This first part is mainly for women who read this blog. This week I spoke with a colleague who, despite the fact that we work on the same campus, I see infrequently. So when we check in it’s with a degree of seriousness. “How are you?” isn’t just a pleasantry, but a real question. She reported crying in the doctor’s office. I responded I had too, both of us in answer to that simple question, “How are you doing?” Her doctor told her she needed a vacation. She laughed. There are eight more weeks of school so vacation seems as unlikely as being hit by a meteor. Mine asked what I was doing for relaxation. My only answer was joining a wine club which didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.
Let me be clear: We are the lucky ones. We are healthy. No one in our families was stolen by COVID. We are employed. We have colleagues, friends and families. We have partners who love us. But this is still hard, and it’s hard in a particularly gendered way.
I know there have been about 8 million articles, essays, and news pieces on women and COVID, one or two have appeared right here. The illness, the changes in economics and home life, and the spillover at work–for those who are working–has unnecessarily burdened women. And left some of us in tears. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll offer the one recipe for healing you haven’t heard about yet–two shots of Brené Brown, followed by a morsel of Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou and a brisk walk on a sunny day–but I haven’t found the recipe yet. I do know my colleague and I ended up laughing, a little irrationally, but honestly what else can you do? The universe demands a lot some days, and some times the best response is to laugh with a friend, even if what you’re laughing at is really the pain of the pandemic.
As some of you know, I’ve spent the last 10 months as interim director of a library, archives and special collections. Beyond keeping the ship on course, my primary job was to serve as point person for the search for a permanent director. I’m happy to say, it’s over, and in a few days when the last of the paper work is complete, we will be able to announce our new director. In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the search process, so here are some random ideas and considerations.
- Hiring over Zoom is unnatural. Does it privilege the extroverts and actors? Maybe. The things you’ve read about how to dress, how you present, are true. You should look like you’re sitting down for a semi-serious conversation. You don’t need a fancy living room with strategically placed books just over your shoulders, but you do need to appear as though your entrance to the Zoom room is something you actually thought about and consider important. (Hint: Not everyone does.) And while we all have bad IT days, a device that’s steady, and doesn’t make your interviewer feel as though they’re on a tilt-a-whirl is a must.
- Your references matter, and maybe not in the way you thought. Presumably your references believe you’re brilliant or they wouldn’t have agreed to speak for you, but many employers, my own included, don’t want a letter extolling your virtues. They want to talk one-on-one with your references. So it’s important that the people you ask are not only willing to say nice things, but are good talkers–articulate, smart, and generous over telephone or Zoom. Reporting you have soft skills, and then repeating a list of soft skills from Muse.com isn’t helpful. As someone about to hire you, your new organization wants to know you, specifically how your soft skills exemplify themselves in the workplace.
- NBC News reported this morning that there are now more jobs open than before the pandemic began. It attributes the spike not just to a rebounding economy, but to the fact that many job seekers are too fearful, hesitant, and discouraged to go through the process. My advice? Don’t apply if you don’t mean it. Yes, all job searches are an elaborate dance between job seeker and employer, with each one making choices based on what they discover. While the lucky and the talented may find themselves fought over by more than one employer, that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t start the process without first engaging in the necessary soul searching. It’s been a rough 18 months. Are you ready to move? Is your partner? Your family? You’ve created a pandemic routine that works for you. Are you willing to disrupt it? Not really wanting to move does not make you a bad person, but job searches are costly, not just money wise, but they are time sink holes. It feels wrong to go through three quarters of a complex process to have a job seeker tell you they really can’t imagine moving during a pandemic.
- Be clear in your own head why this job matters to you. New isn’t enough. Neither is admitting you have a crush on the organization since your crush may be based on half-truths and beautiful Internet photos. It helps if you can explain why this job matters to you now, at this very moment, and how it builds on what you’ve done so far, and challenges you in places you need to grow. And for the love of God, a mid-life crisis is not a reason for a new job. (Yes, that really happened.)
