How Being a Lone Ranger Demands a Different Set of Skills

Have you ever traveled, returned to where you started, only to find it looks completely different from the place it was when you left? After being away from my job as curator of special collections for a year, I came back last month. I had stepped away to be an interim leader for a year while our team chose a new, permanent director. Despite COVID, it was by and large a great experience, challenging, yet full of learning moments, and an opportunity to do good. But my return to my old position as curator of special collections has made me think about what being a sole practitioner means.

Yes, I work in a large organization, but I’m the only person charged with caring for a campus collection of art, sculpture and art photographs displayed over half a dozen buildings, and stored in sometimes challenging conditions. So as I returned to my curatorial work, I began to think about what it means to work alone, what skills are necessary, and perhaps most importantly how sole practitioners are selected.

As we all learned from COVID, working alone puts you in the driver’s seat. You set the pace, the agenda, and you prioritize. The flip side is that in setting the pace, the agenda and the priorities, when things go south, it’s all on you, and that is stressful. Too many times to count, these pages have been filled with the importance of collaboration, of the creativity that results when people, even people who don’t like each other much, team up and work together. Sparks fly, and that’s good. Lone rangers don’t necessarily have that interaction or support. Sometimes it can come from a task-oriented board or from volunteers, but in my observation that’s rare.

As with anything–cooking, crossword puzzles, tennis–we get better with practice. Decades ago, one of the leading female leaders in the museum world mentored me. One of the things she tried to help me understand was that leadership demanded a different skillset than a number of other positions, and my life might be less of a muddle if I committed to one as opposed to many. At the time I was a lone ranger and a first director for a historic house museum. With decades of hindsight and a level of self-reflection my 20-something-year-old self didn’t possess, I suspect she was also telling me that one of the huge challenges of being a sole-practitioner is that you need to be both a master of change AND a master of complexity. As a leader and a sole practitioner you’re the star in a one- person show. You are development, external relations, education, exhibitions, finance, and curatorial all rolled together. That’s not easy.

Lone rangers need to be generalists, good at many things, no in-depth knowledge necessary, but clearly we all have strengths. I play a lot of positions in my current job, as I did in previous sole-practitioner positions. There are definitely areas I’m better at than others. So if you’re a sole practitioner or want to be one….

  • Know your strengths. Really know them. Have a plan B if you need quick help in a major topic area.
  • Do a gut-check. Are your values in line with folks who are interviewing you?
  • Be transparent about where you think your weaknesses are during the hiring process. Boards will advertise for a generalist, and smile about exhibits and school programs, but if what they really want is an advancement person, something you know little about, your relationship is doomed, and you will constantly feel as though you’re being asked to bring someone a rock and their response is “No, not that rock.”
  • If there are gaps in your content base, work to fill them in. Take the bookkeeping class for small business at the local community college; take an online class in exhibit design for small organizations through a regional service organization; meet monthly with other educators or teachers from neighboring institutions.
  • Create your own colleague group. Ask three or more folks you know or who you wish you knew better, how they’d feel about being sounding boards when things at work seem wonky. Will they read an email and respond or answer advice in person, on the phone or Zoom?

If you’re hiring a sole practitioner….

  • Talk long and hard about what you and your board, feel your museum needs. There’s nothing worse than hiring your one and only staff person whose strengths are internal-facing, when what you really want is an externally facing extrovert.
  • Acknowledge that if you’re a sole-practitioner kind of place, it’s likely the salary you’re offering is low, and your applicants will be young, emerging professionals or else folks in their last chapter, who want an easy slide into retirement. Talk about how both demographics might affect organizational growth.
  • Few individuals possesses all the skills museum-land demands in one personality. Discuss how and whether your organization will invest in either professional development for your sole practitioner or growing the organization’s staff or both.
  • Don’t saddle a lone ranger with money problems you as a board are too lazy to fix. Have the finance discussion, and come up with a plan, and potentially a plan B, to sustain the organization before entering the the hiring process. If you can’t sustain your collection, buildings, whatever, without an employee, it’s not going to be any easier with one.

For better or worse, we’ve lived through the hottest July ever. Now museums are trying to stay open, and run programs while dodging the Delta variant. It’s stressful. Be kind. Assume we’re all doing our best, especially our sole practitioners.

