*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.
In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.
You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA? Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.
Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.
To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”
Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?
An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.
Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
- Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.
It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.
Here at Leadership Matters we believe in mentoring. It’s generous, it builds connections across the museum field, it makes us stronger. So, putting my money where my mouth is, I recently advised a young colleague to look for museum internships. And she found some. One is paid and required a formal application process, while several are unpaid. Some of the unpaid ones could be accessed through my connections and required an interview. A few weeks later, we spoke at NEMA (you can read about that here: Five Gender Myths and What Happened at NEMA) where more than a few attendees deplored the fact the museum field, while scratching its collective head about why the field isn’t more diverse, sets up a host of barriers to emerging professionals, not least of which is an expensive graduate degree followed by an internship(s) which is likely unpaid. Participants in our NEMA session suggested there should be a field-wide moratorium on unpaid internships. So what to do? Folks new to the field need experience. Internships seem like they answer that problem, but are they a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
In my case, my mentee isn’t committed to the museum field. She’s not even committed to graduate school. She’s a recent college graduate with a degree in art history. Museum and archives work have been her go-to job choice since middle school. But teaching also calls to her. While chatting with her I pointed out that a brief internship with a defined scope might help sort out what, if anything, about the museum world appeals to her. And if it does seem appealing, does it matter enough to check the big box of graduate degree? And yes, she would be the first to tell you she is lucky and privileged. She is able to live at home or with extended family and participate in the internships available to her.
So if or until the field grapples with this problem at some 30,000-foot level, what should graduate students or new museum professionals do? In no particular order, here are Leadership Matters’ ideas for individuals, organizations, and graduate programs.
- As with any job search, be strategic. Know what you want out of your experience. Random experience brought to you by an internship is not an answer. Strategize about what you need. What builds and connects with what’s already on your resume?
- If you’re looking at something unpaid, make sure the organization defines your role. What will you do and for whom? What are your takeaways? Is there academic credit? Does that matter to you if your degree requirements are complete?
- And even if you’re not being paid or getting credit, ask what else the organization offers interns: paid attendance at workshops or a regional meeting, free admission to events that support your areas of interest; parking or travel supplements; opportunities to speak or publish. Don’t be bashful. You’re offering time and skills. This is not indentured servitude. Get something back.
- Can you manage financially and balance an internship while paying your bills, eating, and having any kind of life?
- If not, consider volunteering. I know it sounds a lot less fancy, and in many cases it is, but as a volunteer you donate your time, which puts you more or less in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, everything from bullet point one still applies only more so.
- If your area of specialty is development, communications, leadership, or anything found throughout the non-profit world, don’t confine yourself to museums. Look everywhere.
- Internships are not scut work. Good internships can launch careers. Be honest: If you don’t have the time or temperament to supervise internships, for goodness sakes, don’t do it. The museum field doesn’t need Cruella De Vil.
- If you have a donor or donors interested in education, consider helping them create a named (paid) internship. Your organization benefits as well as the field. Conversely, if they would rather endow a position, ask the board if it would consider shifting funds from the endowed position to create fellowships or internships in other departments.
- If you can’t fund a position, can your organization ally with a local college or university and offer an internship for credit? And while you’re at it, gather some of the students together and ask them to help structure the program. What works best for them?
- Be realistic with your students. Understand the job market.
- Create alliances (and internships for money or credit) with museums nearby. If you’re a virtual program, consider leveraging your brand in an internship partnership.
- Build opportunities for students to meet and work with museum staff into your program. Require them to have mentors, not just advisors. Mentors aren’t advisors.
- Too often getting a job feels like another job. Teach students how to strategize about what it is they want as they build careers.
If this week is a holiday for you, best wishes for a happy time with family and friends. And when you have a moment, share your thoughts about the internship conundrum here.
P.S. And for more detailed information on classifying someone as an intern, you may want to read this: Four Takeaways—and Good News—for Nonprofit Employers with Internship Programs