- If you’re stepping out of your lane, for example, you have little leadership experience, but you’re applying to lead a team of seven, be clear about what you know, what you done, what your skills are, and why they matter. Think like an interviewer so when they ask you, “And why should we let you run our team of museum educators, when you have next to no leadership experience?” you have an answer that lets them see you actually understand the act of leadership even if you haven’t had the title.
For all of you looking for work, I wish you the best of luck. Yes, the museum world is competitive, but positions are opening up. My last two bromides: Don’t write the script before anything happens. By that I mean don’t create a novel’s worth of reasons why you couldn’t take the position when you haven’t even applied. If you want a job and believe you’re capable, apply. Second, do the work you need to do before applying. What do you want? Of course you want a job, but if you knew you could earn just as much at Amazon, with better benefits, as you can at a given heritage site or regional museum, why there? Why does joining their team make sense for you?
And last, and this is for the folks at AASLH and AAM, recently I heard an NPR journalist speaking about his own field. He was making the point that print journalism has changed profoundly since last March, adding that his field lost 39,000 journalists in less than a year. Does the museum world know who it has lost?
Be well. Stay safe.
In 10 days 2021 will be in the history books and we will be living 2022. At the moment though, with Omicron duplicating, it feels like a meaner, angrier version of 2020 where every choice demands serious thought. Should I go? Should I stay? Are they vaccinated AND boostered? How much do those home tests cost? What was my life like the last time prices were this high? And on and on.
Today, I went back and read my final post from 2020. In it, I laid out five ways I hoped to make change in the coming year. They were:
- Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
- Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
- Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
- Grow empathy.
- Nurture creativity.
Although I don’t feel hugely successful, I did, weirdly, succeed in at least three out of five. We hired a new leader, someone who’s smart, kind, empathetic and supportive. Having worked for someone who was none of those things, I can tell you it makes a huge difference. I continue to work at acknowledging and then shifting my own white privilege so the lens is more inclusive and empathetic. I try daily to nurture my own and other’s creativity while also being empathetic. Creativity needs time, however, and some days it feels as though it is trapped on a container ship off the coast. The area of change that’s proved hardest is diversifying our collections mostly because turning that wheel means money. Our donors are often older, white and male, making them not always enthusiastic about building collections that are non-white and female. Nevertheless, it remains a written goal, and one that’s easy to point to when we’re offered a gift.
Over this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in COVID’s crosshairs in ways men are not. I wrote about taking grief to work because this has been, and remains, a deeply sad year for me. I also wrote about creativity and trust, and I wrote about Nina Simon, who remains a she-ro for me mostly because she has the courage to walk away from all this museum stuff and write a novel. At least I think that’s what she’s doing because periodically I answer her probing questions on Twitter about one of her characters who seems to be about my age.
It’s time to say something about the coming year so here is my hope: My hope is that every museum leader, whether they lead a program or an organization, whether they lead 1.5 people or the equivalent of a small town, can, when they’re alone, say honestly and truthfully, “My staff is safe, seen and supported.” If that’s not true, if there are tiny things that need to be changed or great gaping holes, my hope is they make that sentence a truth in 2022. If your staff is safe, they are not harassed and bullied. Should they be, because you can’t control everything, you will have implemented processes to support and help them. If they are seen, they know you believe in them, in the person they really are, not some artificial version of themselves. And if they are supported, they are mentored, encouraged, and given space to be creative, no matter their assigned tasks.
If you–because you are important too–and your staff are safe, seen and supported, the constant gnawing need for self care will also lessen. It won’t be perfect. Life rarely is, but it will be a long way toward better. So think about what you need to do to move the needle toward those three simple words: safe, seen, supported.
I’ll close this end-of-year post with a poem. Given the space we’re currently in, we probably should read more poetry, and the title is fitting. In the meantime, be well, take care of those you love, and I’ll be back here in 2022.
