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.
Twenty-first century museum leadership is complex. That’s true, at least in part, because you oversee not only your own performance, but everyone else’s. And, as more and more museums and heritage sites move toward flatter organizational profiles and team-based project management, it’s critical that teams work well together. That’s a leadership challenge. And, it’s a particularly complicated one when team members fail to pull their weight.
Many of us are introduced to team work in middle school. There it’s often a dreadful experience, complicated by gender roles, hormones, competition, and snarkiness. There are always one or two hyper-organized students who act as self-appointed leaders; others toss ideas around while resisting both organization and action. You may remember your ninth grade angst at the thought of trying to wrangle your peers. The choice was stark: Either you shouldered all the work, enabling weak or lazy students to do nothing or you focused on your own portion of the assignment, knowing the team’s collective grade would suffer. Sadly, we often find ourselves in much the same situation as adults. The only difference between your workplace and middle school is that these days you are the leader, not simply one among many trying to persuade your peers that doing the work is a good thing. So as a museum leader, how do you manage weak staff? Can you make them contributors? If so, how?
As a leader, you are responsible–whether it’s to the whole museum, a department or a program– for everyone functioning as a team, a team that’s neither too dependent nor a bunch of anarchists. You need to know what’s going on, meaning you need a team that communicates. At the same time you need implicit trust that if you’re temporarily vaporized, your team will still move forward, completing the assigned projects. Easy to say, but what about the staff member who’s on permanent coffee break or the person who can’t start a project without asking a billion time-sucking questions or the cranky pants who seems to dislike you and your project, and stalls forever? And then there’s also the pinball person who spouts way too many off-topic ideas to focus or the person who’s quick to take responsibility but impossibly slow to deliver. You may not have hired these folks, but now, somehow, they’re yours.
Some suggestions for dealing with those who are off-track, lazy, or poorly focused:
- Offer some understanding: Assume everyone has the skills for their jobs even though they’re not demonstrating them.
- If their non-performance makes you angry, don’t go in hot. Cool down before confronting them.
- Don’t let things fester. The longer you allow less-than-able work, the more disruptive it becomes, which ultimately reflects on you and the rest of the team.
- Don’t assume the person in question has a clue what you’re talking about when you confront them with their failing. If their work was considered okay by their former leader, they may have no idea why suddenly it’s a problem for you. Don’t be oblique. Explain how their work needs to change.
- On the other hand, be reasonable. Change isn’t easy. Give them time to make changes, but be sure to circle back.
- Reinforce and compliment staff when their work style changes for the better.
- If your museum has an HR department, pull them into the discussion especially if change isn’t happening the way you’d like it to.
- Make sure staff understand where they fit in your department, program or museum structure. Do they have performance goals? Are those reviewed annually?
- If you’ve tried everything else, be ready to let someone go. Remember there’s nothing more demoralizing for other team members, than watching someone–whether staff or volunteer– fail to commit to the museum mission.
- And last, always question yourself first: Were you clear in your expectations? Did everyone get the same information, training and opportunities or is there bias in the way?
Image: Savannah State University Professor Nicholas Silberg leading Coastal Heritage Society Interpretive Staff.
We’ve talked a lot on these pages about the tyrannical leader, the my-way-or-the-highway devil, who makes the staff’s life a living hell. But what about the leader who is the exact opposite? What about a leader who absorbed the let’s-flatten-the-hierarchy lesson a little too much? Is that a thing? The answer, I’m afraid is yes.
Weak leaders hope to empower staff by stepping back, but the result is a scenario that looks like leadership, but is hollow at the core. Discussion is endless, results negligible. The leader enjoys the benefits of her position, bigger salary, bigger office, but brings little value to the museum, program or department. She may feel she’s doing good, but, in an effort not to be a despot, she flees from controversy, criticism or simply expressing her opinion. The result is a confused team that spends too much time chasing its tail and rarely moves forward. Weak leaders think that by not sharing their own thoughts, they’re more egalitarian. They’re not. Their staff or department may be perfectly nice, but if you probe a bit, there’s likely no creativity.
