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.
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
Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.
On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.
- Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
- Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
- Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
- Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
- Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
- Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
- Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?
And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.
Last week I spent two days in St. Louis. Culturally rich and bisected by parks full of fountains and families, it would have been enough on its own, but I actually joined 30 or so other museum folk from around the country for 48 hours as a member of AAM’s Annual Meeting program committee. Having said that, I should add that no one at AAM asked me (or anyone else) to blather on about the experience. This is my idea.
Perhaps you’ve been to an AAM meeting? Perhaps as you stood in line in some vast convention center, knowing just how much of your organizational travel budget went towards bringing you there, you were a teensy bit overwhelmed by how much there is to do? Because there are a lot of sessions on everything from collections to governance, from buildings to leadership, not to mention affinity cocktails, special tours, lectures, and, of course, the keynote. Since AAM attracts a huge number of people, not only from the Americas, but increasingly from around the globe, it’s an event that warrants multiple everything. So next time you’re standing there, overwhelmed, overjoyed or over tired, know that actual humans, not an algorithm, went into planning the meeting.
We were, in fact, divided into teams, each tasked with a different group of topics. This year there were over 400 session proposals, a number we had to whittle away at, while keeping in mind museum size–meaning is a given program a one-size fits all or specifically geared to small, medium or vast institutions. We also had be conscious of tired ideas versus tried and true ideas; what was innovative as opposed to ill-defined; all while keeping geography and the conference theme of diversity, equity and accessibility in mind. Needless to say it was a stimulating experience. When was the last time you sat in a room with your colleagues and just talked about issues, projects and possibilities in the field we know and love? So two final thoughts: If you ever have the chance to take part in program planning, say yes; and if you want programs on a particular subject–say, innovation in historic house museums or social justice programs at art museums, contact AAM. It’s too late for 2017, but not for 2018 in Phoenix. So take it from me, participate. It’s worth it.
Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?
SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.
What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.
If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”
It happens in many careers: the thing that called you in the beginning disappears as you climb the ladder. You become a teacher because interacting with students charges your batteries, but when you’re catapulted into administration, those opportunities diminish. You become a librarian because you love research, but you’re good with people so you’re promoted. Soon you rarely interact with the public. Now you manage staff and go to meetings. Sound familiar? How many of us have similar stories? They are the professional equivalent of an origin myth–the moment you understand people actually —create exhibits, catalog collections, study insects–you fill in the blank–for a living? Your answer is count me in. But then things change. And on one hand, that’s good. You got a promotion! That’s great. But is it?
What brought you to the museum world in the beginning–passion for history, art, natural science, good people skills, combined with imagination, humility, humor and self-awareness–pushes you up the museum ladder, away from objects, plants, rare books, paintings, whatever drew you in the beginning. Suddenly you’re miles from what once delighted and inspired you. Your new skill set includes HR minutia you never knew existed, combined with anecdotal information on fire suppression, and how best to motivate staff when it’s 90 degrees and the air conditioning fails. And then there’s the constant drum beat of money. Who’s got it. Will they give it? Under what conditions?
We can’t tell you the number of people who have told us that scenario is not something they want. Yet the pattern repeats. And in a field with chronically low salaries especially for women, leadership and advancement go hand in hand. So what should you do? Not to sound too apocalyptic, but how do you accept leadership without losing your soul? Be strategic. Be aware.There’s a lot we can’t control in life, but there is a lot we can. And your career isn’t as arbitrary as next month’s weather map. So here are some things to consider when you are pushed to move beyond your passion.
- Understand your field. The museum workplace has many subsets, regions, communities under a very big umbrella. Do you know where you want to go?
- Do you understand your current organization, what its leadership opportunities are and what they entail. If you take the opportunity offered, where will it lead?
- What about your own life? What changes will more money and more responsibility bring? Do you have support outside of work to cope with those changes?
- Have you done a self-check in? Does it seem as though the stress of a leadership position is manageable at this point in your career? Is there time for what brought you to the field in the beginning? Can you retain that connection in a way that is meaningful?
If the answer to the last question was no, can you foresee a time when it might be yes? When your children are all in elementary school? When your parents don’t need you as much? When your organization’s building project is complete?
The point is leadership comes to many of us, and like most things, it’s better if it’s planned rather than having it feel accidental. And it comes in many forms. Being department head is not the same as being a lone leader at a small organization. Your skill set may fit one, but not the other. And more importantly, it may fit one now and the other later.
So embrace the old adage, “Never say never.” Instead, recognize responsibility when it’s handed to you. Know that you wouldn’t get it if folks higher up the workplace food chain didn’t think you could handle it. Organizations need good leaders at every level from project to program, department to museum wide.
And tell us how you choose…