Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?
We can’t begin this week without mentioning museum staff who are among the many U.S. Government workers furloughed for a month. Words aren’t worth much, but we feel for you. We often whine on these pages about low pay, but you’re in the land of no pay, and we wish the shutdown would end. It’s likely cold comfort, but we’re proud AAMD offers a list of museums across the country offering government workers free admission. If you are among the federal workers currently out of work, check this out: a state by state list of free admission.
Based on last week’s post–a back-and-forth between Frank Vagnone and me –I thought maybe we should talk about governing boards. If you’re a leader they’re the people you probably see a lot of–some weeks maybe too much. They are the deciders. They may exercise that obligation too frequently or not often enough. They may fret about capital expenses, about decaying infrastructure, about risk, but–if you’re a leader, here’s a question for you–does your board worry about staff? Or is the staff your problem? You and your leadership team hire them, nurture them, and, if need be, fire them. What does your board know about them?
Here are some questions for you and your board:
For you, the museum leader:
- Do you know what it costs to live in your county, city or town? Not what it costs you, what it costs your lowest paid full-time employee.
- Do you know what the living wage is for your locale?
- Do you know the ratio between your salary and your lowest paid FTE?
- What benchmarks do you use to set salaries?
- Do you know whether your organization’s salaries are equitable or not? Does your museum or heritage organization have a race/gender pay gap?
- What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? Is it among the 46-percent of museum boards that are all white?
For your board members:
- Do they know what it costs to live in your county, city or town?
- Do they understand what a living wage is and why it matters?
- Does your board understand there’s a national gender pay gap and how it affects your organization?
- What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? How does it affect the board’s decision making? How does it affect the community’s view of your organization? Is that something your board has discussed?
- Have the words “implicit bias” ever been mentioned at a board meeting? If so, what happened?
Have you and your board tried any of the following:
- Have you talked about wage equity as a serious and ongoing problem in the museum world?
- Have you addressed the costs of hiring, replacing and retraining staff?
- Do you and your board know what it’s like to live in your community on the lowest hourly wage your organization offers?
- Do you pay men more than women? Do you pay white staff more than staff of color? And that’s not a question about your personal beliefs, it’s about what actually happens.
- Has your board and your organization come to consensus on a values statement?
These are complex problems. Board and staff have to believe in change to make it happen.
- Board and staff are co-dependent. Make sure you have the right people on the staff and on the board. Acknowledge the importance of each team, board and staff.
- Make your meetings about doing rather than reviewing. Plan, reflect, strategize.
- There are museums without walls, without collections, but there are almost none without staff. Paid or volunteer, staff carry out mission and reflect the museum’s values every day. Boards and leaders who don’t invest in staff and volunteers equitably, preside over a a work and volunteer force that’s disaffected, dissatisfied and discouraged.
- Find hope and optimism. If staff feels victimized, the solution isn’t to hire new staff, it’s to find the source of their victimization, and correct it.
- Don’t let yourself fall into the scarcity mindset: the pie is as big as you choose to make it.
- Staff matter. Let them know it.
Image: Field Museum staff at the Speak Up for Science March, 2017
Leadership Matters writes a lot about salaries, and this week a question on Facebook deserves a closer look. Our colleague, Franklin Vagnone, President and CEO of Old Salem Museum and Gardens in Winston Salem, NC, asked a group of museum colleagues if they knew anything about the ratio between nonprofit CEO pay and staff salaries. Because it’s Facebook, Frank got a lot of comments, but no definitive answers.
Considering that salaries in general, and CEO salaries in particular, are not the stuff of social media conversations, Frank’s question was about as transparent as it comes. In short, he wanted to know what the ratio is between a CEO’s salary and the lowest paid staff member. The numbers for the corporate world are available courtesy of Bloomberg, and range from a frightening 1,205 to 1 to a more modest, yet still dynamic, 133 to 1. But Google the same question for nonprofits and you discover a hot mess. Not to mention, again, no real answers. You’ll find the average ED pay for a US nonprofit hovers between $64,999 to 88,000, but nothing about the salary relationship between leader and staff.
Among the 300 million hits from Google, none of the first three pages offered any answers. There are cautionary articles about making sure nonprofits meet their state’s minimum wage laws, and/or using living wage calculators to set salaries. There are also articles about nonprofit CEO pay and how much might be too much. But neither I nor Vagnone could find anything about adjusting a leader’s salary to make the ratio more equitable.
At Old Salem Museum and Gardens Vagnone and his board have spent the last two years in an equity initiative, making sure all staff receive a living wage as determined for Forsyth County, NC. It’s important to note that a living wage in Forsyth County, North Carolina is NOT a living wage in New York City or San Francisco or Allegany County, Maryland. Living wages reflect, among other things, cost of living, thus locations with high rent, taxes, food costs, and transportation by necessity have a higher living wage than places where the cost of living is lower.
