Museum Leadership: The Why, Not the How

why how what

This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.

All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.

What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first?  Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for?  Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?

If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.

So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:

  • Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
  • If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
  • If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
  • Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
  • Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.

Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin


The Thin Ice in Your Museum Leadership

thin-ice

It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.

Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.

There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done.  How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.

Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.

  1. Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
  2. Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
  3. Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
  4. Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or  full staff?
  5. Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?

Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.

Joan Baldwin


Counterintuitive or Ways Museum Workers Can Resist Bias at Work

confirmation-bias

We haven’t written an equity piece in a while, and given that in a few weeks when the administration changes in Washington, D.C., gender equity may move from the back seat to the way, way back, we thought we’d take a final opportunity to remind readers that we all bring biases to the office. Even in museums where we are uber careful to engage and embrace our community at the front of the house, bias may be alive and well in the staff room. And if your hair is starting to smolder, bias isn’t a gender thing, meaning it’s not something men do to women. It’s something we all do, whether we mean to or not.

Think of bias as a lot of small suitcases that we carry around with us. As babies and toddlers, those bags are empty. Over time, experience, our parents, our extended family, our peer group fill those bags. Some are packed with deep-seated angry thoughts with no basis in fact, some with yearning for particular individuals who symbolize larger issues, some with our ability to deflect and hide from situations that upset us. Don’t believe me? Try serving on a jury. It’s an excellent place to see bias at work. Why do you think there are jury consultants? Because whether we admit it or not, we judge people and situations all the time.

But isn’t just going to work difficult enough some days? You betcha. We all wish we had privately endowed funds that would permit us to work or volunteer on our own schedule. And don’t museum workers have enough on their plates? There’s raising money, raising more money, strategic planning, board building, being there for community in contemporary and meaningful ways, connecting to community, being catalysts for imagination and inspiration. And behind the scenes, away from the public, there is strategic planning (again), working in teams, reaching across disciplines and departments, saying thank you, and being respectful of colleagues. And yet through it all those little bags of bias accompany us.

Are you aware that taller people make between 9-15 percent more than their shorter colleagues? That blond women make 7-percent more than their brunette or black-haired peers? That overweight employees make less than their slimmer co-workers? This is especially true for women where extra weight costs women workers between $9,000 and $19,000 annually. It’s doubtful anyone hiring for museum positions would admit to preferring tall blonds who could be extras in Viking movies, but that’s the thing about bias, it’s not necessarily something we control. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias.

As museum leaders, acknowledging workplace bias is the first step in making it less of a problem. So here’s a Leadership Matters to-do list to send bias packing in 2017:

  1. Know yourself. Do you prefer one employee over another? Instead, spend time with the person you prefer less. Make an effort to understand them and their point of view. Identify your own bias so you can keep things equitable.
  2. Remember that as a leader you model behavior for your staff, team, department. Bias toward an employee may lead to the entire group isolating that person.
  3. Research shows that white Americans associate positivity with white folks and negativity with black folks. That may not be what people say they believe, but it is the result when psychologists test for implicit bias. If you’re a white American, unpack those bags before you interview, hire, or do an annual performance review.
  4. A lot of people are biased against women in leadership positions. That is not code for men don’t like women leaders, that’s a sentence that means a lot of men and women are unconsciously more comfortable with a male leader. You may want to take AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to help you sort out your own feelings.
  5. Know that having a diverse team or staff doesn’t eliminate bias. That’s how your staff looks. How they behave is something else. Self-awareness, empathy and understanding are all necessary weapons against bias. Work at developing them.
  6. You may think you’re a great communicator, but find out if that’s true. Provide feedback so you know whether your staff, team, department has the safety and sense of belonging it needs.

Leadership Matters will be back next week with a Holiday Reading List to tide you over until 2017. In the meantime, be well, and tell us how you eliminate bias in your museum workplace.

Joan Baldwin


Embracing social media literacy: Integrate it meaningfully with your museum’s work, content and interpretation goals

moma-tweetGuest Post by Jennifer Riddell

Jennifer works in museum interpretation and is communications co-chair for the Washington, DC chapter of ArtTable.  You can reach her on Twitter at @jenlriddell.

