We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
It’s May, so it’s time for the the American Alliance of Museums–AAM for short–annual meeting in St. Louis. Anne and I are lucky enough to not only be going, but we’re also proud to be part of a discussion based on our forthcoming book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017) Our session, “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” takes place Monday morning, May 8, in Room 127, America’s Center, where we’ll be joined by Kaywin Feldman from MIA, Jessica Phillips from Fraunces Tavern Museum, Ilene Frank from the Connecticut Historical Society, and Wyona Lynch-McWhite, VP at the Arts Consulting Group. All four women were interviewed or contributed to our book, and have plenty to say about gender equity. This isn’t for women only. It’s a session for everyone interested in an equitable workplace. We hope to see you there!
Our session is part of AAM’s Career Management track, so if you’re coming to the meeting and searching for other programs like this, try looking under “Management and Administration” as well. And don’t forget the “Museum Directors” track. You don’t have to be a director to attend those sessions. Altogether there are over 30 sessions related to leadership. There’s even one on failure as in the famous Samuel Becket line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Anne’s facilitating a leadership discussion in the CEO Roundtable on Monday, 3-5 pm, in Landmark 4 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand. She’ll be sharing the Layers Leadership, a recent outcome of work by museums, libraries and archives as part of the IMLS-funded NexusLab project. If you’re interested in talking about the varying leadership roles one plays and their attendant challenges, skills and outcomes, stop by Anne’s table.
If you prefer a smaller discussion format, we will also be part of the Peer Mentoring Roundtables for Emerging and Career Professionals on Tuesday, May 9, from 11:45 – 1:45 in the Expo Hall. This event offers 23 tables with smart, experienced folks, along with colleagues, friends and mentors, ready to talk about everything from resume tips to mentorship, to aligning career and organizational goals. We’ll be at table 12, ready to talk about Self-awareness, Career Planning, and Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Learning Curve.
We hope you’ll drop by the Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion on Tuesday morning, 9-11 am, where we’ll be representing GEMM — Gender Equity in Museums Movement. We’ll have the 5 Things You Need to Know tip sheets on leadership, salary negotiation and networking, along with other GEMM materials!
The annual meeting can be overwhelming so use your travel time to identify where you want to go and what you want to do. (If you arrive by Sunday morning, AAM runs an intro session from 9-11 am in the America’s Center.) Make sure to divide your time between career building–that’s for you, and idea building–which you may discover in sessions you select or in visits to St. Louis’s museums, galleries, zoo and botanical garden–and network building–that’s for you and your organization. It will be another year before you’re in a place with so many museum folk so make the most of it.
In the meantime, channel your inner Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis). We hope to see you there.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.
Some of you will read this post’s title and start laughing. Professional development funds are often the poor step children of organizational budgets, quickly whacked when finances are under siege. Yet in our ongoing quest to have museums and heritage organizations take their staff seriously–not just we can always depend on you to open the doors seriously, but you are the change agent(s) and we value that (seriously)–Leadership Matters believes in professional development.
Last week Fast Company did a piece on Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Admittedly, this is all workplaces and museums are only a tiny minority, but guess what? Fifty-five percent of American workers aren’t in love with work. They don’t hate their jobs either, they’re just indifferent. Why, you ask? Workers cited their bosses as poor communicators, and not just about work stuff. They felt management failed to explain a job’s benefits, and one of the principle benefits listed was professional development. The article suggests that unlike other more intangible workplace qualities, lousy or inexplicable benefits make employees leave. And leaving costs organizations money.
As a museum leader, you and your board of trustees want a stable, happy staff firmly entrenched with the 45-percent of American workers not trolling job announcements for greener pastures or better benefits. That means being an organization that demonstrates care and concern about employee growth, for conservators, curators, museum educators, and everyone else on your staff. And why does that matter? First of all, because of what it says. A clear and equitable employee development program says: We value you. Whether you are the lone ranger director provided with enough funding to take a course or go to a regional or national meeting or a member of the development office sent to learn the latest donor program, it is an ongoing way of saying thank you, an explicit demonstration of trust, and staff actually care if leadership takes a genuine interest in their future.
Who should get professional development funds? Well, in a perfect world, just about everyone. Museum leaders get more because their positions demand more, and the board and everyone else expects them to think and act at the speed of light. But wouldn’t it be nice if even the non-exempt staff who meet, greet, and instruct had the opportunity to go to a regional or local meeting once a year, to take an online course or work with a group like Museum Hack? So if your organization’s professional development program is lame or doesn’t exist, here are five things to think about:
- Boards need to understand that when it comes to staff, the best of the best seek self-improvement. They tend to leave organizations who make professional growth difficult or impossible.
- Professional development program budgets need to be transparent and equitable, meaning all exempt staff receive X and all non-exempt staff receive Y. And a gentle reminder, it’s not helpful if the museum leader seems to have unlimited professional development funds, while other staff have to go through a request and approval for every ask.
- Don’t hide behind the “we don’t have time for that” excuse. You are not curing cancer. You are a museum. You are an idea factory. If you can’t afford to let a staff member leave for three to five days, then you have other issues.
- It is helpful if professional development experiences are hinged to something at work, otherwise it is easy for them to become out of body experiences with nothing to do with work. As a leader, when you agree to staff attending a meeting, program or online training, talk about how that experience will integrate into the workplace on the back end. Be mindful that “What I did on my trip to AASLH” can be mind numbing for staff left behind, so make sure these interactions are intentional, directed, and, to use a sports metaphor, move the ball up the field.
- Boards and museum leaders want staff who can adapt. Employees who engage in learning on an ongoing basis adapt more readily than those who don’t. What does an organization have to lose?
Tell us how your organization sustains professional development.
Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.
Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”
What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?
One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.
But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.
So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.
Joan H. Baldwin