Leadership Matters writes a lot about salaries, and this week a question on Facebook deserves a closer look. Our colleague, Franklin Vagnone, President and CEO of Old Salem Museum and Gardens in Winston Salem, NC, asked a group of museum colleagues if they knew anything about the ratio between nonprofit CEO pay and staff salaries. Because it’s Facebook, Frank got a lot of comments, but no definitive answers.
Considering that salaries in general, and CEO salaries in particular, are not the stuff of social media conversations, Frank’s question was about as transparent as it comes. In short, he wanted to know what the ratio is between a CEO’s salary and the lowest paid staff member. The numbers for the corporate world are available courtesy of Bloomberg, and range from a frightening 1,205 to 1 to a more modest, yet still dynamic, 133 to 1. But Google the same question for nonprofits and you discover a hot mess. Not to mention, again, no real answers. You’ll find the average ED pay for a US nonprofit hovers between $64,999 to 88,000, but nothing about the salary relationship between leader and staff.
Among the 300 million hits from Google, none of the first three pages offered any answers. There are cautionary articles about making sure nonprofits meet their state’s minimum wage laws, and/or using living wage calculators to set salaries. There are also articles about nonprofit CEO pay and how much might be too much. But neither I nor Vagnone could find anything about adjusting a leader’s salary to make the ratio more equitable.
At Old Salem Museum and Gardens Vagnone and his board have spent the last two years in an equity initiative, making sure all staff receive a living wage as determined for Forsyth County, NC. It’s important to note that a living wage in Forsyth County, North Carolina is NOT a living wage in New York City or San Francisco or Allegany County, Maryland. Living wages reflect, among other things, cost of living, thus locations with high rent, taxes, food costs, and transportation by necessity have a higher living wage than places where the cost of living is lower.
“My goal is not to put my thumb on other people, and keep their pay low. It’s the opposite,” Vagnone said. “Nonprofits are collaborative entities, and we all should be able to be equitably compensated based on experience and skill.” Vagnone and his board use various comparables such as the AAM National Museum Salary Survey along with salary information from similar North Carolina sites, but these don’t confront the issue of CEO pay versus the lowest FT employee ratio. “Nonprofit boards are usually populated with corporate executives,” Vagnone said. “They come to nonprofit pay from the for-profit perspective. In some cases, boards are not always in tune with organizations they manage,” Vagnone added.
After talking through the problem, here is a mash-up of Vagnone’s and my take-aways:
- Someone needs to do some research on this for the museum world and make it available.
- Solving this isn’t an entirely numeric issue. It’s also an ethical issue.
- Boards and CEO’s need to make sure they’ve dealt with the living wage/equitable wage problem for all staff.
- CEO’s/ED’s salaries need to have an ethical and reasonable relationship to staff’s. Those numbers will differ based on a huge number of variables including museum location, operating budget, availability and size of endowment(s), number of staff, and museum discipline, but boards and leaders should be intentional about the ratio.
- It’s important that boards and executive directors work staff salaries in an ethical direction.
Has your organization tackled this problem? If so, what was the result?
This Wednesday I will attend the New England Museum Association’s 100th Annual Meeting in Stamford, CT. Along with panel moderator Scott Wands (CT Humanities) and co-presenters Grace Astrove (Jewish Museum), Kelsey Brow (King Manor Museum), Ilene Frank (Connecticut Historical Society), and Diane Jellerette (Norwalk Historical Society), I will help lead a session titled “Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way!”
Despite the alliterative and slightly confrontational title, our goal is to bring people together to talk honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of museum work: salary. We will lead table discussions on the following topics: emerging professionals and pay; unpaid internships; salary and benefits negotiation; race and pay; and gender and pay inequity.
Our goal is to give participants the opportunity to move from table to table potentially participating in multiple discussions before reporting out to the whole group. In part, that’s because there is no one size fits all compensation story. Pay is personal and pay is organizational. Pay relates to your personal narrative, your personality, and hugely to bias.