Instructions on Not Giving Up
Ada Limón – 1976-
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
I took a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, and I’m back to make my annual ask for a museum world work summit. I’ve asked before. In March 2021, I used this blog to write a letter to Laura Lott and John Dichtl, presidents of AAM and AASLH respectively, but to date, nothing. It’s no secret that the world of museum work is a mess, and it’s popular to blame it on COVID, but is that the whole answer?
This week I listened to economist Lane Windham on It’s Been a Minute. Windham teaches at Georgetown and is is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor . She argues that we’re living through a worker rights revival. Economists also call it the “great resignation,” where people left low-wage jobs with no benefits, and then because of COVID, chose not to return, in some cases waiting employers out. But, while COVID may have been the reason to quit low-wage, no-benefit jobs–after all if your crap pay won’t cover after-school care and there’s no school, why stay?– Windham suggests their anger dates back to 2018/19 with a wave of strikes when, for example, 500,000 teachers and other workers took to the picket lines. She also points out that many of today’s strikers are women, reflecting mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1980s and 90s–women of color at Amazon and nurses at Kaiser Permanente for example–as well as women’s interest and leadership in unions.
I acknowledge that I am part of a group of museum folk who use social media to otherwise moan about the world of museum work. I guess crying into the Internet void is soul-soothing in a way, but it doesn’t move the needle, which is something I’m increasingly focused on. (When you work with high school students you want to model ways to create change that go beyond emotions.) And there are a lot of us talking and Tweeting about museum work from many different sectors around the globe. What would happen if–for example– you put Maria Vlachou, Aletheia Whittman, Franklin Vagnone, Monica Montgomery, Porchia Moore, Lonnie Bunch, and Elizabeth Merritt together with Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), Lane Windham (Georgetown) and Amy Costello (NPQ)? What ideas about the future of museum work might come out of a summit like that? What changes might they propose about board training? About leadership training? About the gender wage gap? About DEI training?
The museum work world isn’t simply a corporate giant employing massive numbers of worker bees à la Amazon. It’s complex. And yes, museums are more like other non-profits than big business, but I would argue, museums are still unique. They mix often hyper-educated folk with wealthy trustees, charged with hiring a single individual to run the organization. Then the trustees step back, re-focusing at regularly scheduled intervals to oversee mission and money, and leaving the director/president to hire/fire and lead teams that may range from a paid staff who could all fit in an SUV, to organizations with workforces as large as small towns. And that’s before we incorporate volunteer groups many of whom play an important–although increasingly charged–role in today’s museums. If you consider this picture also includes a group of leaders –at the director level and below–who may have had little training, mentoring or experience in actually leading humans, much less in creating policies for a transparent, equitable, empathetic workplace, you have a recipe for disaster i.e. a simmering pot of worker unrest.
Recently some of social media’s museum thought leaders have suggested museum directors need to solve these problems. While there are many steps an individual can take to make themselves a better leader, starting with a huge dose of self-awareness to check their own hubris and bias, I think it’s probably not an individual director’s role to ride into a board meeting with a flaming sword. How many directors need to have their careers crushed on issue of principle? How many self-sacrificing fights between director and staff have to happen? It’s almost always the director who loses. How many open positions do there have to be before organizations realize museum directors aren’t the board’s handmaidens, and that the board/director relationship must be cooperative and collegial?
One last thought: Sometimes you can’t solve a problem until you pull it out and examine it. I’m currently using Aletheia Wittman’s work on Institutional Genealogy for a project I’m working on. Her work is a clear, critical framework for assessing organizational history, for trying to understand, how your museum or heritage organization got to where it is today. What would happen if you gave that framework to our mythical group above and asked them to look at museum work as a whole, to open all the closets, bring out the skeletons, lift up the rocks, and get out all the dirty laundry so we can understand where we’ve come, where we might have lost our way, and how to find a more equitable path? Just a thought.
Be well, be kind and do good work.