We have written and spoken about leading from anywhere in the room. Maybe we were too blithe about the whole enterprise as if group dynamics, congeniality and the power of the team weren’t a thing. As if it’s easy for individual staff to demonstrate they are courageous, visionary, authentic, and, of course, self aware. We’ve also noted, that museums and heritage organizations are more creative and better at risk taking when the traditional pyramid is gone because it allows colleagues to engage with one another more, cross pollinating, while tapping colleagues’ talents. But the absence of the pyramid shouldn’t mean the absence of leadership.
Does any of this sounds familiar? Maybe in an effort to be liked and not be seen as Cruella De Vil you’re leading less than you thought. If so:
- Have an opinion. Sometimes leaders hide behind group decision making. That may work for a time, but in pandering to the group and trying to keep everyone happy, what’s the result? Decisions that are neither imaginative, creative nor inclusive. Leadership is about experimentation, recalibration, and implementation. Experiment.
- Don’t be afraid of feedback. Feedback is the lifeblood of creativity. You need it and so does your museum and your team. If you shut your team down, they learn not to offer an opinion. Instead, listen, listen, listen. Ask questions. When you speak, incorporate what you heard with your own path toward mission and vision.
- Share what you know. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are leaders who either out of fear or a need to control, don’t talk to their staff. You are the bridge between the board and the staff. You see the big landscape. Tell your staff what’s on the horizon.
- Participate. This is a mash-up of numbers one and three. Your team needs to hear what you think. You don’t have to go first, but make sure you’ve spoken by mid-way through the discussion. And for goodness sake don’t just reiterate the ideas already on the table.
- Don’t avoid confrontation. Your staff needs you. Don’t be afraid to wade in and help quell dissension. If tensions escalate between staff members, call them together and talk it out.
On the contrary, if you’re a follower and some of this sounds familiar, you may work for a weak leader. You need to do your job, while simultaneously collaborating with colleagues to shore up your leader’s weak spots.
- Learn who your leader is. By understanding her personality and leadership style, you may be better able to experiment and make change. For example, if she’s a slow processor, it’s probably better to present a new initiative in writing followed by a meeting. If she’s still a mystery, sit down with colleagues who seem to get along with her and talk.
- Triangulate: One of the oldest workplace tricks in the book. Make friends with your leader’s friend or confident. Take them with you when you need to present a new idea or program.
- Ask for help: Even if it kills you, asking a weak leader’s opinion about something builds trust, allows you a peak into her brain, and makes her feel like she has a voice.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Weirdly, many weak leaders have strong teams. Why? Because one of the ways to make change is through coalition. When the meeting agenda appears, work with your colleagues to anticipate discussion and get the outcome you want.
Think about what happens at your staff or department meetings. If you trace engagement across the table, drawing a line from one speaker to another, would you have a spider web of interaction or do all the lines radiate from one or two spots, dying a slow death in the center of the table? Is your leadership a presence or an absence? How does your team create connection?
Sometimes people contact Leadership Matters with thoughts about blog posts. A few weeks ago a friend, a museum thought leader, suggested we speak with someone. Our friend felt this person was worth hearing. And she was right. The interviewee asked for anonymity, but here is what we can say: She uses the pronouns she/her. She worked full time in the museum business for more than a decade. Partnered and a parent, she left the field. She is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware. What gives her story such resonance is not its uniqueness so much as its sameness. And that’s the sad part. It’s 2019. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced almost a half-century ago and remains unrealized, yet, as of 2018, women comprised nearly half the American workforce.
As we’ve said before, women’s narratives in the museum workforce is a Ground-Hog day tale. Not only do experiences repeat themselves over generations, as our interviewee points out, too often harassment doesn’t arrive in the overt ways we’ve seen on television or watched in Congressional testimony. Too often it’s the death of a thousand small cuts. “When you sit underneath the best of the male directors,” she says, “He seems so woke and he’s not touching you under the table.” Her experience though leads her to ask whether too many museum leaders want diversity conceptually, but are ill-prepared to truly lead a diverse organization.
