I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.
It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.
Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.
There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done. How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.
Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.
- Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
- Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
- Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
- Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or full staff?
- Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?
Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.
It seems fitting that a few days after Thanksgiving 2016, we should say thank you. So to all of you from 129 countries, who are responsible for Leadership Matters’ almost 85,000 views, we’re grateful, humbled, and inspired. It’s been an awe-inspiring ride, and we wouldn’t be here without you.
But if you’re a leader, you understand that thank you’s shouldn’t be reserved for once or twice a year. Good leaders, whether in a museum, heritage organization or other non-profit know the power of an authentic thank you. Here’s a story: As many of you know I am a curator serving in a large organization whose primary focus is education. As a former boy’s school, there is a long shadow of testosterone that imbues our organizational DNA. A while ago a male colleague approached me. He has distinctive handwriting and he wanted me to write handwritten thank you notes for him addressed to some of our administrative staff. Why? He felt they were rarely thanked, and he wanted the praise to stay with them, not bounce back to him. I wrote about 20 notes. Each was accompanied by a fresh flower. Did we unlock the key to American education that week? No. Was there a lot of smiling in the hallway? Yes. That was a thank you that took planning. Most don’t. They are genuine often spontaneous compliments for jobs well done.
You know that old phrase “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, it’s true. Gratitude is a trait, an emotion and a mood. Genuine gratitude is a response for good work, for a strong team, for an innovative program or exhibit or out-of-the box thinking. So, as we do for so many topics, here are some thoughts about gratitude for individuals, leaders and organizations.
- When something goes well, when it’s a pleasure working with your team or department members, thank them. Gratitude doesn’t just come from the director; you can thank your colleagues as well.
- When someone compliments you, own it. And say thank you.
- Make a thank you matter. Don’t diminish its meaning through overuse.
- Understand what your staff is doing so you can thank them appropriately, and so you know the difference between a daily job done well and a challenge met with new and inventive thinking.
- Be clear about whether you’re thanking an individual, a group or both, and don’t hesitate to call out an individual’s or a team’s exemplary service.
- Remember that 4 out of 5 employees say they would stay in a job longer if their boss showed appreciation for their work. This is not the moment to play Scrooge. Check out this link for more details on how employees feel about being appreciated: Glassdoor Survey.
- Be equitable in your thank yous. Don’t favor one demographic–new employees vs. experienced, young vs. old–over another.
- Be creative in how you thank folks. Can you offer an exemplary employee a chance at a juicy, creative project or a new parent the chance to telecommute?
- Respect your staff. Your behavior is an ongoing thank you.
- Appreciation–the act of saying thank you is a great motivator. Museums and heritage organizations thank donors all the time. Don’t forget to thank staff as well.
- As with leaders, thank you’s come in many forms. Raises are the most obvious and reflect gratitude for dedication and achievement at work. If that’s not possible, how about career development opportunities, time off or an unexpected gift? (My colleague’s notes and flowers, for example.)
- And speaking of time off, if you can’t close the museum or heritage site, can you offer half the staff four or eight hours off while the other half covers, and then reverse the procedure? Everyone gets paid time off and it may prove eye-0pening to experience the museum while covering someone else’s job.
- Make sure your board (or the the board’s compensation committee) understands what your museum staff values when it comes to employee appreciation and what they don’t, and make sure the leadership and staff are comfortable communicating that information.
So for those of you on a break from work this long weekend, we hope it was a happy one. Write and let us know how you say thank you as employees, leaders or as an organization.
Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.
On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.
- Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
- Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
- Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
- Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
- Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
- Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
- Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?
And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.
Maybe it’s because of where I am in the circle, but lately I’ve spent more time counseling younger people on their career paths. Inevitably, this leads to job interview questions. In a field where there are increasingly more applicants than jobs–at least that’s the way it feels–we’re sometimes so relieved to have beaten our way through the maze of LinkedIn, emailed resumes, Skype, and social media, that actually being with real people makes us forget we’re there to interview the organization, not just answer questions.
But this really isn’t a post about job interviews. I mention them because one of the questions I urge job applicants or anyone new to an organization to ask is how does it solve problems? And equally important is who generates ideas, and how do ideas move from brain storm to concept to implementation? You don’t have to work at Google to realize that if someone can’t answer these questions, you should see little red flags. Why? Because nimble museums (and any organization) know how problems are solved. And staff who participate creatively are usually happy to talk about the process. That does not mean that if you describe a disaster scenario that a particular museum staff will give you the same cohesive answer, but it should mean that everyone appears to understand how the answer, whether temporary or permanent, emerged. Too often, the answer involves “them” as in “they decided” or “they felt,” the mythical group of organizational deciders who make museums change. My advice: beware of organizations where there’s too much “them.”