Joan Baldwin


Collective Wisdom: 13 Pieces of Advice I Wish I’d Had

Tommy Wong – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gracewong/295382746/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85227644

Last Friday I spent some time with three awesome museum women. We were tasked with speaking to a group of college-age interns, who might or might not enter the museum field. Our first question was what advice would we give our 21-year old selves, if the clock turned backward? For me, it prompted a lot of self-reflection. In college, I didn’t always listen to my mentors. I was polite, but I didn’t always internalize and reflect on the advice offered.

So here, for anyone who’s listening, a baker’s dozen of things I wish I’d understood at the tender age of 21.

  1. That self-advocacy is a practice, and it’s different from making it all about you. Self care brings out your best; selfishness, your worst.
  2. That a woman’s workplace is different from a man’s. That a woman of color’s workplace is different than a white woman’s.
  3. Empathy has a key function in the museum workplace, and empathy doesn’t mean playing Ms. Fix It.
  4. That it’s important to understand your field of practice, whether it’s museums, archives, galleries or libraries. That studying your field as if it were a country you might visit is important. Learn the culture. Teach yourself who is powerful and why, and who is not powerful and why.
  5. That suffering and scarcity are not traditions that should be passed from one generation of museum workers to the next. Ridiculous schedules, pitiful salaries and job descriptions that read like indentured servitude are a form of hazing. Don’t take a job that requires another job to make you whole. See #4.
  6. That engaging with people in your workplace–regardless of age, race, position or gender– is important. It’s not a favor you do, it’s a learning experience. Sharing stories builds trust. See #s 4 and 12.
  7. That not all problems deserve the drama they receive. Stay in the present. Blame can wait. Solve the problem and move forward.
  8. A career needs to feed your soul, but it may not do that every day. Watch for side roads. They are slower, but the experience is entirely different. Be open to taking them.
  9. Stand up for your colleagues. Not standing up for them is selfish. See #1. You may be sure you’re not racist, classist, sexist, fattist, but remember the writer’s maxim: Show don’t tell. It’s not about your beliefs as much as your actions.
  10. Who told you you have to do everything perfectly, by yourself, the first time? Ask if you don’t understand or if you need help. Collaborating doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad colleague. It generates good ideas.
  11. One of the great joys of the museum workplace–indeed of any workplace– is learning. You aren’t an expert. You may know a lot, but there’s always someone who knows something more. #neverstoplearning.
  12. Don’t depend on fate or love or a mentor to orchestrate your career. It’s your career. Strategize for yourself the same way you would for an organization.
  13. Be kind.

Be well and stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


Leadership, Learning and Leaving: Knowing When to Go

MarkBuckawicki – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96062140

This week I learned someone I’ve known for decades will be leaving their position. Amidst platitudes about going in a new direction and spending time with family there is the scent of a leave-taking that’s less than mutually acceptable. How is it that some museum and heritage organization leaders can believe life is good, and all is well, when their boards feel so differently? How do leaders lose touch with their organizational DNA enough to let things slip out of their hands? And isn’t there enough to worry about for leaders in age of COVID without constantly considering whether you’ve overstayed your welcome?

When you consider the careers of longterm leaders, there are some common characteristics. They are self-aware. I know, duh? But they really are. They review their days, their weeks, learning from what went well, while tweaking and changing what didn’t. And they definitely aren’t bored. In other words, five years, 10 years in, they are still creative, coming to work ready to collaborate for meaningful change, and constantly ready to think creatively about their organizations. And they have healthy, respectful, and productive relationships with their boards. This last one is perhaps the most challenging since it’s one person–you, the president, CEO, or director–and a group of people who, in theory, work collectively rather than individually. The board hired you, and frankly, good, bad or indifferent, they have all the cookies.

