Mentors and mentorship seem to be having a moment. From annual meetings where mentors and mentees meet up, to organizations dedicated to mentoring, talk of mentors is in the wind. But here’s a little secret: There are likely as many different ideas about mentorships as there are people, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
About a lifetime ago mentors were the province of business. They were invariably white men and they were there to help give their compatriots a leg up. Sometimes they knew a ton about business craft, sometimes they possessed a wealth of connections. Either way, they helped when paths diverged and choices had to be made. And because like follows like, more white men were mentored than anybody else.
I could be wrong, but 25 years ago, mentoring in the museum/heritage sector was in its infancy if it existed at all. It’s possible the museum field was late to the mentor party because just as it ignored leadership, it also ignored its trappings, preferring to let curators spring fully formed into the director’s office, as if careers dedicated to research and exhibitions prepared anyone for dealing with human nature writ large. It’s also possible the museum world’s mentorship reluctance was slow to evolve because it seemed “businesslike.” Museums didn’t want to be seen as businesses. They were different. And while the for-profit world isn’t perfect, far from it–there is an expectation in the B-Schools that everyone will lead, making the leadership skillset a component of every degree. So while business trained leaders, the museum and nonprofit world laid the groundwork for some epic 21st-century HR and leadership failures. But I digress.
Leadership and mentorship are halves of a coin. As a leader learning never stops, and mentorship allows you to pay it forward while continuing to learn. I am lucky enough to work at an institution that assigns new faculty and staff mentors. That means my new program leader will partner with another human who will guide her during her first year on campus. One of the myths about mentorship is that older, wiser folk counsel younger ones, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s about organizational or job experience. In those cases age doesn’t matter. Your mentor could be 32 and know your heritage organization inside out, and you could be pushing 50, vastly experienced, yet still need to learn your new organization’s DNA.
And that’s another mentorship myth: One person–the mentor–doesn’t do all the work while the other–the mentee waits for the magic to happen. Mentorships are two-way streets. If you’re the mentee, it helps if you spend time thinking deeply about your career plan, if you know where you want to go, but most importantly why. Your mentor can help hone your plan, point out places it may be unreasonable or suggest side roads that help you achieve your goals in a different way. Think Glinda the Good Witch. (“You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”)
And speaking of Glinda, here’s another mentor thought: Women need mentors now more than ever. In a workplace like the museum world, that’s 50.1-percent female, with a population whose jobs were hard hit by COVID, women need the alliances mentorships provide, particularly since a percentage of women may continue to work remotely. While remote work has its advantages–there is no trailing partner if one of you can work remotely, and it often makes child and elder care issues easier–it lacks the social networks of an office environment. It’s harder to make professional contacts over Zoom than it is around the coffee machine. And bottom line? Studies tell us that people in the mentor equation, whether mentor or mentee, feel empowered, have more confidence, and not surprisingly, get promoted more often than the un-mentored.
So…if you want a mentor:
- Remember, it’s not about age, but it is about compatibility.
- Mentoring doesn’t have to be about your entire career plan. You can be mentored around a specific skill.
- Be clear about your goals and your career plan. Sometimes mentorships begin around transition–you hope to move up or out–and want guidance as you take the next step.
- Asking someone you know to mentor you is clearly different from asking someone you don’t know: Either way be respectful of their time. Begin with a brief meeting and the opportunity to talk. See how things play out. If after meeting more than once, this is a person you still trust and admire, and the feeling seems to be mutual, ask about a mentor/mentee relationship.
- Self reflection is key. Do the work ahead of your mentor meetings so you know the questions you want to focus on.
If you’re asked to be a mentor:
- Say thank you. Acknowledge the courage it takes to approach someone a chapter or two ahead of you in the museum world, not to mention it’s an honor to be singled out for your wisdom and decision making.
- Mentees take time. Be clear in your own mind about the time you have to give. You may want to advise on one question–learning to speak up in meetings, for example– and see how the mentor relationship goes before committing to a full mentorship.
- Think about the skills you’re willing to help with. Do your potential mentor’s needs and your skills match?
- A mentorship isn’t a lifetime commitment. Know when to kick your mentee out of the nest.