For many board members, staff represent a yawning cavern of expense and escalating benefits. And while boards may adjust an executive director’s salary and benefits package to attract and keep the multi-talented person they believe their museum deserves, beyond the aggregate numbers, they rarely dip into compensation for staff further down the food chain. Thus, for the most part, pay is an executive director versus current or potential staff question, meaning when an offer is made both individuals need to be at the top of their game. The executive director needs to fully understand her budget, know whether she can negotiate and how far she’s willing to go. The individual needs to have some sense of salary range–which is why posting salaries and ranges is so important–and how much it costs to live in the area in question and meet expenses. She also needs to know what she thinks she’s worth, and whether she’s willing to walk away if an offer is too low.
Negotiations like these are made more complicated by gender and race. Job applicants have to find ways to ask whether the museum has completed a pay equity survey and adjusted salaries accordingly. Presumably any organization that’s already had a Marc Benioff-like moment would be overjoyed to talk about it, but you can’t be sure. And in some organizations, too many questions — from women and particularly from women of color — translate into a stridency organizations want to steer clear of.
Then there is the whole issue of new professionals negotiating for the first time, or those still in graduate school who want or need internships. We would like to announce that unpaid internships were as antiquated as the rotary phone, but sadly they’re not. NEMA has been stalwart in its support for mutually beneficial internships, but the museum world is still riddled with epically bad The Devil Wears Prada experiences. And being treated like crap when you’re being paid is one thing, but being treated like crap for donating your time seems like the definition of insanity.
One of the blue-sky hopes for this session is to actually come up with a series of proposals that will help move the salary debate forward. Since not all of you will be in Stamford this week, if there are changes you’d like to see — organizationally, regionally, and nationally — let us know. Let’s make some noise and make some change.
Maybe it’s the summer. Maybe it’s the heat, but among museum news-sharing folk the question of pay reared its head again last week. On AAM’s Museum Junction there was a question and several responses regarding pay for front line staff. One of the responses was from Michael Holland who posted a lengthy article on low pay on AAM’s Diversity and Inclusion page in February. In addition, blogger Paul Orselli, asked us all to take notice (again) of the need to post salaries with job announcements. You can read his full post here.
The initial Museum Junction question came from Mark Osterman at the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, FLA who asked about pay for “frontline staff,” and whether other museums use merit pay, bonuses or some other vehicle to increase wages for admission staff or part-time greeters. The two organizations who responded said they offer annual wage increases of between .01 and .03 percent on base salaries of $10.75 and $12.50. Another question that Osterman and the two responders might ask themselves is whether their frontline pay is equitable?
We like to think Leadership Matters remains a stalwart voice for both better salaries and pay equity in the museum field. If these issues are new to you, consider for the moment that increasing salaries simply perpetuates whatever pay inequity already exists. Let’s say you work at a museum with a staff of 50, and a Latina woman and a Caucasian woman both work in the education department. Imagine the museum board arrives for its quarterly meeting and decides, based on industry trends and the fact that the organization had a very good year, to raise salaries across the board by 10-percent. Sadly, after the backslapping and texts to friends, the Caucasian woman and her Latina colleague would still likely have a salary gap of almost 13-percent because white women make a lot more than Latina women. And by the way, those percentages, which come from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, are compared to white men doing the same job. (We realize that’s an unlikely scenario because museum education departments are usually bastions of underpaid women.)
Michael Holland’s comment suggested, among other things, that museum salaries should reflect museum values, and that 21st-century salaries should permit staff to live in the communities in which they work. Which brings us to Paul Orselli’s piece which points out that organizations like AAM and AASLH need to require organizations to list salary ranges when posting job announcements. Orselli pleads with his readers to contact AAM and AASLH and ask that they change their policies. We agree, and we’ve said as much over and over since the start of this blog. In keeping with our tradition of suggestions for museum folk at all levels, here are some possible recommendations depending on where you find yourself in the field.
