Museum Leaders and We’ve Always Done It That Way

AssemblylineIMG

Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.

We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.

Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is.  In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.

But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?

So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.

  1. Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
  2. If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
  3. Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
  4. Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
  5. Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
  6. Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.

Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership: The Why, Not the How

why how what

This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.

All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.

What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first?  Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for?  Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?

If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.

So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:

  • Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
  • If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
  • If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
  • Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
  • Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.

Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin


Museums and the Balance of Power: Some Things to Think About

balance-of-power

This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell.  With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.

But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.

Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times,  as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.

But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer,  on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)

So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:

  • Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
  • If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
  • Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
  • If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
  • As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.

Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership in Trumplandia

earth-day

If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.

  • Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
  • Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
  • Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
  • If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
  • Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
  • Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
  • Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
  • Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.

If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.

Joan H. Baldwin


Museums and a Community-Connected Staff

womens-march-banner

It’s Sunday morning. Leadership Matters has just returned from 36 hours away. We went to Seneca Falls, NY, to join 10,000 people in support of women’s rights–but particularly women of color and transgender and queer women–whose workplace issues, even in the august halls of museums and heritage organizations, dwarf complaints from their more privileged white sisters.

Why Seneca Falls? For readers from outside the United States, Seneca Falls was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yes, it’s dismaying that we’re still having a variation of the same conversation 169 years later, but so be it. The day was glorious. The speeches, from march organizer and Auburn, NY mayor Marina Carnicelli, to tribal leaders from the Seneca and Akwesasne Mohawk nations, to our own Sally Roesch Wagner, a professor, author, speaker, and museum founder who we interviewed for Leadership Matters, were inspiring. They were uplifting not just for their words, but because while we listened we were part of the 4+ million people on seven continents who took time to stand up for what they believe in.

love-not-hate-makes-american-great

Which brings us to our real focus: How important it is for museum staff to participate, not just in the life of the museum, but in the community. Don’t say you don’t have time. Do you vote? Can you recognize your state representatives, your city council people people, your town select people if you see them on the street? Do you speak to them? What do you do as a staff or as individuals to make your community a better place? If the answer is not much, think about what would happen if your staff showed up to help pack or serve food at the local soup kitchen, if you picked up trash in a local park or took old photographs to the community nursing home?

Museums are like novels or poems. They provide visitors a chance to step outside their own lives, to experience something different, and to make connections to the world they live in. As museum staff, how can we do our best work, interpret the past, link art and culture or connect to the natural world, unless we actually live in it? So as we begin 2017, make a promise to participate. Do what you can. Do what engages you. If you need inspiration, check out the Womensmarch 10 actions in 100 Days. Even if this isn’t “your” issue, it’s a great model for engagement. That way on January 1, 2018, when you look back, maybe it will be with a new understanding and commitment to some part of your community, city or region.

Good luck and let us know how you participate.

Joan Baldwin


Just Because Museums Are Non-Profit Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Pay Well

pay-peanuts

It’s January, and it’s the time of year when museum staff and leadership can turn cranky in a heartbeat. Here in the northeast our days start with dark mornings, and are often accompanied by snow and cold. You get the picture. It’s a time for fuzzy slippers and a good book. And if you’re not a book person, I can heartedly recommend the Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook page. Scrolling through their posts, I always find something interesting and/or inspiring to read.

This week Alison Little posted a job description followed by a six-question poll. She asked readers to guess the type of job described –exempt or non-exempt–the salary range or whether it’s not a paid job at all, but rather a volunteer opportunity. Thankfully, she didn’t identify the job’s source since it’s the HR equivalent of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, a Frankenjob of tasks that may need doing, but have no connection to one another. As of January 8 there were 35 comments.

If you are a museum leader or a board member, if you plan to hire sometime in the coming year, you owe it to yourself to read these comments. You need to understand the world of museum HR, and, perhaps most importantly, regardless of your museum role, you need to make a passionate case for investing in staff. Why? Well, the obvious answer is because without staff your museum will grind to a halt. You may have fabulous collections, you may have a great narrative or you may have both, but collections can’t speak on their own. They are mute. They need smart, imaginative folks to knit together all the ideas an individual object, site, experiment, invention or living creature generates, and engage your audience. In short: you need the best staff you can afford, not the most staff for the least amount of money; the best, so you can pay them a living wage so they won’t burn out waiting tables on the side, and so they won’t spend their free time looking for better paying museum jobs.

If you are a museum leader or a board member do not ever laugh ruefully about low salaries and say, “Well, we’re a nonprofit,” as if your 501c-3 designation permits you to pay less than the living wage. Being a nonprofit means the government recognizes the public benefit your organization provides society.  Your concern is the trust you hold for the public, not for your shareholders like a for-profit organization. To fulfill that trust you need a decently paid staff. It’s time the museum world addressed this problem. So whether you’re an emerging professional or a mid-career staff member, a museum leader or a board member, when you think of your museum, don’t think of a hierarchy of collections first, followed by buildings, and then staff. Put staff at the top. Value them. Pay them a living wage. (As we’ve said many times here, using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator will help you.) Let’s make 2017 the year museums and heritage organizations commit to raising salaries and benefits. Idealism won’t pay the bills.

Joan Baldwin