The digital, networked museum has been slow to evolve and adoption of interactivity, open-source content and social media has been reluctant. In the early days (that is, within the last decade) a museum’s social media function was usually handled by web staff who established institutional accounts, sometimes with fuzzy support and direction from executive leadership. Under the “create once, publish everywhere” mantra, social media content was drawn from pre-approved marketing/communications material and the organizational website and redirected through social media platforms. The publicity value, as well as means of connecting with newer generations of museum-goers and supporters, solidified the business rationale for the function and for dedicated social media staff.

In 2017, we will arrive at the 10th anniversary of the debut of the iPhone and the transformation of our mobile phones into networked visual communication devices. Iphones and their progeny supercharged the development and uptake of social media, enabling people and organizations to establish an ongoing online presence.(1) Today, 79% of internet-using U.S. adults are on Facebook, which has seen increased growth in recent years, while the next most popular platforms, Instagram (32% of adults online) and Twitter (24%) hold steady.(2) Further, many people use their phones as a primary means of accessing the Internet. Analytics reveal more visits to some museum websites via phone or tablets than computers.

As the social media landscape grew, and with the rise of analytics and evaluation, proactively planned social media calendars and platform complementarity became necessary to managing the output, which would hopefully drive engagements and broader dissemination of the content. A performance announcement can go out on Twitter, alongside a calendar post and invitations on Facebook, where an attendee streams it live, all of which may followed by Instagram posts and Flickr uploads.

But how and why does social media matter to those of us who are not museum social media managers, web designers, or tech/backend experts? How does it relate to those museum professionals whose work revolves around engaging visitors with collections and exhibitions through interpretation, educational programming, visitor service and the like? Thinking about social media as another channel for engagement—with the same compelling narratives, quality of content, and relevant messaging that you develop and plan to support your interpretive and core values—can help frame a better understanding of it. Often museum professionals have little interaction with institutional social media if it is not a formal element of their work (although they may be personal users). I think it is increasingly important to get a handle (pun intended) on social media from whatever rung in your organization that you occupy — senior level on down—as it develops and evolves into an indivisible component of visitor engagement and a means of knowing more about your community.

“Now that we have visitors on board, where do we want to take them?”(3)
Social media amplifies the reach of exhibitions and programs, and provides opportunities for patrons to respond, which, in turn, increases engagement. Social media also offers significant opportunities for creativity and innovation in collection and exhibition interpretation, exploring ideas about what museums are for, and how visitors connect and form their own communities around and with them.

In the last decades, museums centralized visitor experience, alongside the traditional functions of collections stewardship and scholarship. Interpretive practices increasingly utilize storytelling, creative and relevant engagement, visitor participation, and multiple visitors’ voices. Successful and authentic social media practice embodies these qualities as well. In other words, it is part of the work you are already doing in your museum. Technology or your belief that you have no idea how Twitter or Instagram works shouldn’t inhibit you from using social media into interpretive messages or programs. Your focus is still content.

Gaining social media literacy helps you to see opportunities for its use. All staff should be empowered and encouraged to be a part of the social media wave since inclusivity (see Tate’s “digital as a dimension of everything” strategic plan(4)) ultimately yields richer and more diverse content. Don’t forget that a museum’s staff is also part of its community, and their connections and interests alone magnify the presence of the museum many times over.

“Brand ambassadors, content managers, evangelists”
Many descriptions of social media describe an organization’s social media manager as its brand ambassador. This is an important role that should be informed by and serve as a hub for professional networks across your museum and beyond. For example, inside the museum (virtually or physically) visitors’ interests are no longer confined to exhibition spaces; they are curious about the life of the museum behind the scenes. Social media allows you to show visitors what the work of the museum is about, and authorize staff to speak and respond in their own voices about what they do. Not many people outside museums know what a curator does. For that matter they don’t know about the roles of conservators or frame-makers either. It is also key to be alert to the possibilities presented by exhibitions and programs. In one museum, curators of a photography exhibition wished to connect with people who might have archival family photos of a similar theme. This type of project is a natural fit for social media outreach and fosters real participation and exchange. In these examples, it is not necessary to even know how to tweet, but just to recognize that an opportunity for engagement—and suitable platform—exists.