For Museum Service Organizations:
- Change your policies to require job announcements include salaries or salary ranges and be explicit in explaining why. You have an opportunity to educate and advocate.
- Museums and heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens are important institutions for a host of reasons, but they are not always workplace nirvana. Start publicly acknowledging organizations who are good employers and tell the field why.
For Museum Board Members:
- Know where your museum’s salaries fit in the annual AAM salary survey and, if appropriate, the AAMD salary survey, but remember that survey is but one data point to investigate. Look broadly across the nonprofit sector in your community/region/state at salaries for comparable job titles. Benchmark museums specific to yours in terms of budget size and discipline.
- Know how much it costs to live in your community. Use the MIT Living Wage Calculator to figure out if your staff can actually afford to live and work in the same place. If your organization can’t afford to offer the salaries it should, as a board member you should be fully aware how well your staff performs despite being underpaid.
- How often does your board discuss the human cost of running a museum?
- Do your museum’s salaries reflect your museum’s value statement?
For Museum Leaders:
- Know what’s going on. Use the AAM and AAMD salary surveys, and other survey data from across the nonprofit sector. Make sure you’re not underpaying. If you are, know why.
- Do your salaries reflect your museum values statement?
- Are your salaries equitable? If not, what is your role? Don’t let unconscious bias fester.
- Make sure salary is a part of all annual reviews.
For Museum Staff and Those in the Job Hunt:
- If you’re applying for a new job, do your due diligence. Know what it costs to live where you’re applying. Be prepared to say no if you can’t actually live on the salary offered.
- When you receive an offer, don’t say yes right away. Think it through. Negotiate. Know what you need.
- If you’ve done great work, say so in your annual review. Explain what your great work means. Ask for a raise.
- If there are opportunities to learn more about how your organization functions, take them. Serve on internal committees. Make an effort to understand your organization.
- If you would like to see salary information with job announcements, follow Paul Orselli’s lead and contact Laura Lott (AAM President and CEO) and John Dichtl (AASLH President and CEO) and tell them how you feel about salary transparency in job announcements.
Then tell us what you think.
Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt, I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.
Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.
A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.
“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea. Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad. Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.
Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”
We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week. Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”
She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.
We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?
Tell us what you think.
Recently the Metropolitan Museum announced a change in its leadership structure. You’ll recall that former tapestry curator Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director since January 2009, resigned under pressure in February. Since then, the art museum world has been awash in speculation about who might succeed Mr. Campbell. The answer (sort of) is Daniel Weiss who is currently the Met’s president and CEO. Weiss’s new title will be president and chief executive. Most importantly, the museum’s new director–a position that’s still open– will report to Weiss.
Not surprisingly, this change set museum tongues wagging. For some, making Weiss top dog means the Metropolitan’s board is putting business (and money) ahead of content and mission; however, both Weiss and the as yet unnamed director will serve on the museum board and collaborate on its priorities. For others, there’s also the implication that the Met’s problems are all of Tom Campbell’s making. While Campbell may not have been the most able leader, it seems too easy to blame everything on him. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to move from leading the tapestry department to leading the whole museum, and his choices regarding relationships with women on the Met’s staff seem unprofessional at best. But the idea that Tom Campbell alone led the museum into its financial morass seems too facile. Where was the Metropolitan’s board in all of this? Were they so bewitched they forgot their fiduciary responsibilities, allowing Campbell to spend willy nilly?
The Met is the size of many small towns. In that, it’s unlike the vast majority of American museums. At least one museum blogger suggested that the Met’s new division of leadership runs counter to the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) guidelines which state, “The board should appoint the director—to whom it delegates responsibility for day-to-day operations—to be the chief executive officer of the museum.” AAMD’s guidelines may be the right path for most art museums. But the lesson here is that while guidelines are important, leadership for individuals and organizations is specific, and in many ways, personal. Museum boards need to choose the best possible leadership path for their organizations, and who’s to say that in this new, lightning-fast world, where ambiguity and change wait at every corner, that bigger museums wouldn’t benefit from a made-to-order leadership plan? The Met’s bi-partisan model is found more often in academia than museums, yet it makes its own kind of sense. The beauty of the Met’s solution is that in Daniel Weiss it found a person with a PhD in art history and an MBA from Yale, someone who has reportedly earned the trust of the Met’s chief curators, and someone who walks the walk.