“My goal is not to put my thumb on other people, and keep their pay low. It’s the opposite,” Vagnone said. “Nonprofits are collaborative entities, and we all should be able to be equitably compensated based on experience and skill.” Vagnone and his board use various comparables such as the AAM National Museum Salary Survey along with salary information from similar North Carolina sites, but these don’t confront the issue of CEO pay versus the lowest FT employee ratio. “Nonprofit boards are usually populated with corporate executives,” Vagnone said. “They come to nonprofit pay from the for-profit perspective. In some cases, boards are not always in tune with organizations they manage,” Vagnone added.
After talking through the problem, here is a mash-up of Vagnone’s and my take-aways:
- Someone needs to do some research on this for the museum world and make it available.
- Solving this isn’t an entirely numeric issue. It’s also an ethical issue.
- Boards and CEO’s need to make sure they’ve dealt with the living wage/equitable wage problem for all staff.
- CEO’s/ED’s salaries need to have an ethical and reasonable relationship to staff’s. Those numbers will differ based on a huge number of variables including museum location, operating budget, availability and size of endowment(s), number of staff, and museum discipline, but boards and leaders should be intentional about the ratio.
- It’s important that boards and executive directors work staff salaries in an ethical direction.
Has your organization tackled this problem? If so, what was the result?
It’s a new year. For many it’s a time of resolutions. Eating healthier, exercising more, seeing friends, meditation, top lists of things we hope to do. But how about work? And most particularly how about work in your museum or heritage organization? What’s on the list there? Well, everyone wants a raise, but here’s another thought: How about owning what you do? How about making your work matter to you and your organization?
My grandmother–a woman of enormous independence for someone raised at the turn-of-the-last century–used to describe particular individuals with a sigh and pronounce, “She’ll only go as far as she’s pushed.” Needless to say, this was not a compliment. What she valued were individuals who not only completed whatever was assigned, but went a step further, as opposed to humans who had to be corralled into work, completing it without an ounce of extra thought or energy.
Why do my grandmother’s thoughts matter? Because, like her, employers, even at museums and heritage organizations where the sense of urgency is sometimes absent, prefer proactive rather than reactive staff. There is a laziness–maybe born of anger or job dissatisfaction–that allows staff to say things like “That’s not my job,” or “She didn’t tell me to do that so I’m not doing it,” or “He’ll be angry if I go ahead, so better to wait.”
Yes, you may work for someone who is an epically bad communicator, but it’s your career that’s at stake here, not hers. And while you’re thinking about this, know that according to a recent study, a shocking 37-percent of managers have no clue what their staff is working on. That means more than a third of employees can be on a permanent coffee break as long as they appear to be engaged in some form of activity. So…if you work for an individual you suspect may have no clue about your day-to-day work life, much less your career, here are some things you may want to contemplate.
- If you don’t already have a standing appointment with your boss, make one.
- Outline your day, hour-to-hour, and quantify percentages so you (and your boss) can see how much of your time is spent on what.
- Talk about prioritizing. Maybe you do a lot of nice things–maybe you’re the person who cleans out the volunteer break room or restocks the education space–and it’s nice, but you’re underutilized. You do it because others don’t, but it means you’re not doing things nearer and dear to your heart or your job description. And if you’re underutilized, you may be busy, but you’re likely not happy or challenged.
- Evaluate whether you’re reactive or proactive. Talk with your boss about how that could or should change. Own your goals and push for them.
And if you’re a leader, think about:
- How you communicate. Are tasks poorly executed because what staff heard was mushy and confusing? Do you ever ask “Did I explain that well enough?”
- Listen to your staff. Watch for signs of distress. Is one job full of responsibility but no authority? Does everything have to be checked with a higher power–like you? Are other staff showing signs of boredom? Are deadlines met in five seconds?
- Check-in often. Remember, check-ins don’t have to be formal. You can check-in in the hall or an office doorway, but they need to be meaningful. You need to have the time to focus and remember what your last conversation was about.
- Set deadlines and keep them. Is there a sense they matter because it will take your staff about a nanosecond to realize if deadlines don’t matter to you, they don’t need to matter to them.
- Know whether your staff is challenged or not. A recent study by Salary.com showed that more than 50-percent of employees were either not challenged or bored at work so ask yourself whether you really know what’s going on.
Work can’t be a bowl of cherries every day, but presumably many of us picked the museum field because we love it. We love collections or collections care or exhibition design or research or brilliant social media or school groups. In a world where development departments work double time nobody should be bored, unchallenged or feel they can’t move forward on a given project because they don’t have the autonomy. It’s January and a natural time for change.
Make some. Start today.
Thank you to our 875 Leadership Matters followers around the world and thousands more readers who looked at our pages a remarkable 55,300 times in 2018. And just in case you are new to Leadership Matters, here are our five most popular posts for 2018.
- The Silent Treatment
- Museum Pay (Again)
- 5 Pieces of Advice
- What’s Missing from 7 Factors….
- Guest Post: The HR Problem
Things & people who inspired us
- AASLH posting salary ranges and the National EMP Network for giving voice to the salary transparency effort.
- Colleen Dilenschneider for her clear, insightful look at the non-profit world.
- Susie Wilkening for her research about who visits museums and why.
