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.
I’ve been away from Leadership Matters for three weeks thanks to posts by Jackie Peterson and Anne Ackerson. So rested and relaxed, I’m back with a few things to say.
First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the salary/gender controversy that started at AAM/NOLA and continues to percolate. It ignited with Kimberly Drew’s articulate, passionate, and bold keynote. If you missed it, you can read the whole speech here, but the lines below were important. For me, they speak not only to change, but to the dichotomy many of us live with: a field we love and are drawn to, but a workplace that disappoints as often as it pleases. The bold type is mine.
Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary which is here in the middle, but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary, ever, in my time at the Met.… Still very angry. That I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth.
In the wake of Drew’s remarks museum workers across North America (and now globally) created a Google Spreadsheet documenting their place of employment, and sharing salary information. Many also choose to include details of race and gender. By this weekend, roughly a month after AAM’s meeting and Drew’s speech, it numbers more than 2,500 people.
What’s the point? In a world where a graduate degree is de rigueur, and salary information shielded with uncommon zeal, this simple spreadsheet provides a chink in the walls erected around hiring practices, wages, race and gender. Unlike AAM’s own salary survey, which requires paid membership to use, this is free. Further, if you’ve dreamed of a position at a particular organization, you may be able to look it up by name, and discover what people in your line of work make.* In short, it matters because it provides knowledge for those without power. That’s important for anyone juggling the calculus of graduate school loans, trailing partners, mortgages, rent, children, and aging family members. Use it. Participate, and support one another.
And here’s something else: Since 2012 Anne Ackerson and I have preached the gospel of “anyone can be a leader,” also variously known as “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” While I believe in it, I’ve also struggled with it, but I couldn’t explain why except to say it’s harder than you think.
This week it hit me. Here’s my revelation: If everyone acts like a leader, everyone is being the best person they can be. You may be as far from the corner office, the flashy cocktail parties, and the trustees as it’s possible to be, but if you’re self-aware, understand the museum’s mission, take responsibility, demonstrate courage, act with imagination, and align your values and the museum’s, you’re a leader. Further, you’re a great follower.
Where this all goes to hell in a hand basket is when a layer of a museum’s leadership chart is weak. Then everyone below is constantly “leading up,” grappling with their own job description and their direct report’s responsibilities as well. That alone is debilitating. Moving forward with your own tasks–and the person’s you report to–is exhausting, but since you have no authority, it’s also tricky. Every day you stand on the tracks. Some days you hear a train in the distance. Other days, you see it. What’s your obligation? Do you move everyone out of danger or do you step out of the way and cover your ears? A poor metaphor, but you get the point. Check out the beauties of Nexus’ Layers of Leadership to see how iterative they are. What you need as an individual isn’t as nuanced a set of skills as those you need to be department leader, just as those competencies aren’t as sophisticated as the ones you’ll need for organizational leadership.
Don’t get me wrong: Staff should complement their leader, fill in where she’s weak and shore up areas she’s ignorant of, but they shouldn’t and they can’t be thinking big picture–where is the train on the track?–when their direct report is in the station having a latte. What can you do about weak stratification within a museum or heritage organization?
FROM THE TOP DOWN:
If you’re a trustee: What questions do you ask that get at organizational performance as opposed to staff performance? Do you ever chat with staff on their own turf?
If you’re a museum director: Have you ever had a 360-review? How often do you meet with staff, not just about the organizational to-do list, but about the way the list is accomplished? Do you delegate? And do you empower staff to run with an idea, not just a to-do list? How do you measure your staff’s people skills?
FROM THE BOTTOM UP:
If you’re staff: Try to understand your boss. If you know her and she trusts you, she’ll be more willing to let you help. Helping her will help you. Volunteer for stretch assignments. Be the person who gets stuff done without handholding and constant instruction. Use those successes to move forward. As hard, and as frustrating as it is, leave your judgement at home. You likely can’t change your leader, but a successful tenure at one organization may help you move toward a different position at a museum with stronger overall leadership, and one more aligned with your own values.
Do you find yourself leading up? If so, what strategies have worked for you?
*It’s wise to arm yourself with as much comparative salary information as you can find. That may require looking beyond what surveys exist for museums to the wider nonprofit sector and, in some cases, it may be prudent to examine for-profit salaries, as well. Online sites like Glassdoor and your state’s nonprofit association are two places to investigate.
Once, a million years ago, I worked for a museum leader who liked all the office shades pulled to the exact same length. Hilarious, right? In the aggregate I think we understood the building looked better from the outside, but beneath that idea was an undertone of “Really?” and also “What if I like a lot of light?” and a thousand other petty questions. What we learned over time though was that the shade thing was a metaphor for so much more. It symbolized a level of micromanagement that limited us in ways we probably couldn’t even articulate. I certainly couldn’t. It made us intellectually lazy. Why should we waste brain power when the boss would and could think of everything? And if he hadn’t thought of it, it probably wasn’t worth thinking about. At least not at work.
But what if you’re a museum leader and control matters to you? You have high standards. You’ve always been a planner. It’s your love language? Your partner says that if you had to, you could move tanks across the EU. And the little things really irk you. When you walk by the ticket desk and you see a random iced coffee, when you see the interpretive staff chatting with teachers instead of students, when no one seems to have followed up on changes for restroom signage. None of your micro corrections are a bad thing, right? The museum looks better, functions better, and hopefully there’s a better visitor experience. But ask yourself? Are you the only one who’s thinking about these things? Have you asked?