So how do you know when it’s time to go? Here are some things to consider:

  • I know it’s COVID, and just walking into your office sometimes feels like a challenge, but does your leadership position feed your soul? Challenge and change keep us agile and resilient. A job with the comfort of a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes doesn’t always demand your creative side. Instead, it makes you complacent. Are you ready for a change?
  • Conversely, are you stressed beyond measure? Do you long, not just for time off, but time away? Are you out of ideas, and it’s affecting your health, making you impatient and cranky at the very moment when your organization needs patience and empathy?
  • Does it feel like there’s a shadow museum happening without you? Do conversations end when you walk into a room? Are decisions you once would have been integral to now made without your input? Is your relationship with your board, once friendly and collaborative, now a long slog over egg shells?
  • When was the last time your board completed performance review for you? Indifference is sometimes worse than dislike. If your board won’t put the energy into its relationship with you, what does that tell you?
  • While this is mostly about you, consider how your unhappiness affects your team. Staff who work for an engaged–and presumably happy–leader are 59-percent more likely to be engaged themselves.

There is an old adage that it’s easier to get a new job when you’re already employed than when you’re not. That might mean resigning a leadership position at your peak or soon after rather resting on your laurels. This is a moment when, unlike so much in leadership, it IS truly about you, and your ability to move elsewhere depends on your self-awareness and your humility, as well as your ability to recognize that you’ve done as much as you can do.

Museum leadership isn’t a lifetime appointment. You challenge and change an organization and you move on. You know deep down if your job as museum director is no longer fulfilling, and you may suspect that there is someone–maybe even someone on your own staff–who might make a better leader than you are now as opposed to the person you were when you arrived. Some leaders look several times a year–not formally–but they do put the periscope up and look around. For some, that may be too disruptive, but it exercises a set of muscles that otherwise lie fallow.

In Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord Anne Ackerson and I talk about leadership as a journey rather than an end game. Remember Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and how he stresses “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn?” Leadership is learning. If you’re not learning or someone is hell bent on preventing your learning, it’s probably time to exit gracefully.

Joan Baldwin


Is Co-Leadership a Magic Bullet?

By Daniel Gammert (Danga) – Selbst fotografiert von Danga, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=747535

Let me begin by saying that I think co-leadership is a great idea. It spreads decision making, which is healthy. It brings new voices to the table, and by its very nature it presumes a level of humility and understanding that a solo leader may never grapple with. That said, is it a cure-all for what ails the museum world? I’m not sure.

In his recent blog post, Making the Case for Collaborative Leadership in Museums, Mike Murawski lists a number of successful dual postings from Bowdoin College’s museum to the Five Oaks Museum, and across the pond to the Birmingham Museum Trust. But there are numerous solo director acts that, at least from the outside, demonstrate successful leadership–Christy Coleman at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Robert Krett at Connecticut Historical Society, Frank Vagnone at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Lisa Lee at Chicago Housing Museum. Here’s a hypothesis: It’s not the method; it’s the people, good leadership is good leadership whether it’s brought to you by a single leader, a duo or a trio.

Murawski highlights five qualities that deepen with paired leaders. He lists more effective decision making, cultivating innovation and growth, valuing relationships, promoting shared leadership across an organization, and the way a dual leadership model promotes equity and social justice within museum culture. While these are all important characteristics, they can (and do) and happen with a skilled solo leader, and might not happen with an incompetent duo. In fact, given the museum world’s current turmoil, it’s challenging to think of boards of trustees, hiring duos when many seem to be using COVID-19 as an excuse to off-load directors at an alarming rate. Were the trend toward hiring two to take hold, the pair also need to be great communicators and have enormous trust in one another. They need to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses and know how they are each other’s better half because, as in any strong partnership, there will be days when the organization needs the strengths of one more than the other.

And while the empathy, trust, and transparency that skilled co-directors model is important, those characteristics are also possessed by good solo directors. Near the end of Leadership Matters we wrote a chapter titled “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we summarize the characteristics and traits we encountered in interviewing 36 North American museum and heritage organization directors. And what did we find? That leadership isn’t something that comes with age; that perseverance matters as leaders take advantage of repeated practice in recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives, and providing solutions. Our interviewees are risk takers both organizationally and personally.” Last, and perhaps most important here, these leaders see themselves not as lone rangers, but as part of a whole. We quote Melissa Chiu, now Director of the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum, saying bluntly, “You can’t do it on your own.