For both mentors and mentees: Think outside the box. We’re all more comfortable with people we think we know, and sometimes that’s just what we need, but we learn more (and more quickly) from those whose life experiences are different from ours. And don’t forget to be an active listener. Mentorship isn’t about fixing someone’s career so much as holding up a mirror to help your mentee reflect on the right questions. (“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you’re on earth, the more experience you are sure to get.” The Wizard of Oz.)
Stay well, stay cool, and depending on where you are, stay dry.
See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn’t come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it’s because their work is satisfactory. Their budget–another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities– remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you’d call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn’t actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.
I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It’s not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who’ve demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what’s going on? There’s a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?
Admittedly, if you’re in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals–whether it’s a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee– are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it’s subtler than that. Maybe they’re in the top spot or maybe they’re launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing’s for sure: over the long haul, they didn’t get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you’re not learning, and you’re not getting better. You’re autonomous, but you’re also–deep down– unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague’s suggestions or your leader’s directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it’s not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn’t ask for all that. And now we don’t need it. And it’s costing us money. True of course, but that’s because they weren’t actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.
So what should you do if you’re asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?
- Celebrate. Leaders don’t give stretch assignments to losers.
- Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
- If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
- Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you’re still on track and driving in the lane?
- Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
- If people put you off by refusing to meet–they’re too busy, there’s a worldwide pandemic–set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you’ve accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
- If you’re not sure about something, ask questions.
And if you’re a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?
- Know what you don’t know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it’s cut?
- If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what’s happening. Your successors will thank you.
- Find the documentation about performance. What’s been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
- Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it’s good to know them and their skill set.
- Remember, if they’ve submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren’t the problem so don’t blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that’s on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
- Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.
It’s almost July. Be well. Stay cool.
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you’re in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.
Last Friday I spent some time with three awesome museum women. We were tasked with speaking to a group of college-age interns, who might or might not enter the museum field. Our first question was what advice would we give our 21-year old selves, if the clock turned backward? For me, it prompted a lot of self-reflection. In college, I didn’t always listen to my mentors. I was polite, but I didn’t always internalize and reflect on the advice offered.
So here, for anyone who’s listening, a baker’s dozen of things I wish I’d understood at the tender age of 21.
- That self-advocacy is a practice, and it’s different from making it all about you. Self care brings out your best; selfishness, your worst.
- That a woman’s workplace is different from a man’s. That a woman of color’s workplace is different than a white woman’s.
- Empathy has a key function in the museum workplace, and empathy doesn’t mean playing Ms. Fix It.
- That it’s important to understand your field of practice, whether it’s museums, archives, galleries or libraries. That studying your field as if it were a country you might visit is important. Learn the culture. Teach yourself who is powerful and why, and who is not powerful and why.
- That suffering and scarcity are not traditions that should be passed from one generation of museum workers to the next. Ridiculous schedules, pitiful salaries and job descriptions that read like indentured servitude are a form of hazing. Don’t take a job that requires another job to make you whole. See #4.
- That engaging with people in your workplace–regardless of age, race, position or gender– is important. It’s not a favor you do, it’s a learning experience. Sharing stories builds trust. See #s 4 and 12.
- That not all problems deserve the drama they receive. Stay in the present. Blame can wait. Solve the problem and move forward.
- A career needs to feed your soul, but it may not do that every day. Watch for side roads. They are slower, but the experience is entirely different. Be open to taking them.
- Stand up for your colleagues. Not standing up for them is selfish. See #1. You may be sure you’re not racist, classist, sexist, fattist, but remember the writer’s maxim: Show don’t tell. It’s not about your beliefs as much as your actions.
- Who told you you have to do everything perfectly, by yourself, the first time? Ask if you don’t understand or if you need help. Collaborating doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad colleague. It generates good ideas.
- One of the great joys of the museum workplace–indeed of any workplace– is learning. You aren’t an expert. You may know a lot, but there’s always someone who knows something more. #neverstoplearning.
- Don’t depend on fate or love or a mentor to orchestrate your career. It’s your career. Strategize for yourself the same way you would for an organization.
- Be kind.
Be well and stay safe.