How do leadership decisions like this flourish? They happen where boards aren’t wedded to old hierarchical models, where boards are interested in the challenge of change and cooperation. They happen when boards are willing to try and understand organizational culture. And, last but not least, leadership changes when boards invest time in actually finding the best solutions for their organization, rather than hiring someone so they can revert to doing what they’ve always done.
At the director/CEO level, leaders who truly embrace change need to be collegial and collaborative; they need to be as interested in serving as leading. The Met’s solution may not be the model for your organization, but the point is that the lone director, reporting to a board of trustees, is not the only model.
The world has changed. It’s global. It’s fast. Museums need alert, responsive leadership. That happens when boards and museum leaders collaborate, creating leadership models tailored to their organizations. That takes courage.
- Know your organization. Really know it.
- Use that knowledge to create a leadership model that works for the organization, not one that makes life easy for the board.
- Be bold. As trustees you want to do more than hand over a mediocre museum to your successors. Your community, museum staff, donors, and volunteers deserve the best. Figure out what that is.
Few museums have enough money. Even big ones. Just look at this week’s headlines. The Metropolitan Tabled Its New Wing while it shaves $31 million from its deficit. Almost 400 miles to the south, the august Colonial Williamsburg laid off 40 more employees, bringing its total layoffs over 24 months to 100. These are two notable examples, but many museums and heritage organizations face similar scenarios. And even if they’re not downsizing dramatically, each hire is freighted with a sense of urgency. New staff need to be a good fit, and wherever they are in the organization they need to help move it forward, which brings us to the question of whether as a museum leader, when you hire, you replace a position or rethink it.
Let me interject here with a little story. I know someone who was hired two months ago to replace a long-time employee. As is the case with many individuals who’ve spent decades in an institution, what the outgoing employee did was a bit of a mystery. Myriad things had attached themselves to her job description like barnacles either because she was good at them or someone asked her to do them and she never stopped. Conversely, there were things she jettisoned because she didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. None of that web of “all other duties as required,” was included in the job description which was bland and boiler plate. The leadership agreed only that the position needed replacing without actually talking through what it wanted and what would be best for the organization. The new hire, whose resemblance to the outgoing employee is minimal at best, has found her acclamation hampered by the gap between what some of the leadership imagined for her position and what is actually written. And what is written is so useless that she is called to task for “not doing her job.” Yet who knows where the boundaries of her job really are? She consults with HR too often, and remains frustrated that what was offered is not reality. It’s not a good situation. And it’s definitely a waste of talent, time and money.
Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it comes from not pressing pause long enough to really talk about a new hire. These discussions shouldn’t be personal. It’s not about denigrating the outgoing employee; it’s about saying what does the museum need now? This should be the fun part. The in-a-perfect-world part I would hire a person who can do X,Y, Z. Once you identify what you need that’s new, you can go back and unpack the old job description to determine what the organization can’t live without. Some of those tasks may end up parceled out to other employees, while others will be included in the new hire’s job description. The point is only that even if you have buckets of money, it costs money to replace staff. Work slows while you cover for an empty position, and if your orientation program is poor, it may stay slow while the new hire tries to figure out her place.
As in so much of leadership, it’s better if you are intentional. Think a problem through. Talk to staff. Discuss what you need. Then act. Then don’t assume it’s all fixed. For goodness sake check in with your new employee. You may think you speak clearly, but that’s not always how people hear you. Make sure new staff are happy, challenged and understand their role.