Good leadership isn’t about perfection and control so much as it’s about empowerment and place. In other words, painful though it may be, it’s not about you. It’s about your team and your museum. But my site is known for its beauty and serenity you say, and it can’t be beautiful or serene if staff don’t put up the correct signs, keep coffee cups out of the way, and not use the galleries for gossip. If I don’t micromanage it won’t happen. Maybe, but what if you talk about how the public sees your site? Maybe you’d learn that your staff doesn’t see it your way? Maybe your visitors don’t either. Maybe coming to consensus regarding your museum’s vision means consensus regarding how it’s carried out.
If you’re a leader who’s micromanaging….
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Try and figure out what’s driving you to control the small things.
- Meet with your team(s) for conversation rather than reviewing to-do lists and reminding them what wasn’t done. Get to know them.
- Re-read your museum’s vision and values.
- Listen before judging.
If you’re a staff member who works for a micromanager…
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Have you let deadlines slip? Are you the only person getting the micromanaging treatment or is it global?
- Step up and stay ahead of her needs. By anticipating her anxieties you may build trust and start to alleviate her nit picking.
- Don’t take it personally, particularly if her behavior is the same everywhere. This is not the moment to be Joan of Arc on your white horse. Lead from behind instead and keep it about the work.
The best leaders empower their staff. They give them the tools to get where they need to go, have their backs if they hop a guard rail, and support them when they cross the finish line.
This weekend many of you began gathering in New Orleans for AAM’s Annual Meeting. Along with thousands of folks you know or wish you knew, you’re attending sessions, listening to keynoters, and networking like crazy. Hopefully, it will be the equivalent of pressing your brain’s re-set button, returning you to work energized and enlivened, with your creative juices flowing.
Creativity’s been on my mind lately. Last fall I completed work on a big exhibit. I work in a small shop, and it was the culmination of 24 months of conversations, research, zigs, zags, re-dos, and anxiety. In the end, thanks to my rock-star colleagues, it was awesome, and in many ways better than I imagined. And yet, since the show came down, I have found it hard to dig down and re-focus. Why am I telling you this? Because creativity isn’t an easy resource in the museum world’s rule-driven cosmos.
Granted, I do museum work in an academic setting, but some weeks the relentlessness of daily life overwhelms us. There’s no time to think, to putter, to experiment and, frankly, agendas, meetings, and their follow-ups aren’t necessarily fertile ground for creativity. Meetings are rooted firmly in the now; if they have hope, it’s that things will turn out right, meaning a successful event, program, exhibition, artist’s residency (you choose) will draw audiences that look big, busy and diverse in Instagram photos. And too often the monster of skepticism, as Frank Vagnone puts it in his recent blog post, takes over.
How many of you work for a truly creative individual or, if you’re a museum leader, how many of you work for a creative board? Whether you do or not, you may want to dig out Linda Norris’ and Rainey Tisdale’s book Creativity in Museum Practice. Published by the late Left Coast Press in 2014, it’s full of brilliant recipes for moving from mediocre to exceptional. One of my favorite pages is a little chart that compares creative and traditional leaders.
Not surprisingly, creative leaders lead in many of the ways we harp on in this blog every week. Creative leaders engage, they’re authentic, they experiment. They are hopeful. They understand how to hear criticism. The more traditional leader is (sigh) the sage on the stage who needs to be correct, both metaphorically and actually. She loves a harmonious workplace even if it’s at the expense of creativity and engagement. She asks for feedback, but staff learn it’s not something she knows what to do with. Her work is about sustaining things the way they’ve been. It doesn’t take staff long to learn that innovation is sloughed aside in favor of “getting the job done right.” What’s right? The least threatening way that still delivers results: Wonder Bread versus a fresh-baked brioche.
So what’s this magical, nurturing leader look like in real life? First, she often has her own creative practice whether she’s an artist, dancer or chef. She encourages collaboration and her staff knows it’s imagination and ideas she values, not just elbow grease. For her, product isn’t the end all and be all. Process is equally important. Why? Because that’s where the magic happens. If she were to create the perfect staff, the folks around her table would be a wildly diverse lot, who communicate well, who bat ideas back and forth, and who value collaboration over competition. Her team reads widely, and thinks in terms of metaphors, analogies, and stories.
Need to move the needle toward some creativity? Here are five things to try:
- Understand your museum or heritage organization’s bureaucracy. Know what happens to innovative ideas when they wend their way from the could-we stage to implementation. If competing constituencies deplete their innovative qualities, they are born shadows of themselves. Figure out how to protect ideas while they grow.
- Encourage imagination, discussion, and dissension at the staff table. Disagreement forces staff to identify the values and ideas that matter most.
- As the leader, you don’t need to be the source of all ideas. You need to be the gardener. Identify the viable ideas, and nurture them. Toss the weeds. Know when to connect ideas that echo one another.
- Provide intellectual challenge. Bored staff are boring.
- Play to your staff’s skills. Hint: That means you actually have to know them.
Yours for less mediocrity.