Think about this: Think about a woman staff member at a medium-sized regional museum. Like many, post-COVID, she’s over-worked, doing her pre-pandemic tasks, plus new ones. In addition, she’s also taken on a new role supporting a part-time HR department where she listens to staff with issues involving possible gender and race discrimination. When necessary, she reviews what’s happened to staff, ranging from socially awkward conversations to potentially criminal behavior. She’s competent, organized, compassionate, but increasingly overwhelmed. Not only is she doing too much, but the HR support she’s offered has opened a floodgate of response. That’s good–staff trust her–so they confide, but bad because the more word gets around, the more people come to see her. Her boss is a white man. He’s smart, genial, and genuinely wants to do the best for his colleagues. So far so good. Except as months go by, the woman felt increasingly stressed. Finally, she approached her leader to ask whether she could take something off her plate. Her boss acknowledged she had reached her limit. One look at her face would tell you that. His response? A beautifully crafted email to her front-facing colleagues explaining she is overwhelmed, and asking whether they could step in for her over the next month or two. She felt torn, both profoundly disappointed, and not really helped.
Asking your colleagues to step in for you is what happens when you have to drive your partner to chemo or a family member is in ICU. This makes it sound like the employee a) didn’t know her own mind when she agreed to her workload or b) is too fragile to carry if off. In a time when a lot of employees are nervous about losing their jobs, now is not the moment to make staff feel inadequate. And make no mistake, this scenario is overlaid with gender: the “good girl” employee and the benevolent male boss.
Sometimes leaders aim to fix feelings rather than the decisions that caused them. Any leader worth their salt knows they need to be empathetic, but in empathizing, they often go for the quick fix–let’s get the crying staff person to stop weeping, let’s give the parent who just lost their day care a break or the elderly staff person who hates night driving a change in hours. In any of those scenarios, the leader might feel as if they’ve solved a problem, and the staff member as though they can manage in the short term, but their colleagues, not so much.
In your urge to “help” an employee have you ever solved an immediate issue while leaving overarching, structural issues unresolved? Would the better course for the characters in the opening story have been for the leader to empathize, but not try to fix the employee’s problem, and instead work on the organizational problems? How could this fable have worked out better for both staff member and leader?
If you need to tell your leader you’re overwhelmed:
- Don’t blame yourself for being overwhelmed. You want to do well, but you can’t if you’re not doing your best.
- Strategize before your meeting. Making the conversation your museum, not you, may help guide your leader to make a change rather than a quick fix.
- Come up with some alternate solutions for the organization. In our example, the staff member could suggest that while there might not have been a need for full-time HR in the beginning, data now points to making HR full time.
- Last, what are ways, short of quitting your job, that you can support and care for yourself in a situation like this?
If you’re the leader:
- Resist the temptation to make a quick fix, recognizing that a short-term fix for one may breed long term discomfort for others.
- Consider who you’re meeting with. If, as in our scenario, it’s an employee who’s dedicated, smart, kind and curious, think about all the ways they support the museum from minuscule to huge. Before deciding you’ve given them too much, think about possible organizational changes you might make. Begin with the notion that competent people shouldn’t be overloaded with tasks simply because they are competent. Doesn’t that enable the less competent in their disorganization?
- Consider talking to other members of your leadership group, and taking the temperature on overwork.
- Be transparent with other staff about changes you make.
Be kind, be equitable, and do good work.
So it’s been a few weeks, in fact, almost a month since I last wrote. I like to think that if this blog has any redeeming qualities, one is consistency. So apologies for the radio silence. These pages were never meant to be self-revelatory. They were created to support the publication of both editions of Leadership Matters (2013 and 2019), and as such, be a springboard for the discussion of all things leader-like in museum land. But sometimes life just comes at you, slamming you in the face with your own worst thing. And that’s what happened to me. The specifics don’t matter so much except to say of the several cataclysmic things that can happen in a lifetime, this was one.
