attention versus inattention. Being on the receiving end of an inattentive colleague makes some people angry. They would rather skip the interaction and send an email. At least then there is a record of what they said. Inattention leaves others feeling erased as if what they have to offer doesn’t really matter. Real listening means your thoughts actually respond to mine. You say things like picking up on what Joan just said, I believe……We build something as we toss ideas back and forth. We engage. We acknowledge each other’s skills.
Why does all this matter if you’re a leader as opposed to being a member of a department or staff? Well, skilled leadership inspires trust. Trust is earned any number of ways, but one way is by making an employee, a team member or a direct report feel valued. People who are never heard don’t feel valued. They feel dissed. They feel their time is wasted.
Today, in the age of distraction, there are very few of us who aren’t guilty of poor listening. Bad enough that our egos and our thoughts can distract us so magnificently. Now we have email, Snapchat, Googlechat, Twitter and so much more. So the next time you enter a room ready to lead a meeting for a group of overworked, overtired employees, try this: Ask everyone to turn off all their phones and close their laptops. Have them put both feet on the floor, hands on the table, and close their eyes. Wait 30 seconds. Then ask them to open their eyes. Start by asking the person on your left to “check-in,” meaning one or two sentences about how they are. (Another variation of this is Outward Bound’s check-in which involves telling the group one good thing or one bad thing about the day.) Both these activities require a slowing down, a focus on colleagues, and on who they are as people, not just their to-do lists. If your staff is given to too much information in check-ins, try asking everyone to close their eyes again. Ask them to start to repeat the alphabet, one person to each letter. If two people speak at the same time, the group needs to begin again. If the group really listens, they ought to be able to reach M or N.
Have fun. Let’s dedicate the next week to listening attentively and see what happens.
How many of us have found ourselves in an organization, program or department with a leadership vacuum? Likely more than a few. The reasons may be obvious: Your board or director is in a search because a position is open. As distressing as that can be–and with good planning it doesn’t have to be–you know the vacuum is finite. You will participate in interviews, the search committee will do its work, the position will be filled.
But what happens if the position is filled and the replacement is worse than having an empty office? What happens when the candidate leaves all her sparkle in the interview room and can’t muster a shred of enthusiasm for the actual day-to-day life of your organization? Or worse, her only interest appears to be in advancing her career–the panel she’s on at a national meeting, the article she’s writing or worse the renovation project she’s undertaking without doing her homework on the funders?
Clearly you have a couple of options: You can be terminally cranky, retreat to your office, offering minimal help to your colleagues while you wait for the Kuerig to hiss to a stop. We don’t recommend this unless you are also looking for another job, and potentially seeing a therapist to deal with your anger issues. Another choice might be to try to help your new director or department head. This may work if she has a fraction of self-awareness and is simply overwhelmed by the newness of it all. Be aware though that being Edgar Bergen to her Charlie McCarthy helps her not necessarily the organization. When she finds her feet, you may find yourself without a role. There is a third option, though. You can work to help your museum or your department. Where do your talents and skills meet the unfinished projects? If you step in for the good of the organization as opposed to some Mean Girls form of personal gain, you will likely, to use a sports analogy, push the ball up the field. That transforms leadership into a process that benefits the museum rather than a cult of personality.
In John Maxwell’s book The 360-Degree Leader, he quotes a lovely little sign from a local business that says, “The 57 Rules to Deliver the Goods.” Rule one is: “Deliver the goods.” Rule two is: “The other 56 rules don’t matter.” No, museums don’t manufacture things, but they are responsible to a public. They manufacture ideas, offer experience, programs, chances for creativity and contemplation. That’s the goods. A leader who has awkward social skills, who doesn’t listen, who says her door is open and then stubbornly refuses to change her mind, isn’t going to change. At least not because her staff wants her to. But the work goes on. If you see a project languishing, step up and deliver the goods. Even if your director doesn’t acknowledge what you’ve done in a way that satisfies, put it on your resume, add it to your list of projects on LinkedIn, and contemplate the future. Hopefully, to quote John Maxwell again, you are someone who’s growth oriented not goal oriented. You realize that life is a process of growth, reflection and experimentation, not a series of tick boxes to check off. That’s what you want for your museum and for your life.
