Leadership and the Game of Checkers

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Before we begin, I’m old enough to remember when having a great designer–and that meant print–and a wonderful, smart, people-loving group of museum guides meant your organizational persona was in good hands. Not true today, which is why when the inimitable Mar Dixon sends this blog post, I read it. If your organization is big enough to have its own communication department filled with creative souls who make magic with memes, gifs, Instagram, and other metaphorical moments, you should read it too. Right now.

Since I often write about workplace issues in MuseumLand, it was arresting that the first explanation blogger Lori Byrd-McDevitt mentions for the exodus of social media folk from our world is “Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed,” and the second is “It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.” This is a wake-up call folks. It’s not like these symptoms aren’t happening elsewhere in the field. The difference here is that, as far as I’m aware, education curators, directors and collections managers aren’t able to leverage their talents to the likes of Elon Musk or Khorus. Share this with your board.

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When I was a child I spent summers with my grandparents. When twilight came, and the dishes were done, I played checkers with my grandfather. He was not a new-age granddad who believed in letting his grandchildren win. I lost with startling regularity. After a double or triple jump I glowed only to be whipped back to reality as my checkers disappeared from the board. It took multiple summers before I realized that what was important wasn’t necessarily what happened in the moment, and that sometimes sacrificing a piece provided an advantage.

Why the checker story? Because leaders not only need their own ideas about what a museum or heritage organization can be and where it might go, they need to predict the future. This is where the checkers metaphor comes in. Good leaders look across the board, not just at the move in front of them. They do scenario planning — daily, weekly, monthly, annually. They don’t assume if visitation is up that it will continue to climb. They watch for the next new thing, making sure it’s not just a shiny object. They try to understand which community alliance will grow and which will not, and to decide which underwriting will support their museum’s goals and which will end up kidnapping them.

And who is successful examining the future and why? Certainly not everyone. Some leaders are fearful, holding a rigid middle-of-the-road course that drowns their museum in mediocrity. Some are simply blind, running into one obstacle after another. Others get tripped up by detail, and fail to look at the big picture. And some don’t consider more than their own point of view or at least their point of view as echoed by a like-minded staff or board.

Understanding what’s coming means listening to a variety of voices. Voices that challenge, authentic voices, courageous ones. Whether you’re a board member, director or program leader, don’t be seduced into believing that because something is currently moving one direction it will continue to do so. That kind of thinking will lock you in. Bad trends prevent you from experimenting, and if things go well, you won’t try anything new because you don’t want to rock the boat.

To truly be attuned to the future, you need to watch, listen, and understand the people who make up your community–your museum workplace, your volunteers and members, and your wider community. Listen for more than a sound-bite. Be deeply engaged for more than a moment at a time. Empathize, empathize, empathize. The future will still come at you fast, but you’ll be better prepared.

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Last, an invitation: The new edition of Leadership Matters is out.  If you are coming to the American Association for State & Local History’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia August 27-31, please join us for a book signing August 29 between 3-4 pm. We’d love to see you, and maybe sign a book for you.

And if you see any of the book’s newest interviewees, congratulate them! They are: LaTanya Autry (Newark, DE), Cheryl Blackman (Toronto, CA), Karen Carter (Toronto, CA), Sean Kelly (Philadelphia), Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL), Azuka MuMin (Columbus, OH), Frank Vagnone (Winston Salem, NC), Hallie Winter (Oklahoma City, OK), and Jorge Zamanillo (Miami, FL). They join the 27 Leadership Matters museum and heritage organization alumni in the NEW edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord.

Joan Baldwin

Image: From “How Checkers Was Solved,” The Atlantic

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How Do You Track Accomplishments and Make Meaning from Them?

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When someone asks what you do, what do you say? If you’re a curator, an education curator, a digital curator or museum director how do you explain your job to your great aunt or that family friend whose children are surgeons and investment bankers? And having explained your work life in two sentences and gotten a look of pure puzzlement, do you know what you actually do? By that I mean, do you have any sense of what you accomplish in a given day, week or month?

My colleague Anne Ackerson does. She has an accomplishment jar on her desk. Every time she completes a project or does something worthwhile, she drops a piece of paper in the jar with a note about the accomplishment. On New Year’s day, she re-reads her year through the lens of jobs well done. I am not so organized, but I work for a large organization that requires weekly reports, bi-annual check-ins, and annual performance reviews. But even with all that reporting take it from me: It’s possible to think about your job only in generalities or worse–and this is very, very gendered–to see it only in terms of what you haven’t accomplished. The result? It’s easy to lose sight of what you’ve achieved.