As I wrote last week, there is a lot of epically bad leadership in the museum world that’s somehow been unmasked in the COVID crisis. And bad doesn’t just mean, bullies or harassers, bigots and predators. Sometimes it’s just the slow drip of ineptitude and mediocrity. Will co-directorships fix that? Maybe? If they possess all the qualities of a skilled empathetic solo act with an extra dose of trust and humility on the side that allows them to work in daily partnership and collaboration. But one presumes they need that anyway. It’s a leadership must-have.

I wish there were a cure-all for the leadership trough we’re in at the moment, and I wish it were as simple as hiring two versus one. But I don’t believe it is. Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a way of being. It’s a practice. There are people in the museum field who are leaders despite the fact that their title is Associate Registrar or Volunteer Coordinator or Assistant Curator. Why? Because they are self-aware, they are authentic, they’re creative and not afraid to take risks, and they are courageous. Those are the people we need to nurture and mentor. The leadership problem is one that needs to be tackled on so many levels from boards of trustees to graduate programs, to AAM and AASLH. We need to understand our industry is made up of people, people who matter, and we need to nurture and invest in the next generation of leaders before they all leave the field.

Stay well,

Joan Baldwin


Why Isn’t the Museum Field Training Leaders?

Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55160729

This week I spoke to a researcher and statistician. She is interested in resilience, both individual and organizational, and she likened the last six months to a hurricane. Not the kind of weather event described in museum disaster plans, but epically disastrous none the less.

Disasters lay bare your weak points: You failed to get enough insurance; you built too close to the shore; you neglected to maintain equipment, and on and on. But they also expose less obvious weaknesses: organizations that stifle creativity; organizations where staff isn’t valued; and perhaps, most importantly, poor leadership.

Years ago when Anne Ackerson and I first started writing and speaking about leadership in the museum world, it seemed as though we were the only ones talking about it. People were a little mystified by what we had to say, as if they wondered whether poor or mediocre leadership was actually a thing or just something we were whining about. Occasionally it was difficult to get a panel about leadership on the roster at national meetings because the running of museums and heritage organizations was not on program committee’s favorite topics. There was a sense that if things weren’t going well leadership wise, that the fault lay with poor choices by a given museum’s board of trustees not a systemic crisis in the field itself. Yet look at the field now. The storm of COVID-19 has laid bare a world of lousy leadership, harassment, and racial inequity. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Not everyone entering an MBA program expects to be Jeff Bezos, but almost every MBA program offers its first year students a variation on Harvard’s Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, the assumption being that whether you lead or whether you follow, you need to understand the importance of good leadership, and its impact on organizational behavior. With the exception of programs like John F. Kennedy University’s dual degree program in Museum Studies and Master of Business Administration, the same is not true among museum studies programs. In the museum field, leadership is viewed as a choice. Students say, “I’m not sure I want to be a director. It’s too stressful.” Then, five years into their career, they find themselves leading a curatorial team of 10. They’re not the museum director, but their position requires all the same skills and decision making.

Is it possible that the hue and cry for a “new form of leadership” in museums is the result of decades of leadership by people forced to learn on the job? Some perform brilliantly–witness the 36 interviews in Leadership Matters. They are leaders who bring equal measures of self-reflection, humility and empathy to their museums every day. But many do not. Would a graduate program save them and prevent their organizations from being becalmed in a sea of mediocrity or worse, becoming poster children for harassment, bullying and racism? Maybe. At least it would point out that leadership is part and parcel of museum life, whether we choose to be directors or not.

Not every museum or heritage organization will survive the COVID crisis. Isn’t it incumbent on museum graduate programs everywhere to acknowledge that leadership training isn’t a through line to the director’s office? Sometimes it’s about behaving like a leader no matter where you are in the museum hierarchy. Mid-career museum professionals seem stunned by the fact that promotion takes them further and further from the the subject matter that drew them to the field in the beginning. Instead of wrangling objects, paintings or scientific specimens, now they wrangle humans, registrars, fellow curators, art handlers, consultants, and more. And it’s epically more challenging.

We conclude Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord with a Leadership Agenda. (To read the full agenda, click on the tab at the top of the page.) If I were to write the agenda today, I would change our suggestion for graduate programs from “Introduce leadership training and development in all course work,” to “Make leadership training a core course of study.” Whether you dismantle the traditional organizational hierarchy or maintain it, the individuals making decisions need to understand that museums are more than content. They are about people, and people need good leaders at all levels.

