How Not to Write a Job Description

DanielPenfield – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106990014

This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world’s governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.

From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn’t be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience–the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients–but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire’s position description is that it’s odd.

I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, “Joan, people don’t change.” I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were “unless they want to.” In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that–despite a five-year interval–the Berkshire Museum’s culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn’t much care for.

The job description begins with this sentence: “The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world,” a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it’s hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength….” Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield’s population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world’s narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director’s time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.

Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield’s people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn’t come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world’s ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County’s wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum’s biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections’ treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board’s relentless work, will vaporize.

The museum workplace is having a moment, and it’s not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.

The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson’s The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) “The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be…” Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it’s mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.

Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they’re proud of, what they’ve accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can’t hire a search firm, don’t have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that’s how we grow.

Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I’ll see you in March.

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


Nothing Succeeds Like Succession (Planning, That Is)

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We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.

That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.

But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).

If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.

Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:

  • By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
  • Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
  • Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
  • Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
  • To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
  • Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
  • Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.

Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.

Anne W. Ackerson

Resources

BoardSource. “Fundamental Topics of Nonprofit Board Service: Executive Transition.”

California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.

National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”

Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.

Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.

* BoardSource, Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report (Washington, D.C.: BoardSource, 2017), p. 16.
** BoardSource, Leading with Intent, 2017.


5 Ways to Prepare for Museum Leadership Change and Transition

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Last week a number of thought leaders–Margaret Middleton, Nina Simon, and Seema Rao–commented on an extraordinary piece that appeared in The Phoenix New Times. Titled “Nightmare at the Phoenix Art Museum: Docents are Fleeing, Donors Drying Up,” it details a confrontation between longtime docents and a museum director. Leaving aside the article’s gossipy style, it lays bare a whole host of issues about the 21st-century museum without really meaning to.

It’s a long article which you can find by clicking on The Phoenix New Times above. And just so you know, like many counterculture newspapers, the New Times began on a college campus in the wake of the Kent State tragedy. More recently it’s had notable and ongoing issues–including the arrest of its editors–resulting from its coverage of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff recently pardoned by President Trump. But back to the Phoenix Art Museum. In case you don’t have the patience to read a multi-page article about another museum’s woes, here are the highlights: Amada Cruz became director of the Phoenix Art Museum in 2014, replacing a longtime male director; the article also alleges that more than 100 of the docent staff have been fired or left, angered by the museum’s change in direction. The article suggests more than a dozen employees resigned as well as a result of Cruz’s leadership.

And before we go any further–some disclaimers. This is one article. We have no inside knowledge, nor do we pretend to, nor, might we add, are there multiple articles on this story. That said, if we get out of the weeds of she said, she said, what can we learn? First, Phoenix Art Museum is a perfect example of an organization hit hard by the 2008 recession that offered its directorship to a woman. This is not a bad thing. Women directors are scarce in the rarified air of budgets over $10 million. However, studies show that across the for-profit and the non-profit world, women are more likely to lead in times of crisis. Why? Is that the moment when boards of trustees believe a woman’s combination of soft skills and collaboration may actually be useful? Perhaps.

And don’t doubt for a moment that leadership and gender aren’t inextricably intwined. Boards come to the table just like the rest of us bringing the baggage of a lifetime–slights, jealousies, likes, dislikes–and, whether articulated or not, all of that comes to bear on their decision making. For more about the complexities of this issue, read Harvard Business Review’s “Why Are Women Discriminated Against in Hiring Decisions?”

Second, change is hard, and succeeding a longtime executive director is harder. (Phoenix Art Museum’s former director held the position for 32 years.) Unlike schools, some colleges, and many churches, few museums appoint interim directors to serve while the board, staff and volunteers grieve and get over the outgoing leader. And yet, boards and senior staff often forget how much change affects all staff, even volunteers.

Third, change at the top often brings staff turnover throughout an institution. Any time an executive director leaves, there’s reshuffling. Sometimes staff leaves with the outgoing director. Sometimes senior staff stay because of the director, but ultimately find her impending absence a motivator to find new positions, too. And sometimes the chemistry with the new director just isn’t there, and staff, especially senior staff who have a lot of contact with the ED, jump ship.

Last, volunteers are people. They may be treated like wallpaper in a large organization, but a highly-trained, well-organized volunteer corps is staff. They represent the organization on a day-to-day basis in front of the public. Whether it’s true or not, one of the things that comes across in the Phoenix Art Museum story is how ambushed the volunteers felt. Is it possible that a lack of transparency and poor or absent communication left them feeling as though their years of training and knowledge wasn’t applicable any more? If there was going to be a shift in emphasis from say the sage-on-the-stage approach to a more Museum-Hack-collaborative-method of gallery interpretation shouldn’t the volunteers have participated in the change? They are, after all, members not only of the workforce, but donors of time, and in many cases money, and a voice to be reckoned with. That doesn’t mean they call the shots, but inclusion means inclusion.

Lessons Learned

If your organization is going through a transition, think about:

  • Communication. Communication. Communication. And remember, communication also includes listening. A lot of listening. And that may mean listening to people who are hugely upset and distressed.
  • Channel your inner Heath Brother and “paint the destination postcard,” because change is easier when you know where you’re going.
  • Prepare for change. Work with your staff to understand bias and how it intertwines and impacts change and leadership.
  • Prepare a succession plan. According to AAM only 14-percent of AAM-accredited museums and 8-percent of non-AAM accredited museums have one. If you plan for natural disasters, you ought to plan for leadership transition.
  • If you are a woman leader you probably already know you will be judged differently in your practice of leadership than a man. Know how that practice plays out. 

Yours for healthy change and succession,

Joan Baldwin