- Appointments of Linda Harrison as President and CEO of the Newark Museum; Kaywin Feldman as the National Gallery of Art’s fifth director and Anthea Hartig as the first woman director of the Museum of American History, plus many others — the diverse list of directors and curators is growing and, for that, we are very inspired!
- MOMA Protests
- Hannah Hethmon’s great list of museum and library allied podcasts.
- Our Johns Hopkins University graduate students.
- The men and women attending the AASLH Leadership Forum this year and our colleague, Greg Stevens, with whom we developed and led the Forum’s agenda.
Looking Forward: Where to Find Us in 2019
- February 5, 2019, Baylor University, Waco, Texas: Where we will deliver the Largent Lecture on the topic of women in the museum workplace.
- Two Webinars for the Office of Programs and Outreach at the Wisconsin Historical Society: Leadership Matters: Thoughts on 21st-Century Museum Leadership, January 30 and Women in Museums on March13, 2019
- Pennsylvania Museums Annual Conference, Keynote Address, April 7-9, 2019
- AASLH Annual Meeting August 28-31 in Philadelphia
Our 2019 Wishlist
- For the American Alliance of Museums [AAM] and the American Association of State & Local History [AASLH] to join forces to combat sexual harassment in the museum/heritage organization workplace.
- For museums, their boards and leadership to lead the non-profit world in closing the gender pay gap.
- For museum and heritage organization boards to commit to spending a minimum of two meetings a year on why they do what they do, what it means, and how to be better leaders.
- For museums, their boards and leadership to work toward eliminating tokenism, bias, and stereotyping throughout the hiring process.
- For AAM & AASLH to follow the lead of the American Library Association and pass a living wage resolution.
This is for all the museum women out there because, to be honest, you do a crap job of taking care of yourself.
It’s almost the end of the year. If you’re in academia, you’re either taking exams, finishing papers or grading them. If you work in development, it’s the annual nail biter where you find out if people like your organization more than last year. For some of you it’s budget season or planning season or holiday no-school programming season. Wherever you look it’s stressful. And somehow we women are excellent at owning stress–ours and everyone else’s. Why is that?
As we reach toward the third decade of the 21st century, you might imagine that for women at work things might be better than they were 70 years ago. Not really. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74.6 million women work, an increase of 24-percent since WWII; 40-percent of women in the workforce have college degrees; and one in three lawyers are women. Okay, you say, what’s so bad about that? It sounds like progress. And it is except that: Women are the primary or sole earners for 40-percent of households; women are more likely to stop working to care for an elderly family member; the United States is the only industrialized country without a national paid leave policy for mothers; and women are paid less. According to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, “after adjusting for factors like labor force experience, union status, race and ethnicity, and occupation, much of the gender wage gap remains unexplained, suggesting that labor market discrimination plays an important role. In fact, almost 60 percent of women would earn more if they were paid the same as men with equivalent levels of education and work hours.” All of that is stressful, and that is before you add in the peculiarities of individual circumstance.
Last week our students completed emotional budgets. Essentially they are maps of what’s going on in your life. They chart how you spend your time. They are as different as the people who make them. Some are computer generated pie charts that could have come from Google. Others are the size of wall maps and decorated with glitter. Why do them? Sometimes it’s useful to put your life down in color and confront the fact that if 50-percent of your time goes to your soul-sucking job, 25-percent to being a parent; 20-percent to partner and home, then there is a measly 5-percent left over for you.
And don’t think it doesn’t matter. We all need more than 5-percent. Life is challenging and so are museums. That’s part of why we like working in them. But poor self care makes you mean, and sometimes cranky, and if you’re not nice at work you get a reputation for impatience and snappishness. So what to do? Here are five things to think about as we roll toward the end of 2018.
- You need to take care of yourself. You, your family, and your friends will all benefit from a happier, healthier you.
- Put your health first. Somehow women don’t. It’s something embedded in our DNA that says, I can do this. My temperature is only 101. I haven’t pick one: (thrown up, cried, coughed up a lung) for at least an hour. No you can’t. Stay home. Ask for help. Take care of yourself.
- Give yourself some alone time. Even if it’s only a short walk in the middle of a work day, take time alone. Let your thoughts settle. Regroup.
- My mother used to have a little note near her phone. This was the era of landlines so the phone never moved. The note said, “Say no.” I thought it was hysterical, but in retrospect, we all should have that note. It’s your internal monitor that says, I don’t have time, energy or the skillset to do that. (It also might say, I’m not going to enable you, you do it.) It’s a learned skill to say no nicely, and not to judge yourself for bowing out.
- Make a tiny change. Promise yourself that in the coming year you will do something different that’s just for you. Don’t make it so grandiose that it feels impossible, make it doable. Try a new recipe once a month. Walk every day that it’s sunny. Read a poem before bed. Whatever floats your boat and is for you.
And last, be helpful and supportive to your women colleagues at work. Everyone has bad days. Learning to shoulder stress, individually and as a team, is part of leadership.
P.S. Leadership Matters will be on vacation next week (December 24-30). It will return Jan. 2 with some wishes for the New Year.