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

Flat Hierarchies versus the Corner Office But What Matters is People

COVID-19 and antiracism have pulled the bandaid off so much in American life, exposing and highlighting inequity after inequity. So it’s no surprise, museum leadership is under fire as well. It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes moment as staffs call out directors, boards remove directors, and directors sometimes behave just horribly. As a result many have called for a new kind of leadership, less paternalistic, less hierarchical, more collaborative; you know, the kind of unimaginably perfect working environment we all think we want.

But what does less hierarchical really look like? What if there is no leader, just a leadership team? Sounds great, right? Everybody plays to their strengths and happily gets the work done. But what happens in a crisis when decisions must be made quickly? What if the team can’t come to consensus? Or what if other members of the staff quickly learn to play one member of the leadership team against another to ensure decisions go their way?

Another issue about team governance versus individual leadership is that the team needs to be highly disciplined and self-motivated. Otherwise one member–likely the compulsive one, who’s still answering emails at night– is sure to shoulder more work than the others. While this may work temporarily, in the long term it’s bound to fail as it requires too much of one individual without the requisite compensation. And speaking of compensation, there are many in the museum world who expect and occasionally demand a straight glide path to their “top spot.” In disrupting that pattern, a leadership team can produce a situation where members aren’t mentored properly, and consequently struggle to move out and up.

On the positive side, when problems don’t need to migrate to the top office, decision making can be swift. In addition, by removing the traditional high-paying director’s position in favor of the more egalitarian leadership team, boards eliminate the huge friction-causing problem of a museum president who makes many thousand times more than their lowest-paid full-time staff. And last, by its very nature a team may engender more risk taking, more creativity and entrepreneurship that a traditional director/president supported by department heads.

So where’s the hitch you ask? Why isn’t everyone doing this? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest two answers: First, the museum world is traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. Based on AAM’s 2017 Board Source survey, 55-percent of the people who make leadership decisions for museums are white, male board members over the age of 50, and their knowledge base and comfort level is all about the hierarchy. Second, and probably most important, is in order for the leadership team model to work, everybody on it has to act like a leader. No surprise here, but in my humble opinion, leadership is often an absent ingredient in too many museums and heritage organizations. In many museums it’s proffered sometimes as a reward and sometimes as a career full-stop when in fact it is anything but. Leadership is a practice, a way of behaving within an organization. Being a museum director or president asks you to be the primary person who leads, but not the only person who acts like a leader.

Yes, there are museums and heritage organizations where people have big salaries, chic clothes, the right languages, the right degrees, and fancy perquisites, but in the end, a huge part of being a good leader means being a people person. It means being someone who understands it’s not about you or about the content that brought you to the field in the beginning, but instead about the team you lead, and the people and careers you nurture. The absence of leaders who actually care about staff creates institutions where bullying is rife, where hot-shot attorneys are hired to defeat unionization, where sexually harassed women are told to go work things out with their co-workers is a horrific and bothersome bi-product of this absence of leadership.

Museums are made up of people. Whether those skills coalesce in a team of five with no top spot or in a single, much-revered individual, they are still absolutely necessary in creating humane institutions where staff take risks, think creatively, and trust one another. Because guess what? Leadership matters.

Joan Baldwin

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

The Museum Leadership Pipeline

job_stressThis week I was inspired by Michelle Zupan’s blog posting titled “What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School”. I love its direct, frank tone. What Zupan glosses over though is how many graduate students with dreams of working with collections and “doing history” end up as museum leaders.

If you use the Smithsonian’s list of Museum Studies Programs–and there are others–there are now 71 programs that offer a master’s level degree in public history or museum studies. I am not delusional and I understand that universities are not in the business of altruism. They open programs to make money, but it seems to me that if you unleash bright, enthusiastic students into the museum world every 18 or 24 months, you have an obligation to prepare them for that world.

I also understand that some graduate programs may do an excellent job at the things Zupan found wanting in her own preparation, and that it’s dangerous to condemn everyone for the mistakes and omissions of a few, but we all bear the brunt of those omissions. So every spring new graduates are hired at museums believing their new job will resemble a graduate school practicum or their internship until it isn’t. Some take jobs and then find themselves catapulted into leadership positions. Others zoom right to leadership because of its allure, and then, as Zupan points out, realize that not only do they get to do everything, they HAVE to do everything. She says that an understanding of HVAC 101 might be helpful while pointing out that new hires might also need a basic plumbing class along with Quickbooks and Excel under their belts. Not only is it stressful for the newly hired, it’s also wasteful. Museums can’t move forward when leadership is constantly learning and re-learning the basic tools of running an organization. It is why, we suspect, some museums and historical organizations hire one beginning director after another. They leave because the job has been enough of a learning experience to launch them to the next rung on the ladder. Or they leave because they can’t learn fast enough and frustrations mount up.