My experience made me think of what Lisa Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum, said in her Leadership Matters interview. When I asked her about work/life balance, her response was pure Lisa Lee. She underscored that siloing our energy and thoughts isn’t productive, that our lives aren’t binary, meaning work versus home. She added “At the museum we pretend we’re not grappling with other issues, but we’re human beings all day.” That seemed like an important statement to me when I heard it the first time, and equally important today as I prepare to return to work. I can’t shut off my grief the moment I walk into my office or my first meeting. I have to look it in the face, carry it with me, and move forward.
One of my “sheroes” is Brené Brown. Her short film on the difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty stellar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, because all good leaders should understand that what you say isn’t as important as simply being present and reminding the person who’s hurt that you recognize pain, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, and you’re by their side. And it isn’t about you. Nothing is worse than a hurting colleague comforting the comforter. Nor is there some unwritten scale of dire events that ranks human reaction. It’s not a worst experience contest. As a leader, your job is to respect what happened to your colleague and empathize, not weigh a pet death versus chemotherapy or a car accident. Life is hard, and we all meet challenges differently.
Brené Brown always says presence trumps perfection. There is nothing about being a museum leader that makes you a people fixer, so don’t try. Today a colleague asked if she could stop by, and when I said yes, she simply wanted to tell me she was there for me–big or small–lunch companion, after-work walk, chair to sit and rant in. It was incredibly kind, and my only job was to realize she’s on my side. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that this colleague is someone I can trust because she’s willing to sit with me at my lowest. I know I can go to her office and weep if I need to, and she will share the space, metaphorically and actually.
The American workplace, which is the only workplace I know even a little about, is not a place where emotions are on parade. We’re not supposed to yell (well, men can, but that’s another post), nor are we supposed to cry (especially if we’re women), because crying means you’re emotional which is sometimes code for hormonal or menopausal which is definitely bad or wait, maybe just human? Sometimes checking our emotions at the door, and locking up our grief just isn’t possible because, as Lisa Lee reminds us, we’re human.
So 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this post. Maybe I would have suggested that we need to button up those emotions, park them at the door, and just get on with it. But in a world of climate change, systemic racism, pandemic fears, and gender discrimination, not to mention all the bad stuff that besets us individually, I don’t think that’s the workplace any of us want to work in any more. We need to know we can be our real selves–or at least as real as we choose to reveal–because it’s only in environments where trust flourishes that we, whether leaders or staff, feel safe, seen and supported.
Be well and be kind.
Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.
Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.
As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.
If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and basket weaving classes.
There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.
This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.
So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work:
- Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
- Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
- If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.
If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:
- Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
- Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
- If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.
How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.
Yours for a tear-free August.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to courageous museums and their leaders lately. Witness Puerto Rico where the Art Museum decided to open a week after the hurricane. Their idea? That despite the devastation around them, the museum was a place of safety, renewal, and happiness. Or how about Eastern State Penitentiary’s exhibit Prison’s Today, which knew it was tackling a volatile subject, and rather than ignore the elephant in the room, decided it would take a point of view, advocating from the opening panel that “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working.” Or, curators like Rainy Tisdale after the Boston Marathon Bombing or Aaron Bryant at the African American History Museum who refuse to wait for history to “get old,” but document it as it happens? Or most recently the Queens Museum’s Director Laura Raicovich’s stance on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
While these individuals and organizations deserve our deepest respect and thanks, we need to talk about another aspect of courage. We need to talk about courage in the museum workplace as opposed to the museum itself. We need to talk about courage “backstage” as opposed to “on-stage.” Because decisions like the ones listed above affect an organization’s brand, donor base, and gate, they are rarely made alone. Instead there is a calculus involved, measuring mission and vision versus damaging PR, institutional values versus organizational gain. That doesn’t diminish the courage of these decisions, but they aren’t the same as those made in the museum workplace. There, it’s all about individuals. And it’s also about fearlessness.