Last, but not least, if you’re a wanna-be museum leader, a current leader, or a long time CEO, know that not all staff leave of their own volition. Firing is part of your job description. You may never have to act on it, but it’s a facet of the hiring process that everyone in leadership copes with. So, again, be intentional. Don’t hire a new employee simply because she’s 180 degrees different from the one you let go. Know your organizational needs, measure them against her strengths. Then decide. As a leader, your job is to drive your organization into the future with as much imagination and grit as you can muster. Make sure you have the staff you want on the journey.
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?
First, we would like to offer a huge thank you to everyone who viewed, read, tweeted, commented, signed up to follow or otherwise joined us in musing about museums and leadership as well as women and museums during 2015. And you should know you weren’t alone. We almost tripled our visitors with 14,852 in 2015 versus 4,4119 the year before. That amounted to 23,262 views, an average of 1.7 per reader, but who’s counting?
It is particularly gratifying that outside of the United States, home to the majority of our readers, we reached folks in 92 different countries and territories this year. Many of you are in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, but it is awesome to think that the problems and questions of museum leadership and of women in the museum world are common to directors, curators and museum educators whether you are in the Palestinian Territories, Botswana or Cyprus or 90 other places.
We recognize and value the naysayers among you who think our focus on women in the museum workplace is too narrow, too myopic or too simplistic. We continue to believe that inclusion at its most basic level is first and foremost about equality between the sexes. It does not exist in most American and global workplaces. But without it, diversity in every other sense of the definition is just so much window dressing.
Your favorite posts were: “Can Museum Women Have It All?” followed by “Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing?” and “Ambition in the Museum Workplace.” Together they netted a whopping 4, 651 readers. Not like the Kardashians we realize, but for us big numbers.
So with all of that in mind, here are some predictions, hopes and fears for the coming year:
For individuals: We hope individuals engage in active career planning that includes salary discussion and negotiation; We wonder if we will see more women tapped as CEOs of large museums (and we’ll see more women board chairs, too); And we hope that we hear museum staffers speak up when women and minorities are left out of the conversation or diminished intentionally or unintentionally. Remember what Gloria Steinem says: “If you’re called a bitch, smile sweetly and say thank you.”
For organizations: We wonder whether more museums will commit to gender equity in pay and promotions through transparent and accountable practices; We hope that leadership development of boards and staffs is an encouraged, supported, and ongoing practice; And we hope museums, historic houses and heritage organizations will make 2016 the year for personnel; that they will create a personnel policy if they do not have one and invest in their staff.
For the museum field: We see strong leadership for gender equity as an ethical imperative for our professional associations and leading museums; We hope that just as it’s taken on diversity, AAM will see gender as a topic that matters to our industry and that ongoing gender issues also relate to the overarching topic of inclusion; We hope to see more leadership development opportunities at conferences and in the programming of our professional associations. Last, we hope to see the field identify and model successful, sustainable ways to achieve greater diversity of staff, boards and audiences in all types of museums.
When you work in a highly competitive high school like I do, you have to think about perfectionism because daily you deal with students who truly can’t stop. They get too little sleep, and work compulsively. Even their concept of recreation is sometimes a resume builder clad in another costume. And it’s peculiar how this culture of “never enough” seeps into the lives of adults in the community as well. As usual, that made me think about a) museums and b) the perfect being the enemy of the good.
In the for-profit world there are about a million books for people struggling with needing to be too perfect at work. But what about the museum world? Do we have issues with perfectionism? I suspect so. Does the fact that so many museums are under-resourced leave staff and leadership reaching for perfection in attempt to save money? Is that because in a world where money is tight, there’s no room for the less than perfect? As a leader, have you figured out how to differentiate between mediocre big-concept ideas delivered in a tightly controlled way and looser more creative concepts that prompt more audience response?
To begin, let’s acknowledge that, irony of ironies, perfection is unattainable, and then remind ourselves that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And yet some days we don’t want it any less. How many of you grapple with experimenting versus completion? Do you put the brakes on new ideas because somehow it seems more important just to get the exhibit/program/event/fund raiser (you pick one) finished rather than try something new? Does that stifle staff creativity? If you said yes, know that you’re not alone. It’s hard to be flexible enough for idea-making and yet driven enough to complete the punch list.