“My experience, ” she said, “led me to fall out of love with my museum.” She describes her former boss as someone who hired women and promoted women, and whose outward-facing reputation was good. But behind the curtain this director displayed many of the subtle gendered characteristics that foster a climate of bias. Oh, lots of men–especially older men–do that you say. You’ve got to roll with the punches. But here’s what happens: Women are told they can’t show emotion; they’re told not to stand up for female staff when inappropriate remarks are made. In other words many of the characteristics that make our interviewee (and possibly you) a successful museum leader–compassion, passion, clarity of thought, cooperation–are the same characteristics that despite success and promotions are not actually valued, but instead are used to target women.
“How can we begin to identify patterns if we can’t talk about them?” our interviewee asked. “When are we going to admit that our internal practices are a problem?” Sadly, her experience with 21st-century bias and harassment didn’t end when she left her full time position. In fact, the museum recruitment process delivered another complex set of challenges. While search firms and museums talked about diversity and inclusion, she describes her journey as “Making it to the end, but not to the choice.” Recruiters told her what to wear for final stage interviews, asked for previous W-2’s as proof of salary, made biased statements regarding work she’d previously undertaken, and allowed board interviewers to ask about her marital status and children. Perhaps most telling, both the recruiters and the museum kept pressing our interviewee for a vision. Could she have come up with a meaningless one-liner? Certainly. Did she? Not really. Reflecting on it today, she says, “This isn’t how I work. I would have spent a year watching and listening, and then we [she and her new organization] would create a vision together.”
Please don’t dismiss that last bit as the whining of a disgruntled applicant who didn’t get the job. That’s not the point. What’s important is her statement “This is not how I work,” because it’s how many women work. Studies show that women lean toward flat, task-focused, collaborative organizational structures. Men, on the other hand, lean toward the transactional and hierarchical, with a focus on performance and competition. Ignorance regarding these issues makes for a clumsy, biased hiring process.
Museums and heritage organizations shell out tons of money to recruitment firms. And even if they don’t use a firm, the entire process of hiring takes time and therefore money. If you’re going to pay a firm, shouldn’t you receive transparent, equitable guidance? People who will help your board not ask women whether their husband will allow them to move? Yes, our interviewee did get that question. No, she didn’t go up in flames. But honestly. Has the needle moved at all?
This brings us back to the initial question. If we don’t talk about these things because we hope for promotion, don’t want to be a trouble maker or anticipate a future job search, how can we change anything? As I’ve said too often on these pages, bias and harassment is often delivered in a thousand tiny ways that constantly reinforce who has power and who doesn’t. It’s not just the province of men. Women do it too. And for those of us who are white and cisgender, there’s a whole other layer of inherent bias we carry with us directed, often implicitly, toward colleagues of color.
The museum field must stand up for women, all women, not just white ones. Can we legislate people’s feelings? No, but as a field we can say what we care about and what we believe in. How can AAM have a Code of Conduct that applies only to its annual conferences, but not to its membership?
- Understand what implicit bias or second-generation discrimination in the workplace looks like. It’s not only inappropriate touching or racially charged language. It’s the death of a thousand cuts, and the odds are, you have colleagues of color and/or female colleagues who are experiencing the effects of it.
- Support your friends and colleagues. If you hear hate or inappropriate speech, say something.
- Learn to recognize your own biases. If you find yourself admiring your male boss who roars, but not the female leader who roars, ask why. Emotion is emotion. Why is women’s tied to hormones and men’s to courage?
- Ask yourself what you can risk to support others. This is a small, tight field. Becoming a leader is a tricky business. If you’re the person known for saying the emperor has no clothes, will you ever get promoted? Are you counting on someone else to be that person?
- Find resources and participate through Gender Equity in Museum’s Movement (GEMM); Museum Hue, Incluseum; AAM, AASLH, AIC, and other national, regional, and state professional associations.