Uncertainty is a leadership hallmark. Museum leaders need to expect it, confront it, and cope with it. Control is almost impossible, especially when it comes to people, who are unpredictable at best. And who does a leader interact with most? That would be your staff.
Sometimes a leader tries to limit unpredictability with command and control. The result is a staff who rarely talks about anything, and if they do, they report and confirm, as opposed to think, wonder, or discuss. By endorsing what the leader says, they agree in public while dissenting in private, a dangerous combination. Thankfully, autocrats like that are increasingly rare. What’s more common is a leader who flees from dissension of any kind. But in today’s fractured world, conflict avoidance can leave a leader in a swamp of unresolved feelings, making change difficult if not impossible.
Conflict is uncomfortable. How many of you have experienced two staff members arguing? It feels both unpredictable and intimate, as if someone were under attack. And if you’re the leader, it may feel as though everyone else in the room wants you to step in and steer the team back to calmer waters. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they may never have participated in appropriate work conflict and they’re fearful that in the end it won’t be about the work, it’ll be about the individuals involved. And it might.
Learning to argue constructively takes time, so if you’re hopeful that a box of expensive Belgian chocolates will turn a disparate group, ages 24 to 75, into a cohesive team, think again. Healthy conflict begins with trust. Trust grows over time. As a leader you need to:
- Be open, honest, and transparent.
- Apologize when things go wrong and show some humility.
- When things go well, show some gratitude.
- Be consistent and equitable; don’t treat some staff as confidants while leaving others in the cold.
- Share information.
- Listen, don’t judge.
Allow your team to get to know one another. Again, trust in a group builds over time. It’s rarely accomplished by an afternoon hike or a potluck supper. There is a reason outdoor leadership programs frequently incorporate “highs and lows” into team building. By sharing a weekly low and a high, team members get to know one another and quietly build empathy and trust.
And just a reminder here, the bottom line is a better product. When team members are silenced, ideas are sidelined, and what comes to the table is underdeveloped, poorly thought out, and doesn’t include everyone’s thoughts. A team that can really talk about what matters at your museum builds a better museum. So begin by agreeing on communication rules:
- to speak respectfully to one another.
- to attend meetings, be on time, listen fully, and not interrupt.
- to agree on a method for conflict complaints and how they should be handled.
- to agree how decisions will be reached.
Then, grapple with the twin ideas that conflict is healthy, and that you don’t always need agreement. You need compromise, but believing and implicitly asking everyone to agree is a different scenario. Make sure your museum or heritage organization creates a culture of discussions. Ask (you can model this too) staff to back up statements with data and facts so change happens through what you know, not random anecdote or wishful thinking. And last, discussion is iterative. If you reach compromise on a program, exhibit or fund raiser, return to the compromise afterwards. Talk. Decide with hindsight what worked and what didn’t. Move forward.
Bottom line? Assume you hired the good guys. Assume they all want the best for your team, department or museum. Treat them and their ideas as if they matter. They do. Your reward will be a flowering of imagination and creativity. Run with that.
Everybody knows leaders need vision. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of working for someone with vision. If you have, treasure it because to understand what vision means, you have to experience not having it. You might not even realize its absence at first. After all, you’re caught up in your job–you’re designing, you’re putting clever images on Instagram, you’re unearthing things in the collection that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and getting them to talk to one another. And then suddenly you run into a wall. It could be your board, who gives you the old we-really-don’t-do-things-that-way run around. Or it could be your executive director, who looks at you like she has no earthly idea what you’re talking about, when she asks how science, work by an artist of color and rare books will mesh in the gallery. To paraphrase a line from Cool Hand Luke, a lack of vision is a failure to communicate.
Last fall while teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program, Anne Ackerson and I received comments from some of our students who felt we were too picky when it comes to the written word. Our response? You’re going into the museum field! So much will depend on how you communicate. If your institutional vision exists only in your head and only when you’re alone, that bodes trouble. Vision can’t be like singing in the shower. It’s got to be shared.
As a leader, you are the listener, the synthesizer. You’re the one who’s out in the community, taking a current need and linking it to your organizational narrative, to artistic process, to your mission. You’re the one making connections. But once you’ve done that, it’s your job to make folks understand where your brain went, why it matters, and how following that path might engage your community. Clearly. And concisely. Persuading people–whether trustees, staff, or volunteers–to understand the Venn diagram that’s in your head and why it matters is a key ingredient of leadership.
This week I was reminded how important vision is when I was asked for funding priorities for a potential donor. It’s always nice to think someone might give you money, but making sure your thoughts don’t sound like a scrambled word cloud is important. Here’s where the Venn diagram has to translate to someone outside your bubble. Does your shopping list of wants link to the larger organizational mission? If not, why not? Is that mission clear, concise and beautifully expressed? Would it make you intrigued even if you weren’t the executive director or a member of the leadership team? Or does saying it out loud make you weary because you know it’s going to involve explanations, counter explanations and side bars?
Vision doesn’t need a lot of flowery language. It needs clarity. Your listeners need to see what you’re saying. Then they’ll want to follow, participate, and give. And that’s the point isn’t it?
P.S. We rant on and on about how important it is for museum folk to read often and widely. Here are some things that floated across our screens this week:
- A Totally Inclusive Museum by Cecille Shellman
- The inimitable Colleen Dilenschneider on museums and trust
- A clear and well-thought out explanation of benevolent sexism from The Muse.
- For those of you who identify as female and are over 50 or who lead women over 50, and interesting discussion of invisibility vs. finding a new voice.