This week I received a copy of Museums and Creative Aging: A Healthful Partnership, 70 free, downloadable pages published by AAM. In a post-COVID world, you may have enough on your plate. After all, there’s reopening your site, decolonizing your collection, and the undoing decades of subtle and not so subtle systemic racism, not to mention summer’s frightening temperatures, drought and hurricanes, to remind us of climate change. Should you really have to worry about the over-55’s starting to populate your galleries and heritage sites once again? Well, no, you don’t have to, but you’ll miss out. For one thing Museums and Creative Aging is written by Marjorie Schwarzer. If you haven’t read her Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of the Museum in America, you should. She’s the real deal, a writer who can construct a great sentence, while also telling you what you need to know.
Schwarzer focuses on four areas, so if 14 months of lockdown has eroded your attention span, go directly to the Executive Summary where you’ll discover the report breaks down into four sections: Aging and Ageism in American Society; followed by chapters on Positive Aging, Case Studies, and Lessons Learned. It concludes with a call to action for the field. I read the first chapter on “Aging and Ageism” feeling a little aggrieved, convinced that Schwarzer wouldn’t mention the museum workplace or issues of gender. I was wrong. She gently, yet emphatically, makes the point that problems in society also show up in our boards of trustees, volunteer groups and offices. The chapter is peppered with unnerving data like the fact that by 2035 there will be more adults over 65 in the United States than children, not to mention that even though overall life expectancy for today’s children is still below 80, most, according to Brookings, will exceed that, many living into the next century. Schwarzer touches, however, briefly, on the fact that aging and gender are inextricably intwined–women generally live longer than men–that society’s focus on youthfulness pressures women in the workplace in ways men don’t experience, forcing women to conform to youthful stereotypes. And although she doesn’t directly reference it, the ongoing gender pay gap keeps women in the workforce longer than necessary were salaries more equitable.
While I understand and applaud the importance of this report, both in terms of what museums do and who they serve, I would love to see Schwarzer turn her lens toward the museum workplace. Yes, the museum world’s struggles represent many of the same struggles found in the American workplace writ large, but they are confounded by organizations and leadership who fail to put staff first, who fail to offer basic personnel policies, whose board members use their perceived personal power to take advantage of staff, and on and on. And, like other work sectors, many of our workplace problems–and leadership problems–aren’t one thing. They are, in fact, intersectional. For example, Schwarzer makes the point that many of today’s LGBTQ+ elders face additional struggles because they came of age when support systems were flimsy and role models non-existent. So if you’re a person of color, over 60, LGBTQ+, and identify as female, how many different pathways for hatred, fear or simple dismissal can you experience? And how does that affect your ability to come to work each day and be your best most productive self, wherever you work in a museum or heritage organization? And as a leader, how do you make sure a person whose identity is varied and intersectional–an individual many say they want on their teams–is safe, seen and supported?
Maybe it’s just me, but almost daily I experience a schism in the museum world. On the one hand there are angry, hurt, demeaned museum workers, whose stories appear on @changethemuseum and in commentary from Museum Workers Speak, the Equity Coalition, Museum Hue, and GEMM. Those support/special interest groups, and there are more, all formed in the last decade in an effort to address particular issues within the 135,000 museum workforce. (Just an FYI, that figure is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2021. It represents an increase over January 2021, but still lags significantly behind December of 2019 when the number was 177,200.) Yet when many of those same folks come together tomorrow for AAM’s annual meeting, will there be a focus on workplace issues? There are a million problems (not to mention successes) affecting museums and heritage organizations from the outside, all in need of understanding, but wouldn’t it be helpful to turn the lens on staff once in a while? To draw on the expertise of all the people working to support museum workers wherever and whoever they are? Just a thought.
Suddenly it’s summer. Stay well, stay cool, and be kind.
How many of us know a museum where the mantra–even in this post-COVID reawakening–is one of can’t, meaning an absence of resources prevents the organization from changing? It’s a mindset that’s riddled museums and heritage organizations for decades, often those founded in a great rush of concern around preserving a particular building, event or individual collection. What begins as promise, excitement, and hope devolves into a culture of “Well we can’t (you fill in the verb here) because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The result is museums turned inward rather than out, clinging to the familiar rather than walking a path toward change. In this kind of culture, struggle and sacrifice become virtues. Doing without, frenetically working to maintain a mediocrity no one cares about becomes the norm, inverting healthy museum behavior. Instead, work becomes a virtue, and in the worst cases, a loyalty test. It’s brutal, and it’s unhealthy both organizationally and individually.