Joan Baldwin


Dancing Backward in High Heels: Communication, Clarity and COVID-19

By JefferyGoldman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35425135

This month many of us (the lucky ones) return to work in spaces we left four months ago. Depending on our own health and the health of those we care for, we may return full-time or touch base only intermittently while our real work life continues via Zoom. In either instance, our work lives are fundamentally altered, not just because we’re living through a pandemic, but because communication has changed.

Workplaces run on a hierarchy of communication from formal and serious–the annual letter from the museum president or HR stipulating your terms of employment–to all-staff emails, to more personal emails or Google chats. In our old lives, that hierarchy also included face-to-face meetings, and spontaneous hallway conversations. The latter two are becoming as rare as dial phones. And even when they take place, presumably half our face is masked so only our eyes convey emotion.

Then there’s Zoom. Could we have survived without it these last four months? Heck no. But it’s still challenging. I don’t know about you, but in my former life, I never thought about what direction I looked in staff meetings. My gaze moved naturally between speakers and listeners, and my note taking. But with Zoom, what was once your entire team together in a room is now reduced to faces in squares in their kitchens or home offices with the occasional pet or toddler wandering on screen. So when you speak to the whole, you’re actually speaking to eight individuals in eight individual spaces. It’s distracting, complicated, and occasionally confusing. Sometimes you don’t know what to focus on.

My daughter once had a science teacher whose opening assignment was to ask everyone to write one paragraph describing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Believing it was an easy assignment, most students dashed off the paragraph in a few minutes. The teacher, however, showed up in class with a loaf of bread, jelly, peanut butter, and knives. Without attributing the author, she read each paragraph aloud while  following their directions. The results were hilarious, but devastating. Knives wound up between slices of bread, and jelly or peanut butter were sometimes forgotten entirely. The message was clear: Directions need to be delivered in precise, understandable language or you can’t even make a simple sandwich.  Now imagine how complicated actually running your museum, program or department will be when you’re communicating virtually and actually while masked and six-feet apart. Kind of like dancing backwards in high heels.

So…to make sure the sandwiches get made the way you want them, here are some simple suggestions for improved communication in the museum workplace:

  • If some or all of your team still works from home, check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be long. A check-in that mimics a stop in an office doorway is fine, asking are you okay or is there anything I can help with?
  • Even if they’re brief, set regular meeting times. In a world without much face-to-face contact, it’s important staff have meetings they can count on.
  • Given that the post-COVID-world changes in a heartbeat, and ambiguity is practically a watchword, make sure your team knows they can bring you problems as they develop. You may want to consider borrowing an academic tradition and hold office hours. These can be real and held outside if weather permits or on Zoom at the same time each week. That way staff can always find you for a one-on-one that can be handled in under 15 minutes.
  • Don’t forget recognition and applause. One of the many reasons life in the pandemic is hard is our daily interaction with colleagues is MIA. And it’s not just personal conversation or office gossip we long for. We miss colleagues telling us what they enjoy about our work, congratulating us when something goes well or giving us a high five. As leaders we need to remember that, and recognize staff achievements–you ran your first marathon alone, wearing a mask or your department’s digital takeover was the best ever–and say congratulations.
  • And last, remember empathy. You may be powered up about your organization’s opening, but be mindful not everyone will find the return to work a piece of cake. Some may be worried about loved ones, struggling with childcare arrangements or processing how to deal with racism at work. Keep your door–metaphorical or actual– open and listen.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. Since this spring’s string of racist murders, many students have started Instagram pages where they can reflect on what really went on behind the sunny and artificially diverse photos on school and college web pages. In the same vein, there’s now #changethemuseum. It’s jolting, heartbreaking, and anger inducing. If your organization has an HR department, you might want to share it. And if you are ever about to suggest an employee solve a workplace interpersonal problem on their own, give this page another look just to understand how horrific things can be.


