Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
This post is a two-parter. First, it’s about saying what you mean. This is a big deal for museum leaders who often think they communicate clearly, only to find, when things go wrong, how lame their skills are. But whether you occupy the fancy office and go to lunch with trustees or not, you still need good communication skills. Here are five things you need:
- Be a good listener: Say you’re a curator. A colleague asks why boxes in your storage area are stacked close to the heating pipes. There are 1,000 ways to answer the question from “All our storage is inadequate and this is the best of many bad choices,” to “This is temporary while we empty another area,” to “Gosh, I was so anxious about the mold I found last week, closer to the ceiling seemed like a good thing.” But what if you don’t hear the question? What if what you hear is an attack on your skills as curator and your personal worth? The answer you give in that situation is likely to be different, less helpful, and since you feel personally attacked, may escalate a fairly innocuous situation.
- Don’t withhold information: Sometimes we don’t say what we mean because we’re locked in a silent power struggle with a colleague. That person may be struggling too in which case only a minimum of information gets through. Remember, work is work. You all serve the museum, heritage or arts organization. Focus on what the other person needs, provide the best answer you can, and surprise, surprise, your next interaction may be different, but in a good way.
- Do not babble: Do not go down conversational rat holes. Channel your inner Hemingway. Be simple, concise, and specific.
- Try to check your ego at the door: Great communicators make everyone else feel like they’re the only people in the room. Why? Because they communicate with authenticity and care. Try pausing for a moment or two before answering a question. Reflect on whether the question is about you and your skill level or whether it’s about the collection items next to the ceiling.
- When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong: If you snapped at the curator about the boxes, we hope you’re self aware enough to figure out what happened and apologize. Conversely, if you’re the curator, who responded as if you’d been slapped rather than as if a concerned colleague also cared about the collection, apologize. Don’t wait. Don’t write absurd narratives in your head about why this isn’t the right time to talk. Just do it. A real apology offered human-to-human builds trust. There’s no better ingredient for workplace communication.
And now to getting better at what you do: There’s likely a book waiting to be written on the perfectionism found in museums. It casts a pall over everything, putting dampers on experimentation and innovation because staff feels there is no room for risk. The results of too much perfectionism are often spectacularly mediocre.
We here at Leadership Matters constantly harp on reading widely so here are two very different articles. The first is from Outside Magazine on Getting Better. Yes, it’s about exercise, but it’s also full of stuff that applies to life without spandex and a water bottle. Learning to manage challenges, to break work into manageable chunks, to put the cell phone aside–those are skills that apply in the museum workplace just as much as the gym. And for a completely different voice, here is writer Jamaica Kincaid with advice on how to live and how to write. She too advocates less cell phone time and more focus. She’s also about learning how not to write crap, and she advocates not taking yourself too seriously. She is a writer after all. She lives on her imagination.
You are museum, humanities, and culture folk. You spend time trying to make art, living things, and objects speak. You need your imagination too.
Here in America’s Northeast we’re at the peak of the long days. That’s more time to pause, think about more skillful communication, and get better at what you do. Use it. Get better.
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.
- Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
- Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
- Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
- If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
- Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
- Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
- Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
- Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.
If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.
Joan H. Baldwin
Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?
SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.
What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.
If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”
Perhaps because I work at a school, September always marks the start of the year. And as this summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a new leader, not only because we have an interim head of school, but we are in a search for a new long-term leader.
Our interim head is an experienced person who, if he were a different sort, would be taking long walks on the beach and thinking deep thoughts, his working life over. But he’s made a life not only of leadership, but of being an interim. And we’ve all pinned a lot on him. Will he be change agent or maintainer?
Thinking about the months to come, made me wonder how many of you are starting new jobs, either as directors or department heads, and as you step into your office for the first time, whether you ponder what your staff think about you. Because I can assure you, they are all expecting something different. There are the naysayers, who are certain you and any other new leader will fail. In their minds, the job is too complicated and you can’t possibly understand what’s happened. They see the institutional history as a lengthy mistake-ridden narrative iced with gossip. You, poor benighted soul, cannot lead in a way that’s meaningful because you simply can’t cope with such a complex plot line.
