Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities
My program is searching for a director. As a result, we are currently led by an interim with many other responsibilities. That could have been an awful choice, but we’ve actually benefitted. Here’s why: He’s so busy his time with us must be efficiently managed. As a result, we have suddenly emerged from the meandering, Seinfeldian, nothingness of our former meetings to gatherings that are very focused and blissfully short.
According to the Harvard Business Review for-profit leaders spend up to 23 hours a week in meetings. How horrific is that?And when does anyone get any actual work done? Leadership Matters speaks frequently about the need for diverse voices around the staff table, for equitable discussion, for differing points of view, but how are your meetings discussions? Or are they simply audio book versions of someone’s to-do list?
We all want a better museum workplace, so here are Leadership Matters‘ 10 tips for better meetings:
- Know who needs to be in the room. Just because there are five or 10 people on your leadership team, does everyone need to meet every week?
- And speaking of weekly meetings, do you need them or does your meeting schedule date to some time before email? Consider experimenting with your meeting schedule.
- Make sure your meetings point forward not backward. Meetings are not an opportunity to rehash the week in minute detail. Looking back is helpful if you’re tweaking something to move forward.
- Agendas are like mini-strategic plans. The people around the table should know why they’re there and where they are going. That means crafting your agenda carefully.
- Meetings are not a stage. If leaders (or anyone else) hog the floor, staff cease to speak up. It’s that simple. And you end up talking to yourself.
- Meetings are an opportunity to be fully present. Unless someone on your museum staff is secretly hiding their career as a high-powered surgeon, there is likely no reason they can’t live without their phone for 40 to 60 minutes. Put a basket in the middle of the table or ask staff to turn their phones off and place them face down.
- Start and end on time. Be respectful of your staff’s time and their other obligations, and stick to the allotted time table. If you’re presenting anything that involves IT, for the love of God, set it up ahead of time and test it. No one wants to wait while you experiment with something that’s not working.
- Don’t expect staff to be creative just because you ask. If you want your colleagues to focus on a particular question or problem during a meeting, use a flipped classroom approach and send them whatever materials they need to prepare ahead of time.
- Staff isn’t family. I know there is a school of thought that says colleagues should be like family, but be mindful that’s not a sentiment shared by all staff. Birthdays and holidays or what staff did over vacation are probably better left in the break room.
- Learn to listen. If you’re a leader, you spend a lot of your workweek in your own head, thinking, questioning, moving organizational puzzle pieces around. You also likely move at a frantic pace. Use your meetings to touch base with colleagues. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t ask empty questions. Ask real ones. Listen to the answers, and welcome push back. At the end of the day, you all serve the same organization, and you all want it to be the best it can be.
Yours from meeting heaven,
This week I spent time with a consultant. She’s visited us before so we know her well. She’s wise and kind, but also direct. Her role is to provide us with a programatic review in preparation for hiring a new director in 2020. At one level it has a Fiddler on the Roof quality–you know, “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch–” but as with any possible hire, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation too.
Part of that work is to make sure we understand our job descriptions, and how they co-join, creating a strong program. In our conversation she pointed out something so simple I can’t believe I never thought about it. First, she said our job descriptions were empty, anemic things. Then she asked whether we felt valued. We hemmed and hawed, answering sort of and maybe. Bear in mind, there were only three of us in the room. We’re the happiest team members: we love our work; we work well together; we get stuff done, and yet, we struggled with this question. Then she tied the two ideas together, suggesting the former — our bland and formulaic job descriptions, coupled with a general miasma of misunderstanding over what we do and what we’re capable of — left us under-valued. Fortunately, we’re self-directed, confident, and like I said, happy, so the question of value hasn’t been a huge issue, and yet, once she drew our attention to it, it’s hard to un-see.
So all of you out there in museum land: What about your sense of value and self-worth? Who tells you you’re doing a good job? And when was the last time you read your job description? Was it just before your potentially useless annual review when you tried to figure out how far you strayed from the way your position was originally advertised?
As a leader you report to someone higher up even if it’s your board, and you certainly have people reporting to you. If you feel valued, and value those working for and with you, stop reading. If you’re not sure, before you eye roll and say something about leaders are not counselors and your employees’ self worth is their problem, think about this: hiring costs money as does training. People need value and meaning in their lives, and if they can’t find it in your museum, there may be a larger problem.
So if you’re a museum leader, consider the following:
- Make sure your goals and expectations are clear: Write them down and rank them. That way employees, especially front-line employees who are the museum’s public face, don’t have to choose between competing expectations.
- Build a culture that acknowledges good work: sometimes it’s a simple thank you; another day it’s cider doughnuts for the team; or maybe the salaried staff takes the hourly staff’s jobs for an afternoon for work well done. Find your own way to say what your staff does matters.
- Increase staff visibility: When you have the opportunity, toot your team’s horn. Talk about what they do and why it has value. And make sure everyone’s contribution is acknowledged at the completion of an exhibit, program or campaign.
- Consider what you can do: Workplace wellness is one of the top concerns cited in Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends survey of for-profit businesses, not to mention the numerous articles and posts in museum-related publications. Think about instituting an on-site health screening, a wellness challenge, or a paid hour a week of wellness time for employees to use. If museum leadership puts wellness on the table, that permits everyone to be concerned. Working a 12-hour day isn’t an option because–oh, you’re valued–and you need time away to re-charge and re-group.
And if you’re a staff member who’s under-appreciated:
- Talk to your boss. Does she know what you’re doing outside the lines of your job description? Bring your list of recent accomplishments. Does your job description need editing based on what you’re doing?
- This isn’t kindergarten and getting a gold star won’t give your work meaning. That comes from you. Carve out time for personal reflection, daily or weekly or even monthly. What went well? What gave you satisfaction? Pat yourself on the back when you get a win.
- Are your skills wasted? Is there a gap between your job description and your talents? If yes, talk to your boss. Maybe it’s time to alter your job description.
- And if not, know when it’s time to move on. People who love their work and their job, find meaning and value in what they do almost every day. There are a billion reasons to tell yourself you can’t change jobs. Do you tell yourself you should quit, but somehow looking for another job always moves to the bottom of the list? Figure out why, and then move toward something new and better.
In a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving when we gather with friends and family to say a collective thank you. Don’t wait ’til then. In fact, don’t wait. Tell your colleagues, your staff, and your board when they matter. Let them know they’re valued. Who knows maybe next time they’ll return the favor?
Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.
Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.
In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.
A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:
- Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
- When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
- Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
- Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
- Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
- Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.
*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.
Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.
As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.
Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident, spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?
If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?
In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization.
We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.
If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.
Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:
- Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
- Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
- Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
- Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
- Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.
We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.