4 Workplace Pledges Worth Making (and Keeping) in 2020

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To begin, we want to thank everyone who reads and supports Leadership Matters. Since  2013, it’s grown from 823 views in 26 countries to 63,523 views in 186 countries last year. It’s an honor to write for you, to meet you at conferences, and to hear from you, and we wish you all the best for 2020 and the decade to come.

Before the holidays we asked for your hopes and wishes for the museum world this year. We weren’t overwhelmed with responses, but we did receive these two awesome wishes.

  • I wish for sustainability and everything that entails—a society that values culture, institutions and human diversity, wages and benefits that reflect the training and experience held [by] my museum workers, and safe and equitable work spaces.  Kristy Griffin-Smith
  • Challenging systemic biases that are so ingrained we often can’t see their true impact. Karen Mason-Bennett

No surprise, we have some wishes of our own. Some echo the two above, a few don’t.

  •  We wish museums and heritage organizations could collectively acknowledge climate change as a key issue for global museum life in the next decade. As the University of Manchester wrote in 2018, “Museums represent key sites for climate change education, engagement, action and research. There are over 55,000 museums worldwide. They represent an existing infrastructure. Many museums are already connecting their work with climate change education, research and management.” Like many issues that “feel” political, this is not one you should ignore in the hopes others–perhaps bigger, better-funded museums–will do something about it. This problem belongs to us all, and if we don’t collectively own it, we can’t possibly help remedy it. From the way you ask visitors to dispose of trash, to decisions regarding capital improvements, to the context you offer around historical and scientific questions, museums have a climate change role. Like so many issues, not playing a part in this one is, in fact, taking a side. Don’t be neutral. If you feel you don’t know enough, assemble a team of advisors. After all, if 17-year old Greta Thunberg can be an international climate change activist, you can probably create a plan–beginning with small, sustainable changes– for your museum or heritage organization.
  • We want museums to acknowledge the ways they disadvantage various demographics. You may believe decolonization is a word for big-city museums. It’s not. Instead, consider it as hierarchical, outmoded thinking, privileging one group over another in explicit and implicit ways. For some of us it’s habit, a habit we hope museums will work to break in the coming year, maybe by experimenting– only exhibiting work by women or women of color or by sending the organization’s youngest staff to conferences instead of its older team leaders or by changing traditional label narratives or, frankly, the labels themselves. Do it until what is outside the box feels normal and every day. Don’t get me wrong: Museums need people of privilege. They are generous, many to a fault. But museums can’t act as though a white, predominantly male, narrative is the only one of importance, and everybody else is other than. So make 2020 the year you shake things up.
  • Women are now 50-percent of the museum workforce in the United States. Women’s problems are human problems, and it is not a woman’s job to solve them. (Believe me, if that were possible, it would have happened ages ago.) Our wish? That in 2020 museums and heritage organizations, led and supported by their service organizations, will end the museum field’s gender pay gap, and pledge to stop sexual harassment in the museum workplace. (You can do your part by signing GEMM’s Pledge now.)
  • Leadership matters. No kidding. A lot. We wish museums, heritage organizations graduate programs, and boards of trustees would recognize leadership is a key ingredient in creating strong, sustainable organizations. We understand many museums, particularly larger ones, need recruitment firms, but the museum hires the recruiters, not the other way around. Are you comfortable with firms who tell female candidates what to wear, but not male ones? Are you comfortable with firms who preselect based on their vision of what your museum should be? Whether you’re a board member or a museum leader, don’t leave hiring decisions to others who may not understand your organization’s DNA. And remember, boards with the courage to step outside the white male box, hiring people of color and LGBTQ candidates to fill the top spot, change more than the director’s position. They show their communities what community means.

The new year is a time we all pledge to be better humans, change our habits, exercise more, eat healthier, meditate. A week ago, we published the top Leadership Matters posts since 2013. Sadly, the one that garnered the most views was “The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It,” followed closely by “Workplace Bullies.”What does that say about the museum workplace? So among all your other behavior changes for 2020, let’s make this a year of kindness. If you’re a leader, remember what it was like when you worked for an ogre, and be someone different. If you’re a follower, be the person you wish your leader were–or, if you’re lucky–the person your leader is. Bottom line: exercise a little kindness to each other, our communities, our planet.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


10 Leadership Reflections from 30,000 Feet

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I don’t know about you, but when I am besieged with obligations, meetings, and deadlines, I make lists. Over time the lists become a bit of a joke because things that weren’t accomplished one week don’t always move forward to the next. Instead they occupy a sort of list purgatory, haunting me as I go about my days. You may have a better way of organizing things. Your lists may be digital. Perhaps you’re more efficient, but however you make your way through your tasks, there is always a certain satisfaction in the strike-through, marking something as done, finished, complete, and off your plate for a while.

