The Thin Ice in Your Museum Leadership

thin-ice

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.

  1. Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
  2. Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
  3. 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?
  4. Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or  full staff?
  5. 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.

Joan Baldwin


Starting With Thank You

thank-you

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.

Individuals

  • 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.

Leaders

  • 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.

Organizations

  • 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.

Joan Baldwin


When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One

act-like-a-leader

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5.  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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Joan Baldwin


Is Your Museum An Idea Factory?

bright-ideas-gc

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:

Museums and Creative Practice

Opening the Museum: The Powerhouse Experience

Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Joan Baldwin


What Teamwork Means for Museums

Team

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.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Museum Leaders and What You Say When You’re Not Talking

body language

I work with a team of people in a much larger organization. In four years we’ve had three directors–a long-tenured person who retired, a two-year interim, and our current director. One consequence of all this change is that many of us were asked to stretch and take on new tasks. This hasn’t made everyone happy and sadly that displeasure is sometimes demonstrated in non-verbal ways.

If you’re a museum leader, perhaps you’ve experienced eye rolling, chair turning or arm crossing. Or their slightly happier cousins, nodding, literally leaning in, interrupting or fist pumping. If these aren’t signs you recognize either you have a wildly healthy and compatible staff or you’re missing the cues of workplace body language. And as if your leadership radar isn’t already nearing overload, you not only need to be conscious of staff body language, but your own as well.

This year a portion of our staff worked with a member of the drama department. The hope was that with his help we would deliver a particular project in a more engaging way. I think it worked. We were better at what we did in the obvious ways like voice, tone, content, but we were also more conscious of our audience, of what I now know business psychologists call power posing. What’s that, you ask? It involves where you sit or stand. And with a classroom of 15-year olds, perhaps the most judgmental individuals on the planet, this matters. In your world this may mean thinking about where you sit when staff come to your office. Do you move out from behind your desk and sit opposite one another? Do you speak to staff with your arms by your sides–as opposed to crossing them over your chest? Do you lower your voice?

Lest you think this is just woo-woo armchair psychology, know that studies show that nonverbal communication carries between 65 and 95-percent more impact than the words we carefully parse. So the next time an employee is red in the face and turned away in his chair, “listen” to what you are seeing as carefully as you listen to him telling you he’s fine. If you are a staff person, there is another set of cues: direct eye contact, smiling, confident handshake and believe it or not that slightly Victorian idea that you shouldn’t sprawl. Sit up and act like you want to be there. And if you’re in your museum’s education department or you do a lot of public speaking for your organization, review how you behave in front of a group.

So as we head into the holiday season with its round of parties and hoopla, have a great time, but be mindful of your non-verbal clues.

Joan Baldwin

 


Making Decisions Transparent

peering

This week I want to pick up an earlier thread and talk about transparency and decision making. My workplace is involved in a search for a new head. We were told several months ago that because of the nature of the field {independent schools}, that the search would be a closed process. It is being conducted by a search firm and a committee composed of board members, faculty and staff. Nonetheless, the rest of us have had numerous opportunities to meet and comment on past heads of school and our hopes for the future. One of the principal complaints by many who met with the committee was the insular nature of the outgoing leadership. Decisions were made by a close-knit group and handed down to everyone else. The closed-door process left everyone else free to fill in the narrative. And narratives, whether created at museums or schools, whether about policy, personnel or change, take on a life of their own.

Which brings me to transparency. I want to say at the outset that not all decisions need to be transparent. In fact, it’s not the decision making that needs transparency. It’s the ramp up to making the decision that should be open.

All leaders are deciders. That’s the nature of the game. But here’s the deal: Are you a leader who shuts your door, paces the room, and emerges with a decision? Or do you closet yourself with a few trusted colleagues and then let them spread the news? Perhaps you meet and talk with staff and then shut your door and think? Is your staff comfortable discussing thorny problems with one another? Do you speak with all staff members who may be affected by a decision? And last, do you think of decision-making discussions as learning opportunities for staff? Because they really are. Think about it. Here are some things a staff or department, who talks together, learns:

  • to trust one another.
  • that decision making is a process.
  • what the goal of the process is–which may not be the goal of the entire staff or shared by the entire staff.
  • respect for minority viewpoints.

Another payoff of inclusiveness during decision making is voices rarely heard may help your organization save money. For example, if you’re selecting software and only involve IT and department heads, what happens when the folks who actually use proposed software tell you it won’t work and why? And last, and this is also the leader’s role, by talking it through, a staff learns how to work with a decision even when it didn’t go the way they hoped. And it’s you, the leader, who sets that tone although it’s likely easier when a majority of the staff have participated in the process. And what does your staff expect on the receiving end of a transparent decision making process?

  • a leader who hasn’t made up her mind, who comes to the problem in question ready to learn.
  • a leader who respects her staff’s experience.
  • a leader who is willing to guide the process so all voices are heard from.
  • a leader who is open about the goals and parameters of a given project or decision.
  • a leader who really listens.

If you work at a small to medium sized institution, altering your decision making strategy may not be very difficult. You likely meet with most of the staff for major decisions anyway. If you don’t, you may want to ask yourself why you don’t. If you work at a larger museum, changing the decision making process will involve getting departments and/or trustees, who may not work together often to engage with one another. The results though are elegant. And because Leadership Matters is constantly nagging you, our gentle readers, to read outside the museum world, take a look at this decision-making matrix from University of California Davis.

As always, let us know what you think. We’ve had almost 17,000 views since 2013, and we’re honored to have you all out there thinking and talking about museum (and your) leadership.

Joan Baldwin