So for all of you rowing in the shell with no coxswain, row with your teammates not against them, row as hard as you can, and know where the finish line is.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Dear Friends, colleagues, readers,
2016 was a year of unending politics, the unexpected deaths of cultural icons, enough global warming to open the northwest passage, and way too many police shootings. Yet here, in the calmer waters of Leadership Matters, we continued to grow. We more than doubled our views, moving from 23,529 in 2015 to 55, 723 in 2016. Although most of our readers live in the United States, people around the globe, from Russia, India, Canada, Uzbekistan, Malta, Greenland, Rwanda and many, many more, continue to find us. Wherever you are, thank you. We’re honored to be part of a community of concerned, open and interested museum leaders.
If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary Conundrum; The Salary Agenda; The Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders; Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One.
And we didn’t just write blog posts. We finished the manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which we expect will be published by Routledge in May 2017. We spoke at AAM in May and NEMA in November. We worked with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Gender Equity in Museums Movement or GEMM, and to release the GEMM call for action which you’ll find in a pdf on the right side of this page.
Suddenly it’s a new year, and we have to do it all again, only differently, with equal or more imagination and energy. So we thought we’d begin with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the award-winning musical Hamilton, taken from The Daily Beast, December 27, 2016. Miranda was asked about the soul-crushing (for some) results of the presidential election. Here’s part of his answer.
“But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.”
We love this answer. It responds to the sadness many of us felt having ended up on the losing side of the Electoral College, but it acknowledges the hope and the energy that museums need to move forward, meaning if you’re an engaged leader of a value-driven organization that’s plugged into your community, you will move forward. You must move forward. You will fight for what you believe in–in museum offices, exhibition spaces, historic sites, and in your programming–and that is a tonic.
How can being engaged with communities or working for equal pay for women of color, as well as queer and transgender colleagues in the museum field be a bad thing? And how about committing to raising museums’ consciousness about bias? Wouldn’t that be an important goal as well? And isn’t it about time all museums were value-driven? Values are not just something left to sites of conscience. Every community has things it cares about, and its museums (and their leaders) should reflect those cares.
So..as we look toward 2017, we’ll leave you with another quote from the poet Mary Oliver in her new book Upstream. “For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground–and inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me–to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”
Take Ms. Oliver’s words to heart. Bring passion to your observations, be patient about your work, and live with care for others especially your colleagues.
Be well and best wishes for good 2017.
There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?
Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.
AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.
There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.
Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.
It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:
If you have no money and want to stay local:
- If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends. They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
- Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
- Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
- Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.
**If you have money and board support:
- Consider applying for a spot at the Getty Leadership Institute.
- Explore AASLH’s Leadership Institute or look at Jekyll Island Management Institute
- If you are an art museum person, don’t forget the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s low residency NYC program.
- If your museum is one of 20 art institutions chosen for a combined initiative in diversifying museum leadership you may be eligible to participate in one of the programs supported by the Ford and Walton Family foundations.
- Think about a graduate or certificate program, either locally or online in leadership or business which these days often encompasses leadership.
**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.
Last, but not least:
- If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.
I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.
It’s May, so it’s time for the the American Alliance of Museums–AAM for short–annual meeting in St. Louis. Anne and I are lucky enough to not only be going, but we’re also proud to be part of a discussion based on our forthcoming book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017) Our session, “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” takes place Monday morning, May 8, in Room 127, America’s Center, where we’ll be joined by Kaywin Feldman from MIA, Jessica Phillips from Fraunces Tavern Museum, Ilene Frank from the Connecticut Historical Society, and Wyona Lynch-McWhite, VP at the Arts Consulting Group. All four women were interviewed or contributed to our book, and have plenty to say about gender equity. This isn’t for women only. It’s a session for everyone interested in an equitable workplace. We hope to see you there!