Externally, social media connects museums in real time with their communities. Examples could include local artists, other arts organizations, schools, non-art organizations, and enthusiastic local repeat visitors and supporters. They welcome avenues for a more vital and personal connection with your institution. If you stage a performance or sponsor an artist lecture, how might social media be used to offer a closer look at the performer’s life, process, ideas, etc.? Context can inflect and enrich your programming and demystify artistic practice. Crowd-sourcing questions, a community art project, or challenging your social media followers to see your collections in a new way encourages people to voice their own interpretations and understandings. No one has a lock on interpretation and visitors are goldmines of stories and experiences that, in turn, serve to validate others’.

Getting your social media literacy off the ground
1. Develop clear social media usage policies and guidelines
Social media policy and guidelines should be integrated into the organization’s Internet usage policy. The social media component should cover the mechanics of who establishes, maintains, and accesses what accounts, how content will push or pull from other sources, staff professional and personal interaction with museum social media, and legal and ethical considerations. Consider how social media policy and guidelines reflect the larger mission of your organization and the established policies around communications and conduct.

2. Get the basics from social media staff
Partner with your organization’s social media staff to understand the mechanics of posting (scheduling, pushing from one platform to another, live tweeting, analytics, content parameters, etc.). Ask them to explain in their own words the uses, audiences, pros and cons of different platforms from their perspective. There is no secret sauce. An understanding of basic principles will encourage museum staff to utilize their social media of choice to shape, collaborate and support the organization’s larger interpretive goals.

● Don’t feed content through social media platforms like so much wood through a wood chipper. Adapt it to meet user’s needs and expectations in each platform.

● Help empower internal networks so that when timely and interesting stories arise social media channels news from different parts of the museum.

3. Sign up.
You may have a Facebook and a LinkedIn account, but try Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Pinterest. Start following some individuals and organizations that you like. Make a few posts. The goal is not specific skill development per se, or to become a social media star, but to just understand the basic functions. Participate in a twitter chat. Follow live tweeting of an event. Create an Instagram story. There is a degree of crossover between the personal and professional that is generally a part of using social media, so delineate your participation accordingly. Begin to observe the voice and functionality of different streams of social media information.

4. Unpack the rationales and mission-based reasons for the use of social media in your organization.
Beyond an imperative to simply have a social media presence, what can it accomplish, and what are the priorities? Does your social media presence align with what you’re doing elsewhere in the museum? Goals such as extending collection interpretation, reaching new audiences, redefining organizational identity, or promoting greater accessibility should be defined and broken down into actionable measures. Think about how social media allows you to engage in conversations locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. Not everything about social media is virtual, and successful social media campaigns/memes, and hashtags elicit action and awareness around an issue or topic.

5. Social is non-hierarchical.
Acquaint yourself with social media influencers in your community interested in your museum or related subject matter. They can be your advocates whose authentic voices and imprimatur lend a different kind of credibility to the authority a museum already possesses. Some influencers are already part of your organization, with active profiles in or outside the museum sphere. Being open to what social media may set in motion or introduce can be embraced as part of the learning, enjoyment, and connection that the museum experience can engender.

1 Facebook, established 2004, YouTube, 2005, Twitter, 2006, Instagram, 2010, Snapchat, 2011, to mention platforms with the largest user bases.
2 http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/ accessed 12/7/16
3 Nancy Proctor, “From Headphones to Microphones: Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” Creativity and Technology: Social Media, Mobiles and Museums eds. James E Katz, Wayne LaBar, and Ellen Lynch, p. 30.
4 http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/tate-digital-strategy-2013-15-digital-as-a-dimension-of-everything accessed 12/7/16