And what does this have to do with leadership? If you’re a leader, do you want to be part of “them” or “we”? If it’s the latter, then it’s important to consider creativity isn’t all about you, meaning you’re not the fount of the best ideas. Instead, you’re the person who brings your team together. You are the person who models the importance of learning, the generosity of sharing, rather than needing to be right. You welcome heated conversations about ideas because that’s when inspiration happens, and you applaud staff passionate enough to stand up for what they believe in.
Two weeks ago we referenced Christy Coleman’s wonderful post Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid? and we’d like to circle back to it here. Coleman upbraids museum leadership for always looking for the next best thing, the magic potion to cure museum ills, when it’s really right in front of their faces. The same is true of creativity in the workplace. Creative frameworks don’t change museums because process doesn’t change organizations. People do.
Create an atmosphere where all ideas are welcome. If you’re creating new exhibit space, make sure your volunteers, docents and guards are at the table. And by that I don’t mean gathering the frontline staff together for their opinion, I mean inviting them to the big-girl table. After all, they watch and interact with visitors every day. Listen to them. What can they tell you about how visitors behave in your galleries or historic house? If you’re planning an addition, wouldn’t it be smart to have your grounds folks take part in the discussion? They are likely to point out that a tree’s root spread is far larger than what is on the architect’s plans, and that putting the addition in that spot will in fact damage a century-old tree. But the most important thing about listening from the bottom up is that it creates an atmosphere of equity in your organization. Everybody speaks and everybody listens. Disrupters are heard. Push back is important. You are the connector, you learn from your staff.
We all wish there were a next big thing that really worked, a magic formula to turn a sleepy organization into a place that’s sought after. There isn’t. But creating an atmosphere where ideas flourish and everyone’s knowledge is respected is a first step. Does your museum staff know how to work creatively? Here’s some additional reading:
If you read anything about leadership, you will hear the words teamwork. It’s used in job descriptions as in “We want a team player,” and in dismissals, “She wasn’t a good fit, not a team player.” In short, it’s the 21st-century building block for organizations big and not so big.
In small museums your team may be everyone–trustees, volunteers, administrative assistant, the director (you) and another staff member–while in larger institutions, the people in your department constitute your team. In giant institutions, your team may be the folks you work with daily. You may see others from your department only weekly or monthly.
Webster’s lists three definitions for the word team: a group of people who compete in a sport; a group of people who work together; and last-for all of you in living history museums–a group of two or more animals used to pull a cart or wagon. By contrast, the Business Dictionary defines team as “A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project.” It goes a step further by pointing out that “A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.”
Let’s pause here to point out that a well-functioning team doesn’t necessarily adjourn to the neighborhood watering hole after work or have pot luck dinners together. It can. But as a museum leader, it’s not your job to create friendships. It’s your job to define the team’s goal and provide the resources (money, additional people/expertise, and time) to achieve it. Everyone may agree that your mission is to serve public, but there are likely as many variants of that ideal as you have staff members. Your role as a leader is to define how you want that goal accomplished. Otherwise the work you assign is simply a variation of that old story of the leader sending a worker out to bring home a rock. When he sees the rock, he says, “No, not that one.” Do not make your team guess what you want. Conversely, if you’re a team member and feel as though you’re being sent to look for a rock, ask your director to define what she’s looking for. Repeat it back. Make sure you understand. (And she does too.)
Next, you need to insure that your team has the right composition. Perhaps some of you are sighing right now, the thought bubble over your heads reading, “Who is she kidding, there is no money to hire the perfect team or will to fire chronically weak members.” True enough. But all business research points to more success and innovation when teams are diverse, meaning not just racially, but age, gender, and professional focus too. So what do you do? If you work in a medium to large institution, consider pulling in team members from other departments. Don’t make them tokens. They will hate it and so will you. Bring them on because they have skill sets and points of view you need, and be transparent about it. If you need a 25-year old who Tweets on the way to work, then let your team know that’s why she’s in the room. And if you work in a tiny or small institution, consider team building as a way to grow your organization. Ask the folks whose skill sets you need to join for the duration of a particular project. Tell your team to take an afternoon off once a week so that the new director of the Boys and Girls Club can join you in the evening because that’s when he’s free to volunteer.
Last, and most importantly, make sure your organization can support the team in whatever project you’ve assigned from the most mundane–is there adequate meeting space and IT support for them to work–to money and board or leadership consent. There’s nothing worse for team members than working on a project only to be told that leadership isn’t supportive, and all their work is for naught.
Hopefully, if you provide your team with a clear goal, have the right people around the table, and adequate support for them to do their work, they will develop a shared mindset around the project whether it’s a large exhibit, a benefit, or a new way of working with your community. If you are a director, build in periodic check-ins to look at how well the team understood the project mission, absorbed new members, and is moving toward a successful conclusion. And remember to say thank you. In the museum world there’s no such thing as end-of-year bonuses, so make your thanks genuine, not perfunctory. And if a team member steps out of her defined task to take on a new role, be sure to ask if there are ways you as leader (along with the organization) can support that new skill.
Tell us how you work with teams.