But then, and maybe this doesn’t happen to you, there is another sort of list. It’s the list from 30,000 feet. It’s always with me, a reminder of ways of being, things I need to focus on, ways I need to be more intentional. This week Anne Ackerson and I read papers from our Johns Hopkins University students regarding leadership at museums, zoos, and heritage organizations undergoing challenge and change. As I read them–many discuss museums that have been in the news for one thing or another–I am struck again, by how complex leadership is, how many moving parts there are, and how important it is that the personal integrate with the organizational.

As I’ve said here about a million times, reflection in leadership is key. So in that spirt, here are 10 things on my 30,000-foot leadership list for this fall.

  1. Remembering to pause: whether it’s going outside for 15 minutes for a walk; sitting with a non-work friend over coffee; laughing. Life isn’t all work.
  2. Understanding my organization’s origin story: Acknowledging the work, gifts, and goals of those who came before me, while moving forward in a world that’s changed and changing, and creating a way to make the two work together.
  3. Listening: Spending part of every day, not waiting to speak, but actually listening.
  4. Remembering not to judge: Trying to make my go-to be to understand, to empathize, and to be present rather than to judge.
  5. Acknowledging accomplishments: You’ve all probably read about Anne’s accomplishment jar. I am thinking about creating a team accomplishment jar where our program can acknowledge its best moments over the course of the year. Some times it does take a village.
  6. Making my observations my obligation: Standing up for injustice, for inequity, for the minor–the constant interrupter in staff meetings who rides herd over more reserved colleagues–to the major–the colleague who’s bullied or harassed.
  7. Looking for the through-lines, whether in history, race, gender, environment and class: I work with a collection created by white men in a different age, for a different age. I need to re-center, educate, and through acquisition bring community and collection into alignment.
  8. Give back to the field: In many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve managed to make a living, to use my imagination, to work in beautiful places, surrounded by interesting collections. I must always give back, pay it forward, and help those following behind.
  9. Make sure everyone’s at the table: From the board to the front-line staff, make sure we represent our communities. And then do my best to make sure all voices are heard equitably, whether in an exhibition or a staff meeting.
  10. Values permeate the workplace too: While values are important in the front of the house–see #7–they are also important in our workspaces. Leaders content to ignore inequitable pay and benefits are leaders perpetuating the worst kind of patriarchal system. See #6.

Your list may be different, but I hope you have one. Having one fuels forward movement and change.

Yours from 30,000 feet.

Joan Baldwin

 


It Takes a Courageous Leader to Invest in Leadership Development

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One of the main reasons Joan and I first wrote Leadership Matters (2013) was because we saw a lack of emphasis on leadership training and development across the museum sector at a moment when museums needed more skilled, nuanced leadership. Also in 2013, McKinsey & Co. published the report, “What Social-Sector Leaders Need to Succeed,” noting “…chronic under-investment in leadership development within the U.S. social sector, accompanied by 25-percent growth in the number of nonprofit organizations in the past decade, has opened a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs.” Notice we’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about skills and abilities of those already in leadership roles.

Thankfully, the nonprofit “leadership deficit,” as it is known, is receiving a lot more attention. But finding solutions to addressing it remain elusive. This is due, in large part, I think, to a general misunderstanding that training leaders requires, first and foremost, time-consuming and expensive education. Many cultural nonprofits simply don’t have the financial resources or the bench strength to invest in it. And many funders don’t fund it, even though they may talk a good game about the importance of institutional capacity building (despite the fact that at the heart of an organization’s capacity is its leadership).