One of the problems some perfectionist people and cultures experience is that they or the organization becomes overwhelmed by details. The weeds are never too high to keep them from wandering in and thrashing about. In a perfectionist culture this means that in a heart beat meetings go off track as staff try to solve problems that aren’t the main point. It’s like cooking a four-course meal before going to the grocery store, and as leaders, we have to be aware of what’s happening and gently steer the ship back on course. In addition, in a perfectionist culture it is difficult to prioritize. When everything has to be done perfectly, it’s hard to put a value on one task versus another.
Perfectionists also have problems delegating. They place the bar so high, that it’s unlikely anyone can fulfill even the most menial of tasks. Sometimes this leads to a “gotcha” backlash where in the spirit of no-amount-of-effort-is-enough, staff pick apart each other’s work, another moment where the watchful leader will gently counsel respect and understanding.
New research also shows that it is possible to be a perfectionist and not be neurotic, nor drive your colleagues crazy. According to this article from New York Magazine, healthy perfectionists are the folks who are likely to be happy with the results of their hard work versus their neurotic workmates who are never satisfied. If you’re interested in plotting your own levels of perfectionism, you can take this quiz included with the article.
There are many moments where we as leaders need to counterbalance perfectionism with the idea that it’s okay to let go and experiment. Success–even small victories–from experimentation rather than rigid adherence to rules breeds confidence and confidence breeds more success. To read more about this try Nina Simon’s blog, particularly this post. Or Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale.
And as always, share your stories of success (and failure–that’s a different blog post!) with us here.
And the answer is…yes, of course! All leaders need to be visionaries, whether they are soft ball team captains, PTO presidents or fortune 500 CEOs. Are today’s museum leaders visionaries? If the results from our interviews for Leadership Matters hold true for a larger cohort, yes, although there are few among us for whom being visionary is a predominant quality.
That said, it’s almost impossible to be a leader without some sense of what an organization can be and what impact it might have. Organizational vision is about possibilities; it’s not about maintaining the status quo. Who gets up in the morning and says, “I hope I’m mediocre today” ? We hope that’s not you, but if your idea of leadership is maintenance, doing it as you’ve always done, then the world of visionary leadership probably isn’t for you.
One quality visionaries leaders possess is they create pictures that capture the future. It is those pictures that help a staff or a board see why a project matters, and it’s a critical step in advancing vision. We might add that if you as a leader can’t paint that picture, you probably have no business asking your colleagues to jump on the bus with you. And you can’t blame them, they want to know where they’re going. But be careful. There is a major difference between being a visionary and being a dreamer. Dreamers talk. They may paint great pictures, but there is no follow through, just more dreams. It’s hard to respect a leader who can’t articulate her vision or explain the steps it might take to get there. Again, if the leader hasn’t thought the process through, she has no business asking her staff to join her.
True visionaries are often path breakers and founders. They set an organization in motion with their imagination and energy and make it sustainable through careful planning. Visionaries are also change agents. They are the leaders boards hire when institutions need an about face, a shaking up, a new look. They understand change can be hard, but they see it as an opportunity. They are also experimenters, entrepreneurs and innovators. They think across the disciplines and weave strands from one idea with another to create new ways of approaching problems.
Few of us will be asked to be a change agent and fewer still will have the opportunity to start a museum, but here’s our advice for all of you: Use your creativity. You are not just a manager making sure the folks in the cubicles are slogging through their to-do lists. You work in a museum. Every day you ask the public to look, to see, to make the leap from artifact or painting to idea. Use that. Remember your audience. Throw off the hidebound constraints of museum authority. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes or, better yet, ask them what they think. If it’s been years since you interacted with visitors, change that. In fact, it’s change that keeps us from stagnating, so embrace it. And for goodness sakes, aim for something beyond mediocrity. You, your organization and the field will be well served.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson