Our Deep Dive into History Museum Leadership at the AASLH Leadership Forum

 

AASLH Leadership ForumAlong with 999 or so folks, we’re back from Kansas City, MO and AASLH’s Annual Meeting. There we caught up with old friends, celebrated change in the history museum field, and bemoaned the state of the world. Some of us enjoyed some Kansas City barbecue too.

Leadership Matters went–in part–to lead the annual Leadership Forum. One of a number of pre-conference workshops, the Forum, as distinct from the History Leadership Institute which happens in November, is a four-hour intensive on one or more aspects of leadership. This one moved from the broad-based to the particular, from organizational to personal, covering three big topics: Empathy & Equity in the Workplace; Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and finally, a look at Career Alignment and Choices.

The empathy and equity section asked participants to define the two words, to address how and where they were found at participants’ museums and sites, and whether it’s possible for a workplace to have empathy without the equity. Section two addressed questions of staff: Whether boards, CFOs, and EDs look at staff and see a great, yawning cavern of salaries, benefits and issues or whether they see creative, entrepreneurial folk devoted to the organization and each other. The last section was based on a personal career narrative, and asked participants to think about their own museum practice. Questions like what are your career constants, what makes you happy, what do you want to create circulated around the room. The group also talked about kick-in-the-pants career change, how upending it is, and how sometimes it brings great joy.

Here are some completely unscientific observations:

  • Gone are the days where history museum leaders haven’t got a clue about leadership. They get it. They may lead fraught, overwhelmed lives, but they get it.
  • History museum professionals don’t press the pause button often enough.
  • Some history museum leaders spend too much time alone.
  • Talking about why we do what we do is as important–if not more so–than talking about how we do it.
  • Pay equity makes some leaders nervous and fires up others.
  • Based on listening to this room of 30 individuals, too few think intentionally about their careers with any regularity.
  • A lot of people seem to think once they are parents or partnered or both, their careers are stuck.
  • The vast majority of the room seemed to feel they have audience empathy knocked. Empathy on the back stage side–for staff, board and volunteers–appears trickier.
  • Brene Brown’s short video on the differences between empathy and sympathy was a fan favorite.
  • Best line: A participant telling her supervisor she was quitting. “I have one short, precious life, and it’s too short and too precious to work for you.” The original included a strategically placed f-bomb which gave the whole sentence a lot of zing.

As we told the roomful of leaders, it was an honor to participate. Although admittedly this was a self-selected group, people seem to embrace leadership at all levels. By that we mean the doing of leading, not seeing the director’s position as a conclusion. And that’s a blessing. While there is always work to do–especially back stage, especially on workplace race and gender issues–without sounding too Pollyanna-like, it feels as though there’s finally a sea change taking hold on the leadership front.

Joan Baldwin

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2018 Museum Leadership Myths and Realities

burke-museum-exterior-flowers (1)Thinking about leadership is something even adept leaders don’t do often enough. As we work on the revision of Leadership Matters (2019), Anne and I are pondering how museum leadership has changed in five years. Just for fun I scrolled back to the beginning of this blog (2013). There we talk a lot about the need for the museum world, particularly the history museum world, to make leadership a priority.

Leadership Matters opens with “10 Simple Myths,” where we outline the myths that frame the museum world’s professional narrative. Sadly, many still ring true, like “We don’t have to make money, we’re a nonprofit,” or “Building collections takes precedence over building talent,” or a favorite on these pages, “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.”

There is one myth, however, that suddenly feels like it might be at the end of its shelf life: “We are the source of our own best ideas.” In describing why this sage-on-the-stage mentality isn’t such a great idea Anne wrote, “Their [museums] implacable deference to hierarchical decision making insulates them from ideas and solutions flowing between and among sectors.”

We could be wrong, but it feels as though in the last five years engagement, both intellectual and actual has mutated from something only the education department thought about to something more all-encompassing. Organizations are actually reaching out, and not in the give-me-your-stuff way, more like in the work-with-us-to-tell-your-story way. Not everyone and not all the time, but it feels like a sea change. Finally, history museums and heritage organizations realize that trying to force feed communities the life stories of American furniture and tools isn’t compelling. In fact, a quick scan of leadership positions on AASLH’s and AAM’s job boards yields the following phrases:

  • .….Fosters connections with local community and history in relevant and sustained ways by building beneficial partnerships, raising the level of civic dialogues …..
  • The director is responsible for developing positive community relations and partnerships with national, state, local organizations and for developing strategic initiatives in areas of community outreach, educational programming, exhibits, public history and tourism.
  • The Museum’s new leader should embrace its deeply held values, especially the active practice of diversity, inclusion, engagement and the critical representation of our multiple communities, their histories and current issues.

But….apart from engagement, many of our 10 myths are still alive, healthy, and posing as the truth. And, it’s 2018 not 2013, and there are new conundrums and problems for museum leaders. Here are five that we think need some work:

  • That understanding community is more than an anecdotal exercise. It is data-driven. Read Susie Wilkening and Colleen Dilenschneider to see what we mean.
  • The digital world is here to stay. Museums–even tiny ones–need to get a grip.
  • Museums are community partners. They build, they renovate, they employ, they use utilities, they sell things. Non-profit doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. Just because you’re not paying shareholders, doesn’t mean you can’t be a downtown anchor.
  • Maybe, just maybe, there’s a recognition that an all-white, all-privileged field is not such a great thing and creating a more diverse field means making it a better paid field.
  • That leadership can be learned, and organizations can invest in it just like they invest in anything else; building talent is as important as constructing a new wing.

So what do you think? What leadership sectors do you think the museum world needs to work on?

Joan Baldwin

Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA


5 Pieces of Advice for When You’re Not the Official Leader

Team leader

This is a letter to museum folk who are not leaders. It’s a letter to those of you who work on teams, in departments of one or many, who carry out the hopes and dreams of someone else. It’s also a bit of an apology. Many writers, bloggers and TedTalkers describe leading from anywhere. They write (and talk) as if leading from the back of the room were the easiest thing in the world. We’ve even been guilty of saying it a few times here.

While we believe it’s possible to always behave like a leader, we want to acknowledge the difficulty of having responsibility–sometimes huge responsibility–but no authority. And we want to note that in the world of bad museum leadership, a position that is all responsibility and no authority, particularly topped with gender and generational differences, is its own special hell.

What’s the difference between authority and responsibility? A person with authority is someone who has the power, resources or status to get stuff done. An individual with more responsibility than authority is a person who bears the consequences of someone else’s actions. Most leaders wear both hats, and it’s a tricky business. Understanding that leadership is about interdependence not authority is something it takes new museum directors time to figure out. While they learn, their staff sometimes suffers. What should you do to maintain your sanity if you work for someone who believes being a museum director is about making her staff carry out her wishes? Well you could quit, but let’s suppose you don’t want to.

  1. Don’t get caught in the blame game: It’s easy to lash out when you feel powerless, and to be honest, it sometimes makes you feel better. Save the sassy comments for after work with friends you trust. Instead, figure out whether you can move forward with whatever you’re charged with on your own. Make sure you understand your own behavior: Are you someone who needs the metaphorical gold sticker to know you’re doing a good job? In other words, do you really need the ED or does talking to her just make you feel better?
  2. Your ED, supervisor, board won’t listen to you: Look around. Who are they  listening to? What qualities do the people being heard have? Can you do what they do? Have you been clear about what it is you need, and more importantly, the consequences if you don’t get it?
  3. You are totally overwhelmed by the 8 million things you’ve been asked to do, none of which were even remotely on your radar in grad school, nor do they even have much to do with American material culture which is why you got a master’s degree in the first place: Break your list into parts. Pick off the low hanging fruit before moving to something more complex. Don’t be the lone ranger. Work with your team or colleagues to conquer what’s more difficult, and then be the person who brings in something delectable to celebrate and say thank you.
  4. Working with your colleagues has all the appeal of a middle school group project. Once again, you feel like you’re carrying the weakest member of the team. And sometimes you will be, but don’t assume everyone approaches work like you do. Try and figure out your colleague’s work styles and play to their strengths. Whoever coined the phrase “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” was not kidding.
  5. If one more person tells you that you’ll understand whatever it is when you’ve got more experience or takes your idea, rephrases it and gets all the credit, you’re going to scream. You know your own work culture best, but if smiling and suffering silently has gotten you no where, you can challenge people. Be polite, but prove you know what you’re talking about. Remember the first step in getting woke is getting woke. And perhaps, most importantly, if you see this happening to another colleague, step in and help her out.

So…we’re not saying it’s easy, and we are here to acknowledge that in the course of every museum career you will encounter weak or authoritarian leadership. But don’t let it stop you. Keep a list of your successes and read it over when you’re having a dark day. Use your words. No ED can intuit what’s going on in your head. Be clear about the challenges and risks you see ahead, and ask for help. When you talk to your ED, make it about work, not about your unhappiness. Don’t wait for permission for every single step. Have a plan for the project ahead, get it approved, and move forward.

Tell us how you deal with the authority/responsibility dilemma.

Joan Baldwin


Leader, Know Thyself

Making Meaning

It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.

We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index. 

Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.

But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?

Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations.  Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.

It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.

Joan Baldwin


Don’t Use Your Museum’s Nonprofit Status to Mask Real Workplace Threats

crossed fingers

This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.

Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:

Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.

Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.

We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.

As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:

  1. The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
  2. Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
  3. Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
  4. Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.

If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.

******

We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!

Joan Baldwin


5 Questions to Help You Make Your Leadership Happen

Personal-Leadership-Development-Plan

This fall Anne Ackerson and I will teach a course called “The Museum Leadership Challenge” for Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies master’s degree program. As a result, we’ve talked a lot about what we really think the key components of museum leadership are. It’s an ongoing conversation, but the thought of being in a classroom, even a virtual one, puts a different spin on things. I won’t lie: Participating in a program that annually launches newly-minted graduates on the museum world, makes us acutely aware of the museum ecosystem, particularly the job market. The job race is a daunting prospect, asking applicants to create (or shed) versions of themselves via social media, to send hundreds of resumes zooming around the Internet, all while trying to work or volunteer in this field they’ve committed time and money to. It’s a big, complicated deal. And the elephant in many rooms.

Even though a director’s position is sometimes the way out of the hideously low salaries plaguing the museum field, it’s often viewed as a painfully pressured role, so many emerging museum folk avoid the leadership challenge. At small museums and heritage organizations it’s the job that sends 26-year olds to board meetings with people old enough to be their grandparents. Instead, you aim for positions as curator, chief curator, collections manager or educator, director of engagement or social media guru. But here’s what we say: all those positions lead. And more importantly you need to be the leader of yourself. That sounds dopey, but think about it. Your career, in which you’ve invested a bundle of money, isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make happen.

When you get your first job and start moving up the museum ladder, you will spend hours in planning meetings. You’ll plan exhibitions, events, and programs. You’ll think about branding, messaging, and mission statements. This will be the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Hopefully, you will have good mentors, leaders and guides. Hopefully you won’t zone out with your iPhone under the table. And, hopefully, you will think strategically. Why do we care? Because we want you to think strategically about your own life and career. We want you to make things happen. So, if you’re a new museum person, here are five questions to think about:

  • What makes you happiest at work?
  • How do you manage a challenge and can you embrace and learn from failure?
  • Who are your mentors and advisors?
  • Have you made a list of your leadership qualities?
  • If you’re already working in the field, do your plans and values align with your museum or heritage organization?

If you are a board member, director or department head, directly or indirectly responsible for hiring, know that the culture of your organization affects not only longtime employees and new hires, but the field as a whole. You are change agents. Here are five questions for you.

  • Does your organization have a values statement? Have you read it recently?
  • Does your organization have a HR policy and/or an HR department?
  • What has your museum or heritage organization done to keep bias out of the interview room?
  • What is the most important quality you (or your organization) looks for in new employees?
  • When was the last time your board talked about staff salaries?

Strategic planning isn’t just for organizations. It’s for individuals, too. No, it’s not a panacea, but in an overcrowded field knowing what you want will help you move ahead of the pack.

Joan Baldwin


Leadership and the Power of Things

stoneware

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