Why is this important? First, seeing progress is a morale boost. At the end of a bad week, it can seem as though the needle never moved, and you accomplished nothing. And that same week can feel so long that activities completed Monday may have disappeared in a fog of what went wrong by Friday. Plus, how often have we talked about leadership and self-awareness in these posts? A lot. And what is an accomplishment review except an acknowledgement of your strengths?

In 2011 two Harvard Business Review researchers, Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer,  looked at how the for-profit world drives innovation. Focused on individuals on the creative side of things, they asked 238 individuals at 26 different companies to answer a daily email about their workday ups and downs. Data from 12,000 emails yielded some important conclusions. First, workers are more creative when they’re happy, and that happiness spills over to colleagues and to the organization itself. Second, they discovered that many of their subjects’ “best days” directly correlated with days when there was perceptible progress on a given project by them or their team.

It’s tempting to conclude that happiness comes with the conclusion of a project–the moment when Anne drops the paper in her Accomplishment Jar–but that’s not what Amabile and Kramer’s work showed. In their study, it was the small wins, the daily movement of the needle that brought happiness. Understanding and charting those small wins over time is important in understanding our own sense of accomplishment.

What can you as an individual do?

  • Make a chart: Divide your work life into its major headings–collections care, team management, professional development, and list the things you’ve done each week, month or year. Or just use a jar. But be sure to remember to empty it and read the contents.
  • Progress and a sense of accomplishment are intimately linked to creativity. Do you have a job where you check your brain at the door? Then look for ways to raise the creativity quotient. Chart your accomplishments in your off hours–miles run, words written, volunteer hours logged.

And if you’re a leader?

  • Check-in on your employees, don’t check-up. Look for what’s holding them back, and see how you can help. Remember that leaders remove barriers. Be a resource not a sheriff.
  • See work as iterative. We learn, we accomplish, we get better at what we do. Don’t make one-on-one meetings a laundry list of work yet to be done.
  • Use the  progress checklist from Amabile and Kramer @ HBR:

Remember this equation: meaningful work+clear and reasonable goals=workplace happiness=creativity= meaningful work.

Yours for accomplishment,

Joan Baldwin


Leadership and the Power of Things

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Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are  good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.

Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”

What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?

One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.

But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.

So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.

Joan H. Baldwin


Why Creativity AND Leadership Matter

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The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us. Over time, a community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs. Idea flow depends upon social learning, and indeed, this is the basis of social physics: Our behavior can be predicted from our exposure to the example behaviors of other people.

Alex Pentland writing in Wired, February 7, 2014

As Austin Kleon suggests in his wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist, you’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. He goes on to remind you that means not just in real life, but in your digital life too, suggesting that following the smartest bloggers and writers on the Internet will make you smarter. And it will. A little like when your parents said that reading cheesy magazines would rot your brain. He closes by suggesting that “If you ever find you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” The point of all this is that history organizations–whether the teeniest, tiniest local history organization or the biggest state historical society–need to surround themselves with smart, creative people. And they need to ramp up the idea flow that Wired‘s Alex Pentland mentions above in the opening quote. In our experience, too many leaders get mired in process and skip the idea flow.

While there are many creative leaders among the individuals we interviewed for Leadership Matters, there are a few we identified as “Visionary.” They are the type of leaders who not only see possibilities, but articulate them in such real and compelling terms–called “visual postcards” by the Heath brothers– that their followers see them too. In short, they are comfortable with idea flow. Pentland describes these leaders as explorers, people who search for what’s new rather than what’s best.

We begin Leadership Matters with 10 Simple Myths and end it with 10 Simple Truths. Two of the Truths are pertinent to this discussion. The first is “Get Integrated.” By that we meant integrating ideas, information and standards from diverse places to leap frog your museum forward.  We might add that while you’re leaping cross-culturally, you need to remember to pause long enough to let people–staff, trustees, volunteers–bounce ideas off one another. You can’t do that if you’re convinced a successful meeting is one where discussion is squashed in aid of moving the agenda forward. Focus discussion on a concept and idea and rescue it from minutiae.

The second simple truth is “Tap Your Entire Network,” meaning that leadership isn’t about the guy at the front of the room, but about everyone else, too. Good leadership demands collaboration, and that’s when invention and creativity happen or to quote Kleon again, “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.” Leaders who open themselves and their institutions  to new possibilities, discover what they have never seen before.

So going forward, how might 21st-century history museum and historic house museum leaders change? First, commit to leadership development, for everyone, from board members to shop manager to curators. Second, make space in meetings for ideas to grow. For ideas we recommend Creativity in Museum Practice’s: develop risk taking; build learning cohorts; encourage learning from failure; and last advocate for prototyping spaces. Remember, it isn’t about getting it perfect, it’s about getting it right.

How do you keep ideas moving?