So for all of you out there heading toward your first pay check in the museum world, here’s the Leadership Matters list of skills/knowledge you might want ahead of time.

If you haven’t accepted a position:

  1. Understand what comparable salaries are in the city or region before accepting a position.
  2. Explore the local housing market: Can you afford to live near your job?
  3. Be willing to negotiate if #1 and 2 don’t seem right.
  4. Is there a ready-made network of museum professionals and colleagues in the area? How about other arts organizations and non-profits?

If you find yourself suddenly on the road to leadership, you might use:

  1. A healthy dose of self-awareness.
  2. Courage and a great sense of humor.
  3. Clarity when you speak and write.
  4. The ability to craft a budget and a spreadsheet and a sense of humor if you mess either one up.
  5. The ability to listen without interrupting either in your head or in conversation.
  6. A mentor or boss who sees you as someone to invest in, as someone whose personal and professional growth is important, not just to your new organization, but to the field as a whole. And who will also be someone who will support you when there’s an ice storm and your museum loses power for a week.

Joan Baldwin


Seven Things That Might Make Museum Leadership Different Than Leadership Elsewhere

museum hallway

As some of you may remember, Anne and I taught in a Getty Leadership program for international museum leaders at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Yesterday we, and our other teaching colleagues, received AAM’s report on both our on-site, face-to-face programs and the follow-up Webinars. While the evaluations were informative and immensely gratifying–it’s no surprise that despite the wonders of the Internet people still prefer seeing their instructor when they are learning something—there is clearly a hunger for more information about leadership. That made me wonder what makes leadership in museums different than say leadership in the for-profit world or elsewhere in the non-profit world.  What follows are my thoughts, but we would love to hear yours as well.

1. In the museum world sometimes leadership is a bit of surprise. You start out with a specialty, an advanced degree, an interest in a particular subject, and if you’re willing to move up, you find yourself no longer in charge of objects but people.

2. Not all museum graduate programs teach leadership. Not all museum graduate programs even act like their graduates will be entering a world where everyone isn’t nice and doesn’t treat them like they are immensely talented. Which they may be. But as we all know, work is vastly different than graduate school.

3. Until you arrive in an office with a window and a door, you think leadership is management. Then you realize they’re different, that reading a spreadsheet is about numbers and leadership is about reading personalities and people.

4. The museum world doesn’t act like there is a leadership path. It acts like there are careers that end in leadership positions and by then you should have figured it out.

5. Some museum leaders and museum boards don’t think behavior and self-awareness have anything to do with leadership.

6. Many museum boards don’t invest in staff, including staff in leadership positions, the way they invest in capital projects.

7. Unlike the library world, backed by the formidable ALA, and even the public history world, which has AHA behind it, museum leaders don’t receive similar types of support from AAM or AASLH, particularly when it comes to salary equity.

We welcome your thoughts about how YOU think museum leadership is different than non-profit or for-profit leadership.

Best regards,

Joan Baldwin

Leadership First

Green nowThis is our 13th blog post. Not that we’re superstitious or anything, but perhaps–in honor of lucky 13–it’s time to return to the word that brought us here: leadership. We believe it’s an issue that the history museum field needs to grapple with NOW. Not later, not because the who-knows-where-historical society hired an imaginative go-getter unintentionally and has a few good years.  And not because there aren’t great leaders out there, there are, but because they should be everywhere. And every history organization, from the gigantic to the tiny, needs to make leadership a priority. It’s an issue that needs to solved before all the others. So, if your big issue is better design, improved interpretation, or open-access cataloging, hold your horses, and let’s deal with leadership first.

At the conclusion of our book, Leadership Matters, we threw down the gauntlet. Who knows if anyone will listen, but we laid out a leadership agenda for individuals, institutions, funding organizations, graduate programs, and professional organizations because we want to spark a revolution. The idea is easy, but in order for it to happen, the field must change. Without forward-leaning, mission-driven, intentionally entrepreneurial leadership, no amount of collections care, building preservation, or programming will be enough to secure a museum’s future. And until we change the old way of doing things, behavior won’t change. This is change that begins with individuals acting for themselves, recognizing their own leadership development needs and advocating for training, mentoring, and new opportunities. It’s change carried forward by institutions who know that maintaining the status quo isn’t enough, and who commit to developing their organization’s human capital. It’s a change that must be supported by funding organizations who recognize leadership development and training opportunities as key to organizational capacity building. And last, it’s a revolution that must be sparked by the graduate programs who must introduce leadership training at every level. The next generation of history museum students needs to know leadership is necessary no matter where they hope to end up. And it’s as important for the chief curator or the director of education as it is for the director.

