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.
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.
As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I’m now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.
While there are pieces of this process that are organizational–which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process–there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we’re on the cusp of beginning again.
As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master’s in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective–I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn’t–to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn’t understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it’s-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.
Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we’d like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she’d like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we’re used to, but the person who will take us–maybe kicking and screaming– where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.
We’ve also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?
- Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
- Hiring for our vision statement–even if we never get there–not for our past, whether personal or collective.
- Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
- Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.
This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic “this staff member chooses to seek new challenges.” Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.
Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership’s failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don’t tell us why, and it’s the why humans want.
Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as “easy to perceive or detect” and also “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived,” and yet time and again it’s directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.” But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on “the what” than “the why,” will you create a kind of “gotcha culture” within your museum or heritage organization?
When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don’t make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn’t. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don’t. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who’ve worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don’t want surprises. They don’t want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.
So maybe it’s not just transparency we’re after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information–whatever it’s about–must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.
As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:
- When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the “whys” and make sure you deliver both. When you don’t know, say so.
- Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can’t communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.
- Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.
- Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.
- When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don’t, no one else will either.
Be well and stay safe.
By Marquex bol – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91434866
Week after week the crisis in the museum field continues. First it was COVID. The stress began with physical spaces and collections, and quickly accelerated to furloughs, lost jobs, and epically bad communication, before moving to an unmasking of the racism littering the museum workplace, from collections, where BIPOC visitors feel as though they never see themselves, to the workplace itself. Now it’s the dog days of August and the emperor definitely has no clothes. With nothing left to surprise us, the only question is have we reached bottom yet? If the answer is yes, it’s time to rebuild.
Clearly the last six months were filled with unprecedented change. For those of us planning to open or who already have opened, the indefinite nature of the COVID universe makes change constant. As museum leaders or museum folk who practice leadership regardless of our titles, change requires a big dose of creativity followed by a massive level of adaptability, and what helps with that? Self-reflection.
My own program has a great reputation for service to our community, but our team reputation is tarnished. We’re not a group known for rowing the boat easily together. So recently we spent some time talking about the importance of personal reflection. We charged each other with reflecting daily or weekly. We didn’t specify whether the reflections needed to be written or a meditative pause in the work day or week, but rather a time to think about what went well and what didn’t. Sound too woo-woo? Perhaps you’re thinking who has time to pause? We’re in a pandemic, a recession, not to mention a time of social and cultural upheaval? But maybe that is precisely why each of us needs to reflect on the way we make our way in the museum world, however tiny our role.
Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity? A reflective practice allows us to avoid making the same mistakes again and again. It asks us to acknowledge where we went off course, imagine a second chance and aspire to a better outcome. Okay, so why does any of that matter when, if there is a resurgence of COVID, your museum may close? Organizationally, it may not matter. But if you’re lucky enough to serve a museum or heritage organization that is open and weathering the COVID/post-George Floyd storm, then reflection, both personal and organizational, will help you emerge from the same old place, doing the same old thing, just well enough.
Reflection requires you to pause. It asks you to take personal responsibility for whatever happened. It asks you to be vulnerable, and it is often discomforting. Research shows us that employees approach their leaders regarding emotional issues at work more often than their peers, and see their bosses’ role as part leader/part parent. That can be hugely exhausting for museum leaders, and without allowing yourself time to reflect you can quickly become emotionally depleted.
One of the lessons Anne Ackerson and I uncovered in Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord is that the way individual leaders behave is echoed in their organizations’ behavior. Leaders for whom self reflection is a habit generally lead museums or heritage organizations that reflect collectively. If you read Dr. Porchia Moore on Incluseum this week, you know trying to overcome a workplace with a dominant white narrative will demand a level of vulnerability. Reflection–yours and your museum’s– is the place to work on that.
So in a world crowded with social distancing and air quality measurements, PPE equipment, reduced staffing, reduced income, and understanding how your workplace and your collections became so invulnerably white, stop, and pause:
- Don’t take on too much. An hour of meditation each week might be a bridge too far. Pick a length of time that works for you in your world.
- Pick a method that meets your needs: On your morning walk, in a journal at day’s end; online in a long document; alone in a quiet place or together with a trusted colleague.
- Don’t expect answers unless you’re willing to ask questions. Think about your work over the course of a week or a day.
- Ask yourself mindful questions: Consider how you helped or how you hindered; consider where your own biases impeded your work or the work of others or how your team meeting might have gone better. Where did connection break down? Where did you find empathy? When did you feel vulnerable?
We know the museum world must change if it’s to survive. But it’s not a monolith. It’s made up of 300,000-plus individuals all serving a huge variety of museums and heritage organizations. Change won’t come in a lightning bolt from on high. Change comes when each of us makes a commitment to change. Reflection helps with that. And you can’t be with people–in the workplace, in exhibits, in historic settings—unless you understand the bridge from vulnerability to empathy. So just try. Start this week. Break down some walls.
Remember your pre-COVID-19 life when you wished you could just stay home and work? How peaceful it would be, how much work you’d get done if only you weren’t at work distracted by meetings, angsty colleagues, or workplace deadlines. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we’re caught in a devilishly dystopian movie with no end in sight, a little workplace angst seems like heaven.
Many of us have completed our first week of either government or self-imposed isolation. For those of us lucky enough to collect a salary while working from home, it has its moments. Everyone uses Zoom like a pro, bouncing from meeting to meeting as we struggle to stay on point, while small children and dogs step into the picture. But there’s no doubt there’s a price to pay, and social isolation is the least of it.
So after five days, what do you as museum leaders know? There’s the obvious: that collections managers and curators’ work transfers home a lot easier than that of your front line staff. But how about protecting as many of your workers as you can, and while acknowledging layoffs are horrible? Then there’s social media: those of you who have a robust platform may no longer feel as though it’s the icing on the cake, but the main course. And of course, there’s the money: If you didn’t understand your museum’s endowment portfolio two weeks ago, you may be getting a crash course–no pun intended–in stock market physics; that some of this country’s leading philanthropies are already banding together to help support museums and heritage organizations. And the advocacy piece: We owe Laura Lott, Elizabeth Merritt, and the AAM staff thanks for leading the museum world’s advocacy effort on Capitol Hill. Fingers crossed, it pays off.
For many museums the Metropolitan is a kind of a bellwether the same way New York’s fashion world influences dress months later in the heartland. So when the Met announced that even if it were to open again in June, it will face a $100 million loss, it was enough to scare the crap out of many smaller museums and heritage organizations. Even the Met, with its $3.6 billion endowment, has only guaranteed salaries through early April while it studies how to navigate the coming months. Its plan, though, is interesting: Short term, it’s paying salaries and those who can work from home are; beginning in April it will use furloughs, layoffs and retirements in addition to shifting spending from funds associated with programming, acquisition, and travel to keep the museum operational. The hope is it will re-open some six months after the virus began in the U.S. with reductions across the board. (Not shared is whether Max Hollein or Daniel Weiss will take pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. #sharethewealth) So the model is short term, pay those who can work; figure out what you can jettison; shift funds you won’t need, and plan on opening a trimmed down version of yourself in two to four months. The more egalitarian among you may choose to take pay cuts, but that’s for you and your board to work out. There is by the way already a place to aggregate staff layoffs in the wake of the virus. Cold comfort, I know, but as more information amasses, you will have a sense of what other organizations are doing.
For those of you who are now thoroughly depressed, we hope you read Colleen Dilenschneider’s piece on COVID-19 and intended as opposed to actual visitation. As always with Dilenschneider, it is a clear and weirdly hopeful piece. She writes that as of March 13 the public was staying away because they were self-isolating or museums were closed or closing, but long-term, their intent is to return. Could a lack of discretionary income affect that? Yes. But do people need the beauty, the knowledge, the third space museums provide? Yes.
As my friend Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village writes,
“As museum leaders we must be thinking ahead of this to April 2021. What do you want to be? Who do you want to serve? How will you use your resources to achieve that goal? It’s not the time to be nostalgic for what we lost, we must embrace the butterfly that will grow out of this imposed cocoon.”
In closing, we want to thank history museums and archives who are already starting to collect reminiscences about the pandemic for future generations. We want to thank museum IT and social media folk who keep us entertained and in touch through Instagram, short videos and virtual visits. We want to thank conservators everywhere who donated equipment to first responders, and funders who recognize that museums (and all non-profits) are businesses too and need support as well. We want to acknowledge living history sites who are turning their history gardens over to raise food for community food banks.
And last, we want to send thoughts of encouragement and strength to our colleagues around the world affected by COVID-19, and especially all the museum people in Italy who are in the midst of such a desperate struggle.
Be strong and stay in touch with each other. Email your professional friends and colleagues and set up a Zoom call today. Don’t wait. Talk.
Image: The Mercury News
First, a little news catch up: Philadelphia Museum of Art’s CEO Timothy Rub gathered his staff together last week to apparently apologize for the museum’s handling of Joshua Helmer and the allegations of sexual misconduct that dogged his PMA tenure. The event was closed to the press, but the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Rub gave a statement similar to his initial one, offering apologies, but seemingly scant indication that museum leadership understands the gravity of the situation. Clearly, there are moments in leadership where staff expects (and needs) action not the equivalent of hopes and prayers.
Also, if you haven’t read Robert Weisberg’s The Schrodinger’s Career of Working in Museums, you probably should. Weisberg works at the Metropolitan and his blog, Museum Human, is now in its second iteration. This particular post unpacks the shape- shifting world of museums where their public faces rarely echo behind the scenes behavior. If you’re having a dark day, you may want to temporarily skip this or at least follow it by reading Darren Walker’s The Hard Work of Hope, Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, and believe me if he had groupies, I would be one. Wise, warm, and honest, he’s the kind of true-north human we should all have in our lives. Read him whenever you can.
In a museum world where hierarchy continues to flatten, it’s likely someday soon you’ll be asked to work with individuals from another team, program or department. That may happen as part of a merger or because you’re tasked with a specific project. You will suddenly find yourself sitting around a table with people you barely know, charged with something big. A speedy exit isn’t an option. Instead, you need to figure out how to work together quickly and well. And inevitably, and because adulting isn’t that different from 8th-grade, one of the people sitting across from you will prove themselves to be challenging. They may be unreasonable, passive-aggressive or just plain mean. They may also be lazy–forcing you and your teammates to shoulder their work as well,—while they gab from the sidelines. What should you do?
- Remember why you’re there: A team project isn’t about you, your agenda or your individual quiver full of skills. It’s about group work and the task your museum or heritage organization gave you.
- Decide on team norms: These are the behaviors under which your group will operate. They can spell out something as granular as how long individuals should speak or address how to communicate respect and open-mindedness. When creating norms, don’t forget to outline how they’ll be used, and how you’ll hold each other accountable if lines are crossed.
- And what about the proverbial participant who feels its their job to stir things up? Don’t engage, and for goodness sake, don’t personalize what’s happening. Focus instead on moving forward and problem solving. Lead from where you are, and draw the conversation back to the subject at hand.
- There are people–and perhaps you know some–who take joy in arguing. It’s their love language. If an arguer ends up on your team, again, separate the personal from the work-related, and pick your battles. You’re not on a team to make everyone think like you. You’re on a team to create, to build, to solve a problem or set of problems.
- There’s a lot to the proverb about attracting more flies with honey than vinegar. Not to sound like your grandma, but manners matter. You and your team all want to be safe, seen and respected. That means listening, being on time, and treating everyone, even the individual you perceive as too unimaginative to function, with respect.
Do good work. Be kind. Create museum workplaces we’re all proud of.
Resources for Teams:
Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High- Performance Organization. Harvard Business Review Press. 2015 (Reprint Edition).
Image: The New York Times
Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.
I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”
The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.
Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.
So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?
What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.
So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up? What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?
There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.