Then there are the completely disengaged, those who tell you it really doesn’t matter who’s in your office, it won’t affect them. Or there are the folks who are convinced you’re the second coming. They have an almost Messianic zeal for your institution and they are waiting for you to right every wrong and also take care of the leaks in the west wing, and raise enough money so the museum won’t have to do that Holiday fundraiser, which they loathe. What’s interesting about these people is they have a very specific agenda and assume it must be yours as well. They also assume that their needs are everyone else’s. They will become naysayers when you don’t seem to be following through on their list.
There are also genuinely happy folks, busily engaged in work. Their needs may be more personal. They may hope you will challenge them, push them toward goals they haven’t yet thought of. Last, there may be some new staff, just like you. They are the ones who look like deer in the headlights. Not only do they not have a clue about what’s going on, they’re also terrified that what little they do know will change when you start talking.
So who will you be? And how will you adapt to the myriad expectations of your staff? Wait for it….yes, I’m going to say it…be yourself. It’s an old saw, but I assume, as you should, that whoever hired or promoted you, did so because they liked you. They intuited the youness of you and that’s what made them select you out of the thousands of eager souls with newly tweaked LinkIn pages.
And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know when we say be yourself, we mean the same authentic self you leave home with in the morning and bring to the workplace. That self knows where true north is, but doesn’t let its hair down and over share.
Clearly if you’ve met any of the folks in the list above, you know that pleasing all of them is about as likely as emptying a pond with a sieve. You can’t do it and you will make yourself and everyone else crazy if you try. In fact, I would argue that you’re not there to wave your wand and grant the staff’s wishes. You’re there to speak for the institution, which holds the public trust, and can’t speak for itself. You’re there to chart its course, in concert with your community, your board, AND your staff. So be your one true self. Bring your institutional vision to meetings, but be willing to wait. Hear all those folks with their different needs and agendas out. Lead, don’t manage. Listen, don’t dictate. And, above all, enjoy the adventure of charting a new course.
If you ARE new to your organization or your position, let us know about your experience.
Happy last weeks of summer,
Our research for Leadership Matters tells us that a huge percentage of today’s museum leaders, at least in the United States, work in small organizations, often small history museums. Small museums–and by that we mean organizations with fewer than 10 staff–have their own leadership issues. One is certainly the line between friendship and work, and for the director, that may be the difference between authenticity and too much information or it may be the difference between being friendly and being friends. Because sadly, if you’re a director, your friends, your drinking buddies, the folks you let your hair down with, shouldn’t be your colleagues.
Why? Well, think about it from your staff’s point of view. Suppose you’re best friends with your curatorial assistant. Your children attend the same school. You see each other at soccer games. Your partners enjoy each other’s company. What’s not to like? Well nothing except for the moment when the board tells you that you need to make staff cuts. The obvious position to lose is the curatorial assistant, but, oh, wait, she’s not just the curatorial assistant. She’s your fellow soccer parent, sharer of red wine, and lover of Orange is the New Black. You’re smart. You see this isn’t going to work. And you see why. And yet, shouldn’t you be able to be friends with whomever you like? Yes, but not in this instance. In accepting a leadership position, you put the organization first, which may mean that friendships take a back seat to workplace harmony.
And what about the difference between friendly and friends or authenticity and TMI? As a leader you need to be your one, true self. You need to be that person for you AND for your staff, but there is a difference between your true self and your self on the Dr. Phil show. Understand the boundaries. Use your life as a metaphor sparingly. There is plenty your staff doesn’t want to know and could, in fact, be distressed by knowing. Instead, be true about your feelings rather than your biography. Model humility. Model the genuine good morning instead of abusing a social convention as you grab coffee and head to your desk. While real friendships can cause workplace boundary issues, inauthentic friendliness sets off warning bells.
Does this make you the lonely leader? Not exactly. But rather than making friends within your organization, assemble a group of peers from your region. My co-author, Anne Ackerson, refers to these folks as her posse. More honest than your parents, more understanding of your leadership role than your average acquaintance, these are the folks who know you and what you do. They are available when you’ve had one of those days or weeks. They show up with wine and food, but they’re not afraid to tell you that you’ve been a jerk.
So if you haven’t got a posse or you’ve never thought of your colleagues, friends and mentors like that, think about it. If you’re a leader–whether it’s an entire museum or a department–learn to be friendly, but don’t look for work to replace family and friends. And as always, let us know how you manage this boundary.