This week we read a piece published on Incluseum called “LETTER TO YOUNG MUSEUM PROFESSIONALS OF COLOR OR WHAT TRANSPIRES ON A LONG-HAUL CAREER WHEN CONFRONTED WITH RACISM IN THE MUSEUM,” by longtime museum consultant, Radiah Harper. If you haven’t read it, you should. Appearing less than a week after Alliance Lab’s piece on attrition from the field, Harper’s letter opens with the lines:
You know when someone or something has crossed the threshold of your sanity in the workplace. At that moment, you have to make decisions, even when in a senior position. Has there been an irrevocable offense? Is it racism or oppression and intolerable? We ask ourselves, can I afford to quit?
I believe that most of us think that museum work is about doing good. We teach, we preserve, we research, we enlighten, we spark imagination, we provide beautiful spaces where families and friends gather. I suspect, when asked about our work, we think more about that public good then we do about our workplaces. And yet ours is a field where every day someone experiences racism or bias, gender stereotyping or sexual harassment.
Is it possible we spend way too much Facebook time decrying Charlottesville and whether or not monuments to the Confederacy should stay or go, and not enough thinking about what it’s like to be non-white in a museum workplace? Do most museum employees even know that one in three American women is sexually harassed at work? Do they understand that museums and heritage organizations aren’t exempt from sexual harassment? And what about employees who deal with multiple layers of bias and prejudice –women of color, lesbian or queer women, transgender women.
This is where we need personal courage. We need courage to stand beside and stand up for our colleagues; to interject when someone says something racist, unkind and biased. And if, for whatever reason,we are among the museum workers who are privileged, we need to use that privilege to make changes in workplace behavior. Maybe our small acts of conscience will change the museum field for the better.
Stop talking. Just act.
There is a trope in leadership literature that says you can learn from bad leaders just as you can from good ones . It’s cold comfort though when you are stuck in a soul-sucking job with a boss who doesn’t know how to lead. You find yourself raging or crying, lists full of things to do, but little authority to do them. You’re alternately placated or bullied so every workplace interaction is a walk over eggshells. In short, you’re so miserable it’s hard to learn anything until you’re safe in your next position where hindsight is a great teacher.
The vast majority of us watch events in Washington, D.C. from a distance, but it is possible to learn something about leadership just by observation. So, here Leadership Matters distills 10 lessons from the disruption and chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Planning really helps. Today’s museum leaders juggle an absurd number of plates. Having an agreed upon plan and policies is something board, staff and volunteers can support and depend on.
- It’s a given that museum leaders should surround themselves with the most talented team they can attract and afford. The lesson is listen to the talent. If they’re really so smart, if they really have particular areas of expertise, use it. Don’t make decisions without them.
- Check your biases at the door. If you secretly long for some stereotypical workplace where sparkling white women in tailored dresses laugh discreetly, while white men in expensive suits make weighty decisions, keep it to yourself. The world has changed. Join the 21st-century. Your organization needs a unifier, not a divider. Be the unifier.
- Deal with your anger somewhere else. We all get angry. As leaders, mostly we don’t show it, especially the personal, whiney variety.
- Respect social media. It’s a powerful thing. If you choose to ignore it, you’ll pay a price. If you choose to participate without a communications plan, you’ll pay a different price.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a good speaker or writer, have staff help you craft your remarks. The more important the event, the more important your remarks. Ditto if spreadsheets drive you to distraction. Staff can’t get you off the hook, but they can and will support you. Again, use their expertise.
- Respect your office. Understand on whose shoulders you stand, literally and metaphorically. Know the history of your organization, know its subject matter. Believe in it.
- Don’t take it personally. Being a leader means a lot of anger, complaint and crankiness floats in your direction. Pay scales to parking, health benefits to number of exhibitions, exhibit content to stock in the shop, it all comes back to you. Or rather to you as the executive director. Separate your emotions from your job.
- Be ready to apologize. You’re not perfect. Leaders who can’t apologize breed staffs who can’t trust, and bad karma abounds.
- Be kind. Yes, as a museum leader your plate is full, but you model the behavior you want in others. A warm, kind leader tends to attract a warm, kind staff. Not so kind leaders tend to attract different folks. Ask yourself–am I the person I want to work for?