Don’t get me wrong. Even paranoids have enemies. As the country emerges from the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, many museums and heritage organizations, opening their doors for the first time, have more than enough PTSD to go around. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s studies, one in three of them will find themselves working through the myriad state regulations in order to close rather than grow. But one of COVID’s counter-intuitive blessings is that it’s given all of us a hinge moment, a fork in the road, an opportunity to ditch what didn’t work and start again differently.
Do you work in an organization where scarcity is the love language? How has it affected you? And by that I don’t mean are you underpaid or under-benefited? That’s another blog post. What I mean is has that culture started to affect you as a person? Have you developed a kind of “Don’t worry about me, if I fall, I fall” philosophy? How’s that working for you? When you read yet another piece about self care, do you secretly think, “Well, that’s not for us. We simply have too much on our plate?”
And yet who among us doesn’t benefit from a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, close friends, great music, laughter, you name it, all the things that refresh, recharge and sustain us. And sustaining us–leaders and their museum, archive and heritage teams–is key to building organizations better able to respond, rebuild, and change now we’ve arrived at the post-COVID fork in the road. So if you’re a leader of a museum or leading a museum team or program, consider the following:
- Do away with running on empty and acknowledge the importance of time spent on self: Spend five minutes in a staff meeting and ask everyone to report one thing they’ve done that counts as self-care.
- Are you and your team drinking enough? No, not the after work kind, the hydration kind. Sounds dumb, but adults often don’t drink enough. Hydration affects mood, memory and attention. Many sites have closed water fountains because of COVID. Sitting down for a meeting? Provide water.
- Vacation: Make it happen. No need to reiterate that it’s been a difficult and challenging year. For many Summer 2020 was either spent worrying in Zoom meetings or trying (and failing) to open or reopen. Americans are among the most overworked people in the world. If your organization offers paid vacation, make sure you (and your team)take what’s coming to them.
- Don’t forget to mentor or just engage with colleagues. Research shows that helping others, being empathetic, engaging in active listening as opposed to quick fixes, helps you as well.
- Take a moment: It’s almost summer. Go outside. As masks come off, plenty of folks are still experiencing COVID anxiety. Having a walking meeting or meeting outside may do your team a world of good.
- Don’t forget about you. It’s easy for leaders to model behavior they don’t actually follow themselves–to ask after their team’s well being, to empathize, to advocate for personal time, to make sure they leave in time for the final soccer game, kindergarten graduation, whatever, but harder to advocate for themselves. Try not to leave yourself out. There’s no virtue in a leader who’s chronically tired and emotionally drained.
Staying at work for 12-hour days is not a guarantee of productivity. Sometimes we just need to press pause. We all contribute–to our relationships, workplaces, and families–and to be good contributors we need to care for ourselves. That means making time to stop. A colleague, who’s a busy parent to three small humans, told me one of her new practices is rather than saying “Oh crap, I need to clean the bathroom,” she now sets her timer for 15 minutes, and does as much cleaning as she can before the timer goes off. That can work for self care too. Take 15 minutes and do what you need to do even if it’s nothing. You’ll be better for it, and maybe you’ll start to break the facade of self-sacrifice at your organization.
Be well, stay safe.
It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.
Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.
As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.
Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.
Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:
- For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
- For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
- For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
- For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
- For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.
If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.
In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.
It’s not a secret that I’m pretty Type A. I’m a list maker. My lists sprout sublists like weeds. I like to do things in order. The strikeout feature makes my heart go pitter pat. I’m a planner, and I always have a Plan B, and sometimes a C or D. But, surprise, surprise, that’s not the way everyone works.
These days– in my world at least– it is performance review season, the time of year when leaders try to knit together organizational mission with a job’s essential functions and, most importantly, with the actual human assigned to make them a reality. That is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. Job descriptions are written for unicorns, folks who don’t have bad days, baggage, health issues or workplace conflicts. Yet somehow, as leaders, when doing performance reviews, we need to figure out how all these paths intersect, while also bearing in mind that for the last 12 months or longer many staff have worked at home in their fuzzy slippers, interacting with colleagues infrequently except on a screen. It’s a tall order.