- Last and maybe most important especially for those who live in the northeast, a heat map of political prejudice by county.
Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
Here is a simple truth: If you are a museum leader, you can tell your staff they’re a team any day of the week, but unless you make it mean something, the word “team” is just a random noun.
We think of teams as good things. They seem democratic. They flatten hierarchies. They bring people together. And, depending on how your museum or heritage organization defines victory, they’re sometimes winners. But if you have even a passing acquaintance with sports, you know some teams always deliver, and some never do, so it’s not about the name.
Recently I witnessed an incident where a department leader brought his team–his word not mine–together to plan a meeting of peer leaders. Although staff felt there was too little time to deliver a cohesive program, the leader wanted to push ahead. In the end, the event took place, and the leader ignored his team’s input, forgot to introduce or mention members of his staff, consistently interrupted others in their presentations, and made many believe they’d wasted brain power in planning for the event. Lesson one: Teams aren’t for everyone. As with so much in leadership, know yourself first. If teams and team work drive you crazy, you can opt out. We’ve all experienced the moment where–pick one–a board member, staff member, or volunteer misses a meeting and the chemistry changes. Discussion moves along. Decisions are made. Boxes are checked. If teamwork isn’t for you, let your staff plan. Go over the results with your assistant directors, make any changes you feel are necessary, and watch as they deliver the goods. Lesson two: Good teamwork, especially from the leader’s point of view, requires trust. Every time you authorize staff to act on your behalf, you say “I believe in you.” Say it enough, and they start to trust you.
Lesson three: If you’re going to lead a team, know where it’s going. In the scenario Leadership Matters observed, there was little understanding about why this presentation mattered, and if it did, why the team leader waited ’til the last minute to plan. If an event or grant application matters, be clear about why. Tell your colleagues why an event demands all-hands-on-deck, not because they’re dense, but because they deserve to hear it from you.
Teamwork doesn’t guarantee Nirvana. Productive teams often argue. Lesson four: Be prepared for push-back. Value your staff. Being willing to argue about something doesn’t automatically indicate staff hate each other (or you) or enjoy being disruptive. Instead, it may indicate they care about the museum and its programs. And yes, every team needs the one member who’s going to say the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because it makes everyone look at the question, project or event with new eyes.
Teams are about group, not individual, behavior. That’s why a soccer team practices drill after drill. Their individual skills are in service–literally–to the goal. Lesson five: If you’re a team leader, you have a role in helping the group do its best. That means for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s not about you. Instead, your role is to manage the team: To be positive and encouraging; To pull it back on task; To ask if things are clear and make sense; To make sure everyone understands their tasks; To ask the group to reflect on what they’ve done before pushing on to the next goal. And perhaps, most importantly, to decide what tasks are best left to individuals rather than the group.
Do you work in a museum where staff are referred to as a team? Is that a good or bad thing?
Not long ago a reader commented that leadership isn’t everything, that there’s a value in being a good follower as well. That remark stuck with me. In the four years since we began this blog we’ve looked at leadership from all directions. We’ve written about being the Lone Ranger director, about leading from the middle, about decision making, and about leadership and self-awareness. But we’ve neglected what it means to be a foot soldier. So today we turn the spotlight on followership.
According to our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 353,000 museum and heritage organization employees. We have to assume that the vast majority do not occupy the corner office. They tend to have more responsibility than authority. They are assistant curators, fund raisers, educators, and volunteer coordinators. Some may go through an entire week and not see a member of their organizational leadership team, and yet all the planning, the vision, and the courage leaders incubate comes to life with the followers. They are the yin to the leadership yang.
Our reader was right: There is a stigma associated with followership. If your aspirations lean toward leadership, you don’t want to be tagged as the person who gets behind the concept, works well with others, and helps deliver a superior event, program or exhibit. Leadership in the United States is an individual thing, populated by creative outliers who sometimes believe they can do it on their own. Followership is a different sort of place.
Leaders sometimes have a reputation for arriving fully formed behind the big desk, but unless you’re an entrepreneur/visionary like Jeff Bezos your career trajectory usually begins as part of a team, a program, a department. There you learn to collaborate, to work with others. You support your leader’s decisions and share in the resulting successes. And, in a healthy museum or heritage organization, you feel comfortable challenging leadership, particularly in the face of something unethical. And even if you go on to become a leader, whether by accident or aspiration, without an understanding and an empathy for the qualities of followership, your leadership practice will suffer.
Of course there are also staff members who are undistinguished followers. They are the hermits–isolated individuals who’ve left before they leave. They are the unmotivated, kind of like an 8th grader who won’t participate in the team project except to tell everyone else what is wrong with it. And they are the trouble makers who participate through gossip, leaving discord in their wake.
For skilled followers–the ones coveted by all museums– work trumps individual differences–political, religious or lifestyle beliefs. For these folk, what’s important is what’s shared–delivering, for example, a brilliant historic site program blending geometry, history, and philosophy with grace and humor–not what you don’t. Every organization needs those folks. Accomplished followers are the people who bring good humor to collections storage when a pipe bursts and it’s all hands on deck. They are the folks who say thank you.
So, if you’re a leader, know your team. Even if your team is two volunteers and a part-time curator. Listen to them. Value them. Know what motivates them. Welcome the moments when they challenge ideas because it indicates they’re with you, and they want the best for the museum. Figure out ways to remove the barriers with which they may be struggling. Pay them what they’re worth. Thank them.