Spring, which we here in the northeast fervently hope is coming, is often the time when organizations do personnel assessments. If that’s on your to-do list either as employee, team leader, organizational leader or board president, make 2014 the year you invest in leadership. You know what to do. Make change and make leaders.

Where will you find your 10,000 hours?

practiceIn our experience few people are ambivalent about Malcolm Gladwell. (If you’ve been in an isolation tank and managed to miss his meteoric publishing success, he is the author of Outliers, Blink, among others, and most recently David & Goliath.) Gladwell’s name came up in our book Leadership Matters in a chapter called “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we elucidated the qualities  our group of 36 history and cultural museum leaders share. One of those characteristics was experience, and more specifically, the value of variety and perseverance when it comes to experience. What does this have to do with Gladwell? Quite a bit as it turns out. In his book Outliers he has a chapter on what he calls the 10,000 hour rule. In it, Gladwell expounds on research by K. Anders Ericsson, now at the University of Florida, on the differences in talent between pianists. Ericsson wanted to know why among people of similar natural abilities, some became gifted amateurs, while others took to the concert stage.

The answer has to do with practice. It turns out that those who became professional pianists steadily increased their practice time from three hours a week as children to more than double that as teens. By the time they reached their twenties they had practiced approximately 10,000 hours. Ericsson’s and subsequently Gladwell’s point is that what separates the sheep from the goats among the innately talented is time devoted  to deliberately learning, honing and practicing increasingly nuanced and difficult music. Let us point out that neither Gladwell nor Ericsson are suggesting that anyone who practices endlessly will become a concert pianist. You need the music gene first.

What does any of this have to do with leadership? We discovered that our group of leaders had their own cache of 10,000 or more hours devoted to developing or advancing their craft. One visited, blogged and wrote about museums for years before becoming a director in her own right; several worked for grant making or consulting firms where every day they dealt with a new cast of characters and a new set of problems. The same is true of one of our leaders who worked in the state legislature and another who began his career as an actor. All these experiences required repetitive decision making at the point of transaction. Even if you think 10,000 is an arbitrary number, know that collectively our leaders took advantage of every situation that offered repeated practice, recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives and providing solutions.

Leaders need to learn to turn on a dime–to pause, pivot, and change at the drop of hat, and to do so with a dose of grace and humility. If you are already a leader, where did you find your 10,000 hours? If you are an aspiring leader, will you be open, courageous, and ready to take advantage of new experiences when they are offered? Let us know.

What’s Your Plan for Leadership Development?

A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
William G.T. Shedd (1820-1894)

2014 is almost here.  Just a few more days and you’ll be back in the thick of work — meetings, programming, planning — back in the safe harbor of organizational routine.  But wait a minute: Is that the most beneficial or strategic place for you or your institution to be?   If you want to learn or hone skills, develop meaningful mentoring relationships, or move to a new level of leadership capacity, then there’s no time like the start of a bright, shiny new year to set sail and begin your journey.

In order to do any of those things, you’ve got to have a plan — a plan based not only on needs, but also on wants that help make your vision for your work a reality.  Perhaps you’re one of the very few who’ve developed a professional development plan based on your most recent performance evaluation.  (If so, we hope you hit the ground running in 2014!)  In reality, we know that neither personal development plans nor regular conversations about performance and professional growth are standard for the vast majority of nonprofit cultural organizations, so this post is for the the rest of us.

Before the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” fade away, make some time to reflect on your professional accomplishments and disappointments of 2013, the skills and talents you developed, and the ones that need work.  This worksheet will help structure your self-assessment.  Now, you’ve got some context with which to think about you in the future.

Knowing what’s on your plate for 2014, what skills and attributes are critical to advancing your leadership capacity as well as your institution’s mission?  What opportunities already exist for leadership of a project or team, or addressing an organizational gap?  How might you rearrange what’s ahead to accommodate your leadership development?  Are there places where training, honing, mentoring, experimentation and/or coaching fit in?  And how would your professional capacity-building pay off for your institution?  Imbedded in your answers will be your goals, strategies and tasks — in other words, a plan of action that you can take to your boss or your board.  This worksheet talks about goal setting.

Don’t waste another minute.  The wind is ready to fill your sails.