Like many things in the museum workplace, performance reviews are a vestige from another time and another place. They percolated into the museum and nonprofit world from business. There, they were–and in many places still are– boss-driven, and often used to negotiate raises or promotions, making it less about job performance per se then a given staff member’s negotiating skills. Given our post-pandemic world, the idea of museum staff meeting with their director or team leader annually to negotiate a raise as if that were normal is a little laughable . But are leaders still evaluating performance every 12 months? Maybe it’s time to re-think that model?
A number of big companies have moved away from annual one-on-one meetings with “the boss” in favor of team feedback from a selected group of colleagues. A team member identifies their group of feedback providers. They are approved by their leader, and over the course of a year, they offer feedback often as part of project postmortems. Comments are candid, face-to-face, and yet highly structured. Oh, and one more thing: all feedback is equally weighted. Yup, your leader, your co-worker, and your partner from another department all offer equal comments. So that’s life in a gazillion dollar company like Google or Netflix. What about where you work?
The first question: Do you do performance evaluations or not? If not, why not? Not enough time? Or does it seem like you’re in touch with your team so frequently you don’t feel the need? If you do, is it a once-a-year meeting? And what’s the goal? Is there a complicated alchemy that involves braiding museum mission, essential job functions and individual performance together? Or is it–God forbid–a brief session that opens with praise and ends with scolding? And how do you evaluate those with repetitive tasks? Unlike, say, Google–or at least the way I imagine work at Google–there’s a lot about library, archives, and museum work that has a Cinderella-like quality. It’s never done. You gather community advisors, and create a program. You implement, evaluate and then do it again. Ditto for collections where stuff arrives, it’s processed, catalogued, conserved, stored, before the process repeats. The way people do these tasks is entirely individual, and yet the goals are collective.
If you’re doing performance evaluations now or plan to do them in the future, here are some things to consider:
- This remains a challenging time. Consider using the performance review process to touch base with the fundamentals like your organizational mission statement, your value statement, your departmental goals. Hopefully your discussion will help staff see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole, not someone about to be “gotcha-ed” after a year of fast pivoting.
- Talk about individual goals. The last 12 months have tried us all. Work was disrupted. What new muscles has your team developed? Patience? Compassion? Empathy? Collaboration?
- Talk about DEI. Was your organization part of the wave of museums, archives and galleries who wrote anti-racist statements post George Floyd? How did that play out in real life? Individually and museum-wide? Did it affect your staff or not? Why?
- Recognize and grapple with your own biases–not just about race, and gender, although those are huge, but also about work style. If you are a list-maker like me, evaluating the performance of a last-minute, by-the-seat-of-the-pants high performer, can you set your own work style aside? It’s not the model with everything else as “other.” It’s simply the easiest way for you to work, but clearly it’s not the preferred style for everyone on your team.
- Ask what are the top three things your team member would like to change in the coming year?
- Say thank you.
- If the entire job performance review process seems hinky and unwieldy, consider a re-evaluation for next year.
One last thought. No one likes the uncomfortable conversations around poor performance, but it is unfair and inequitable to fail to be transparent when work consistently goes wrong. Your staff feel as though they never get things right, which is punishing. People want to come to work, do a good job, and be recognized for doing a good job. It’s hard to do that if the guard rails for “good” performance are mushy or keep changing. However you choose to do performance evaluations–as a team, as an individual–make sure the expectations are clear. Your staff will thank you.
Be well. Stay safe.
This year my team participated in a series of “Community Conversations,” designed to help us talk to each other. Why? Well, like everything there is a back story. Since the spring of 2018 when our last permanent director resigned, we’ve been like foster children, passed from one leadership situation to another. It didn’t do a lot for our ability to get along. Let me be clear, though. What suffered wasn’t the work. We were good at what we’re trained to do. What suffered was the connective tissue, the getting along with folks, the trust, and the good humor, that allows a team to do more than complete a task. We were good at hiding petty issues from the community we serve, but backstage it could be rough.