The President’s post-Charlottesville remarks are a slow-burning fuse. AAM, AASLH, and many state arts councils have written responses. And this week the Committee on the Arts and Humanities walked off the job in protest. Leadership is tough enough without steering the ship of state into an ocean littered with anger and racism, a place where everyone feels entitled and emboldened to utter the first thought that comes to mind. And it’s an especially strange world where it’s possible to learn leadership by doing the opposite of what the 45th president does.
Before we begin, some good news: Anne and I are doing a workshop with our friends Jessica Ferey and Marieke Van Damme at AAM. It’s called What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women. Now the bad news: It’s at 8:45 a.m., Saturday, May 28. If you’re going to be at AAM, and up at 7:30 AM, (and we hope to see you) are there tunes that pump you up like a great cup of coffee because we’d like to play them before our session? Email or tweet (#museumwomen) your suggestions for our playlist, then plan to join us on May 28th for a great conversation!
This week we’d like to build on our last post by saying that while mentors–being one, having one–are an important part of museum career planning, they aren’t the whole rodeo. Or to mix metaphors completely, they’re the flour not the entire cake. Besides having a mentor or mentors, you need to be strategic about your career.
Let’s acknowledge from the outset that careers are part of a life, not the whole thing. The rest–partners, husbands, wives, children, parents, friends, lovers, pets–all take energy, devotion and compromise. But within your particular narrative, you still need to be strategic. In addition, let’s acknowledge that museum salaries, particularly for women, women of color, and transgender folk are often ridiculously low. We’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog which you can find here: Museums and the Salary Conundrum or The Salary Agenda. But having acknowledged the demands of family, friends, and the financial strain of salaries that stink, what else should you do?
First, check in, meaning ask yourself if you like going to work. Are you happy? And don’t do it once, make it a habit. Keep a journal, write down your successes and put them in a jar, walk, think, mull things over. Ask yourself how you are. And if you want a fabulous example of personal reflection, read Nina Simon’s current blog: Year Five as a Museum Director. Her things I’m proud of, mistakes I made, and questions on my mind is an excellent template.
Staying in a soul-sucking job just because you earned that master’s degree in museum studies might not be worth it if your commute is punctuated by tears. Do we need to point out that daily crying is not a good thing? But you’re the trailing spouse or partner. Your parents are elderly and you can’t move right now. It took you months to get your apartment, and you can’t, repeat can’t move again. So don’t. Here is where your posse comes in. A posse is a circle of colleagues, folks you like, folks you can go out and have a drink with, but who aren’t necessarily friends. Why? Because they have to be able to tell it to you straight. They will be the people who remind you that you’ve showed up at your favorite watering hole one too many times in a sad mess. They will tell you that you need to turn around and apologize NOW. They will also tell you that you’ve been treated abysmally and that you’re good at what you do.
And, your posse should be able to help you tease apart your skill set. Do you work in a museum department that also exists in other non-profits? Development or communications for example. Is it worth looking elsewhere and building your resume without leaving your parents, partner or really great apartment? Can you reduce your hours, do some consulting and make the same money but have more autonomy? The point is these people will give you advice. You may already have a group like this. If not, invite some colleagues you like and admire, and arrange to meet after work. Last, don’t forget about your boss, department head, team leader. Hopefully she is a person you can talk to. Don’t abuse the privilege, but don’t be shy either.
If you think about everything you’ve read here, it’s clear we are suggesting that you have one or more people who mentor you. They are likely outside your current work environment, and they deal with the big picture–the museum field and your career trajectory. Inside your organization, you should have another individual who knows you and the cast of characters you work with. That person will help with organizational issues and your blind spots. Last, comes your posse. Yes, some of them will become friends, but remember, they have to be able to tell you the truth. And they will offer a network of connections, projects, and ideas. And you’ll do the same back. So be strategic. And if you want to read how business does it, check out these articles: How Leaders Create and Use Networks or Misconceptions About Networking.
Let us know how you network.