Excuses, however, mask a deeper issue: leadership training and development at any level is generally not seen as an investment in the health of the institution, either by board or staff leadership. The fact is, as Laura Otten of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University underscores, leadership training and development is an investment that “…won’t produce an immediate impact on mission fulfillment but will, down the road, produce a very big bang. To invest any amount in leadership development demands using money currently in hand, or asking for money not for mission-related programs but for investing in the future ability to do an even better job at deliver on mission promises.”

Investment in “leadership development takes courage but is the best investment a nonprofit can make,” advises James W. Shepard in his Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Leadership Development: Five Things Nonprofits Should Know.”

Got that?

So, here’s the good news: the 70-20-10 model — a researched best practice that isn’t practiced much or enough. This practice allows nonprofits to make big leadership development improvements for FREE. The caveat, as so many things in nonprofit life, is commitment. The model suggests an institution steers 70-percent of its leadership development commitment toward devising challenging stretch assignments aimed at building leadership skills and knowledge; 20-percent of its commitment to structured and focused mentoring; and — get this — just 10-percent of its commitment to paying for coursework and training. 

That’s right. If you see the need, understand the long-term value, and are willing to implement an in-house plan to develop leadership — even for yourself — you will move your organization far forward. All it takes is courage and commitment.

You in?

How will you embrace the 70-20-10 model at your institution? With the leadership development of your team? With your own leadership development?

Anne W. Ackerson

Image: Center for Creative Leadership (great source of leadership development information, BTW)


Museum Leadership and Self-serving Bias

 

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Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

If you’re a museum leader, you may have heard you’re supposed to build a team on trust. Perhaps you read that here last week. You may also hear that leaders need vision. If asked, you may respond, you’ve got vision. Every day. And yet, things keep going awry. So here’s a question: Have you thought about the fact that you’re part of the team? That’s not as flip an ask as it sounds. After all, whether you step in and work side-by-side with your staff, chat with them daily or fill in when someone’s sick isn’t really the point. The point is you. Are you the change you want to see or are you just mouthing the words?

Sometimes when we’re the leader, we think we don’t have to change. After all, we’re the visionary. We’re the idea-maker. We can already envision the team, department or museum in its new guise. And yet, when we don’t see the change we expected from our team, who gets blamed? The team. If you were a psychologist, you’d attribute that behavior to self-serving bias, “the tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.” Museum leadership is more than just will and skill; it’s also about personal change that mirrors and reflects the organization and the behavior you expect and want from staff.

Say you’re meeting with your front of the house staff about behavior at the reception desk. There have been complaints, one from a board member, that staff isn’t focused enough on visitors. There’s too much chatting, which has a tendency to veer toward whining. All that might be true, but before you sit down with staff, do a self-check. What is your behavior like around the reception desk? Is it the place you catch up on the group to-do list? Do you meet people there and then head to your office? In short, are you modeling the change you want? If not, don’t meet with staff right away. Work on your own behavior first. If you stop by the reception desk, do it intentionally. Introduce yourself to visitors. Welcome them to your museum or heritage site. Engage them for a moment. Stop buzzing by with little logistical details that take staff’s mind off their principal role: to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. In other words, show don’t tell.

Once you’ve put your personal change in motion, you may want to start your next team meeting by explaining what you’ve done and why. Describe the problem as you saw it–a noisy, sometimes off-putting reception desk where it was hard for visitors to get the information they needed to navigate the site. Explain how you started with yourself first, and a personal check-in. Talk about the results. Without your disruptions, the front of the house staff is more focused. Then be really brave and ask what else you can do differently. Listen. Say thank you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your organization, and more particularly the visitor’s introduction to your site.

At the next meeting, ask staff whether they continue to see change. If not, why not? What’s holding them back? Use this pattern of self-reflection, discovery, re-evaluation, and recalibration for change museum-wide. And always encourage staff to begin with self-reflection.

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Given Leadership Matters’ ongoing posts about the need for equitable treatment of museum workers, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tenement Museum, the most recent of New York City’s museums to have its education, retail, and visitor services staff unionize. This is the third time the Tenement Museum’s staff has tried to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), the union that is also home to workers at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society. Since collective bargaining just began, it will be awhile before staff knows whether their issues with overtime compensation, low wages, and no health insurance will bear fruit. Whether pay equity and closing the gender pay gap is also on the table isn’t known.

Joan Baldwin