My interim leadership ends this summer when our new director arrives. Like someone preparing for a 5K after a long period of inactivity, we’ve spent the last 10 months dedicating ourselves to getting ready for new leadership. We created a series of community values: patience, empathy, mutual respect, transparency, mutual support, and inclusion. We’re now using those values as themes in team meeting agendas, and they will also be front and center in this month’s performance reviews. And, as I mentioned, we’ve worked on communication and trust through the community conversations, bi-weekly chats in randomly assigned pairs to talk about our goals, both personal and professional. These are 30 minutes of work-sanctioned time to hit pause, put the dip stick down, and talk about how the last two weeks went. Did you succeed? If not, why not? Does your goal need tweaking? One person actively listens, while the other talks. What’s active listening? It’s being there. It’s mirroring what’s heard, It’s not trying to fix anything. It’s simply being there for someone else. Sounds almost too good to be true, right?
So what do team values and conversation in pairs have to do with gratitude? Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what we have. There are plenty of blogs and articles reminding us to be grateful for our good health, our families, our paychecks, and that’s great, but even if you spend your entire commute to work reminding yourself how lucky you are, it won’t help if your work relationships are suffering. In fact, it’s hard to be grateful if you’re miserable at work. You’re isolated, and your partner’s sick of listening to you bitch when you come home. Perhaps you’re underpaid, perhaps under-resourced, and maybe under-appreciated. What do you have to be grateful for? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe your leader and your organization doesn’t realize how important gratitude is.
I worked briefly for an individual who always thanked me, not in a big showy way, but in a little, folded note, written in handwriting that looked like something from the Bronte sisters. They would arrive late, left on my desk or in my mailbox for the next morning. He never staged thank you’s in front of my co-workers, so they never were about him, the person doing the thanking. They were about me. He took the time and wrote to me. Personally. It was a boost, what former Avis CEO Robert Townsend called “A neglected form of compensation.” (Don’t let your hair go on fire here. I’m not suggesting personal thank you notes in lieu of decent pay.) But I am suggesting that a simple expression of thanks–authentically directed at a coworker– builds the kind of team we all want. Because as we say on our campus, we all want to be safe, seen and supported.
The museum world is in a tough spot at the moment. There is a big revenue gap. Who knows whether visitors will come back. Staffs have been cut. Many staff do more than one job. Most organizations won’t see a raise this year. But gratitude for the team you work with, their creativity, their energy, their devotion, doesn’t cost anything except your time. Don’t just think about writing a note, do it. A thanks doesn’t have to be big or expensive. It’s probably better if it’s not.
Gratitude generates social capital. It makes us seem more trusting, more appreciative, and kinder. As a result, it makes us happier. In a 2020 study–well into the pandemic–only one in three Americans reported being recognized for their workplace successes, and yet 63-percent of those who are recognized are more likely to stay and not quit their jobs.
Gratitude is a practice. It takes time to nurture. Translate your feeling of thanks into action and let your colleagues know. And if you need a boost, listen to Brené Brown on gratitude.
Two weeks ago I gave a shout out to AAM for its data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, but I encourage everyone to download the whole report. It’s free, and your staff, your board, your team, and your volunteers should see it. In a crisis–at least on the back side of a crisis–it’s important to understand what happened, and how your experience, organizationally and personally, fits into the larger picture. So maybe arrange some COVID chats to discuss the similarities and differences in your own situation to the larger picture. From students, to museum employees of color, to women, to consultants, there is little the report leaves out.
One nugget? Forty-eight percent of the respondents reported they had increased workload, while nine-percent saw their salaries decrease. And, no surprise, women are far more burned out and disillusioned than their male colleagues. Is it any wonder the museum field is in a bad place right now? One bright spot: it’s comforting to know that among the 2,666 respondents, their greatest concern was for their colleagues, this from a group with increased anxiety and depression. So, once again, kudos to AAM. Illness, fear, and the economics of COVID were and are isolating. In helping the museum community understand what COVID has done, a report like this brings the museum community closer by anchoring individual experiences in lived data.