Our session is part of AAM’s Career Management track, so if you’re coming to the meeting and searching for other programs like this, try looking under “Management and Administration” as well. And don’t forget the “Museum Directors” track. You don’t have to be a director to attend those sessions. Altogether there are over 30 sessions related to leadership. There’s even one on failure as in the famous Samuel Becket line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Anne’s facilitating a leadership discussion in the CEO Roundtable on Monday, 3-5 pm, in Landmark 4 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand. She’ll be sharing the Layers Leadership, a recent outcome of work by museums, libraries and archives as part of the IMLS-funded NexusLab project. If you’re interested in talking about the varying leadership roles one plays and their attendant challenges, skills and outcomes, stop by Anne’s table.
If you prefer a smaller discussion format, we will also be part of the Peer Mentoring Roundtables for Emerging and Career Professionals on Tuesday, May 9, from 11:45 – 1:45 in the Expo Hall. This event offers 23 tables with smart, experienced folks, along with colleagues, friends and mentors, ready to talk about everything from resume tips to mentorship, to aligning career and organizational goals. We’ll be at table 12, ready to talk about Self-awareness, Career Planning, and Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Learning Curve.
We hope you’ll drop by the Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion on Tuesday morning, 9-11 am, where we’ll be representing GEMM — Gender Equity in Museums Movement. We’ll have the 5 Things You Need to Know tip sheets on leadership, salary negotiation and networking, along with other GEMM materials!
The annual meeting can be overwhelming so use your travel time to identify where you want to go and what you want to do. (If you arrive by Sunday morning, AAM runs an intro session from 9-11 am in the America’s Center.) Make sure to divide your time between career building–that’s for you, and idea building–which you may discover in sessions you select or in visits to St. Louis’s museums, galleries, zoo and botanical garden–and network building–that’s for you and your organization. It will be another year before you’re in a place with so many museum folk so make the most of it.
In the meantime, channel your inner Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis). We hope to see you there.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
There are a lot of consultants in the museum world. There are great ones, good ones, and ones who should hone their skills a bit more. Museums hire consultants to provide advice, spearhead special initiatives, and fill gaps in their staffs on a temporary basis. In July we published a guest post by Sarah Erdman on a consultant’s view from the outside. Today’s post looks at consultants from the other direction–the inside out if you will.
Hiring a consultant to fill a specific task-oriented skill should be an easy fit. If you need a designer, a writer, a conservator–even an architect is a consultant of sorts–you advertise, review resumes, and interview. The winning candidate will plug a hole in your collective staff skill set. If, for example, you’re a small shop, it makes perfect sense to hire a consultant to walk through planning for new collections storage. You probably don’t have a conservator on staff, but neither do you have money to waste so good advice is important.
We’ve all seen talented staff become overworked and burned out when they take on too many tasks. Consultants allow museum and heritage organization leaders to put the breaks on ever-expanding job descriptions, at least temporarily. Yes, consultants cost money, but so does losing staff, either through attrition or illness. As a museum leader, it’s your job to integrate the consultant’s work into your organization. Hiring a consultant is not a judgement on anyone’s work ethic. Instead, it’s a chance to create an even better exhibit, program, or PR campaign.
But what if you need a consultant whose skills are broad based and theoretical? What if you want someone to help with mission, strategic planning or succession, topics that everyone has opinions about? What then? Here are some things to consider:
- A consultant’s work will only be as good as the information she gets. Make sure she receives the necessary reading material before she arrives. Previous plans, mission statements, job descriptions, whatever provides a sense of the problem she is there to explore.
- Your consultant is not a soothsayer. Make sure you and everyone else knows why she’s been invited.
- Make sure she meets everyone, and that everyone has a copy of her charge. This is important because you, your board, and staff may all mean different things when, for example, you hear the words “strategic plan.”
- Be sure your staff understands that for a consultant to work well, she needs to hear from everyone so encourage participation.
- Don’t hide the truth. Make sure your consultant has the whole story. Leave blame and baggage at the door.
- And last, don’t expect magic or miracles. Consultants whose specialty is strategic planning or governance can’t fix a broken organization; nor are they there to do your work for you. Be prepared to listen and roll up your sleeves when the final report arrives.
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.