Each time Anne Ackerson and I teach Museum Leadership in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program we’ve had students wonder why we’re seemingly obsessed with good, clear writing. They’ve told us other faculty don’t criticize their writing, suggesting that as soon-to-be museum folk they don’t plan on writing for a living. True to a point, but they want, after all, to be museum staff, and potentially museum leaders. Our response is that words matter. Not only in the way that phrase is currently used, meaning words can be weapons, but as tools to provide clarity and context. Think how many times museum leaders grow and nurture ideas, and how many words–both spoken and written–see ideas from conception to implementation?
One place it strikes me where words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in the COVID-age of shifting and increased responsibilities, is job descriptions. Done well job descriptions can be wonderfully crafted road maps, the architecture where museum work rests. Done badly they are truly a waste of time, leading to confusion, meandering nowhere, mired in road blocks of self-doubt and gas lighting. Too frequently there’s more energy put into a job announcement than the subsequent job description. Often anemic in comparison to their sister job announcements, job descriptions are burdened by to-do lists ending with “and all other duties as required,” meaning the morning you shoveled snow, cleaned a sticky craft table or spent time at the reception desk. But in their lack of clarity, they aren’t helpful.
We’ve all heard how strategic plans are “living documents.” Well, so are job descriptions. A good one isn’t one and done, it’s something for leaders and staff members to return to particularly as they prepare for performance reviews, understand an increase–or a decrease–in responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a museum workplace without job descriptions except to imagine a kind of anarchy. On any given day the educator could put her shoes on the desk and announce she needed to spend some time with advancement, while the communications person could say they were bored with Instagram and wanted to design an exhibit. Hyperbole, yes, but perhaps you’ve been in museum workplaces where job descriptions were mushy around the edges? Over time staff staff choose tasks they like rather than doing the job assigned. When that happens, things fall unacknowledged by the wayside, and ultimately, an organizational belief develops around a given job that may not have been true at conception.
So how do you get this right? First, don’t do it quickly, and don’t do it alone. Job descriptions, like strategic plans, are best written collaboratively. If you are revising an existing job description–perhaps because of COVID–speak with person who currently does the job, their direct report(s), and potentially their colleagues. If this is an existing job that has mutated because of COVID, you’ll want to find out what the position looked like before it absorbed tasks from other positions. If it’s now two positions now co-joined, it’s a good idea to be transparent if for no other reason than in stressful times employees performing two roles as one, need to know which takes precedent over the course of a week, and which role trumps the other in terms of responsibility. For example, pre-COVID you had both a collections manager and a curator. Now you have only a curator, someone whose heart doesn’t race at the thought of a perfectly catalogued collection, but rather at the creation of imaginative and thoughtful exhibits. An honest and transparent discussion will help your colleague identify how their job description and thus their performance goals fit into the organizational scope and sequence.
Once you’ve done your analysis, and potentially amended the title, come up with a pithy job summary. Here is where you want to summon your inner Hemingway, and write a clear, concise, yet intriguing description of what this person will do, not in the worst of times, but in the best of times. Next, draft their responsibilities. They should be broad enough so they’re not a to-do list, but specific enough to prevent anarchy. Last, add the job’s requirements. You don’t want someone applying for a job that requires daily lifting of 25 pounds and up, if there are health reasons that prevent them from lifting. If you have an HR department, they will work from your draft, making sure that the appropriate legal language is included–particularly as it involves HDA compliance — and that you have neither overstepped nor undersold what you expect this person to do.
If you do have an HR department at your museum or heritage organization, they may not look fondly on your revising job descriptions annually. In theory, when that happens HR scopes out how the position has changed state or region-wide in terms of salary and benefits. But jobs within a organization are like an extended game of telephone. They mutate and change to fit the individuals performing them. As leaders, whether it’s a team, a program, department or organization, our job is to watch out for performance drift. Like mission drift, it’s when an individual, perhaps because they are over-burdened, disaffected or simply selfish, begins to work outside the scope of their job description. It’s much easier to do this in organizations where once you’re hired no one ever refers to your job description again. If you don’t already, you may want to consider meeting with your direct reports quarterly to look at how their jobs have changed, and aligning them with your organization’s goals and objectives. Job descriptions connect to people, so it helps to really know your staff. Some may welcome more structure while others more autonomy. Hopefully, you will create the best job description not only for the organization, but also the individual.
Be well. Stay safe. Write clearly.