We began writing this blog in 2013. We’d just sent Leadership Matters off to the publisher and wanted a way to keep the discussion going. The book is a collection of 36 interviews with museum and heritage organization leaders, speaking frankly about the thrills and challenges of doing their jobs. Not all were directors since we believe leadership happens throughout an organization.
Now, five years later, we’re revising the original. Five years doesn’t seem that long, but the first interviews took place early in 2012, and a number of our interviewees have retired, changed jobs or left the field. So, we’ve begun to write and interview again, and, if all goes well, the revision will be available in fall 2019. But most importantly we are thinking deeply about how (and why) museum leadership today is different.
In some ways the museum world is the trailing indicator, slow to change and late to the party, perhaps not so much at the front of the house, but in staff rooms, offices and around the coffee machine. Six years ago we approached this project with real concern about the field’s understanding of leadership, and the need for boards to grapple with it. Today, leadership as a concept, seems more universally accepted for individuals and organizations who want to move the needle from mediocre to extraordinary. However, toward the book’s end, there’s a chapter called “There Be Dragons Here.” There we ask how 21st-century museums and heritage organizations navigate their communities while remaining truly and authentically themselves. To be honest, this is a place where there are still dragons. Too many organizations find themselves landlocked, unable to intersect with the communities they serve because of lackluster leadership.
Over the next six months we will try to pinpoint change. So, in the tradition of our book and our blog, here’s a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards.
- The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
- This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
- This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
- This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.
- The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
- Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
- Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
- Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
- 21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.
- Organizations need an HR department or its equivalent and an understanding of employment law.
- Organizations need an active, current personnel policy that addresses all human and family needs.
- Organizations need to engage not just present; they need to be real community partners.
- They need courage to tackle the hard stuff.
For Boards of Trustees:
- They need to understand the meaning of service.
- They need to understand the museum world, its ethics and values, its standards and expectations.
- They should want a values-driven organization keenly, if not more so, than their staff leaders.
- They should know the value of human capital and what it takes to advocate for, support, and celebrate a creative, engaged staff.
- They should understand their communities, whether local, regional, national or international.
Tell us how you think leadership has changed or is changing.
Image: Museum Insider
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Maybe it’s the summer. Maybe it’s the heat, but among museum news-sharing folk the question of pay reared its head again last week. On AAM’s Museum Junction there was a question and several responses regarding pay for front line staff. One of the responses was from Michael Holland who posted a lengthy article on low pay on AAM’s Diversity and Inclusion page in February. In addition, blogger Paul Orselli, asked us all to take notice (again) of the need to post salaries with job announcements. You can read his full post here.
The initial Museum Junction question came from Mark Osterman at the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, FLA who asked about pay for “frontline staff,” and whether other museums use merit pay, bonuses or some other vehicle to increase wages for admission staff or part-time greeters. The two organizations who responded said they offer annual wage increases of between .01 and .03 percent on base salaries of $10.75 and $12.50. Another question that Osterman and the two responders might ask themselves is whether their frontline pay is equitable?
We like to think Leadership Matters remains a stalwart voice for both better salaries and pay equity in the museum field. If these issues are new to you, consider for the moment that increasing salaries simply perpetuates whatever pay inequity already exists. Let’s say you work at a museum with a staff of 50, and a Latina woman and a Caucasian woman both work in the education department. Imagine the museum board arrives for its quarterly meeting and decides, based on industry trends and the fact that the organization had a very good year, to raise salaries across the board by 10-percent. Sadly, after the backslapping and texts to friends, the Caucasian woman and her Latina colleague would still likely have a salary gap of almost 13-percent because white women make a lot more than Latina women. And by the way, those percentages, which come from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, are compared to white men doing the same job. (We realize that’s an unlikely scenario because museum education departments are usually bastions of underpaid women.)
Michael Holland’s comment suggested, among other things, that museum salaries should reflect museum values, and that 21st-century salaries should permit staff to live in the communities in which they work. Which brings us to Paul Orselli’s piece which points out that organizations like AAM and AASLH need to require organizations to list salary ranges when posting job announcements. Orselli pleads with his readers to contact AAM and AASLH and ask that they change their policies. We agree, and we’ve said as much over and over since the start of this blog. In keeping with our tradition of suggestions for museum folk at all levels, here are some possible recommendations depending on where you find yourself in the field.
For Museum Service Organizations:
- Change your policies to require job announcements include salaries or salary ranges and be explicit in explaining why. You have an opportunity to educate and advocate.
- Museums and heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens are important institutions for a host of reasons, but they are not always workplace nirvana. Start publicly acknowledging organizations who are good employers and tell the field why.
For Museum Board Members:
- Know where your museum’s salaries fit in the annual AAM salary survey and, if appropriate, the AAMD salary survey, but remember that survey is but one data point to investigate. Look broadly across the nonprofit sector in your community/region/state at salaries for comparable job titles. Benchmark museums specific to yours in terms of budget size and discipline.
- Know how much it costs to live in your community. Use the MIT Living Wage Calculator to figure out if your staff can actually afford to live and work in the same place. If your organization can’t afford to offer the salaries it should, as a board member you should be fully aware how well your staff performs despite being underpaid.
- How often does your board discuss the human cost of running a museum?
- Do your museum’s salaries reflect your museum’s value statement?
For Museum Leaders:
- Know what’s going on. Use the AAM and AAMD salary surveys, and other survey data from across the nonprofit sector. Make sure you’re not underpaying. If you are, know why.
- Do your salaries reflect your museum values statement?
- Are your salaries equitable? If not, what is your role? Don’t let unconscious bias fester.
- Make sure salary is a part of all annual reviews.
For Museum Staff and Those in the Job Hunt:
- If you’re applying for a new job, do your due diligence. Know what it costs to live where you’re applying. Be prepared to say no if you can’t actually live on the salary offered.
- When you receive an offer, don’t say yes right away. Think it through. Negotiate. Know what you need.
- If you’ve done great work, say so in your annual review. Explain what your great work means. Ask for a raise.
- If there are opportunities to learn more about how your organization functions, take them. Serve on internal committees. Make an effort to understand your organization.
- If you would like to see salary information with job announcements, follow Paul Orselli’s lead and contact Laura Lott (AAM President and CEO) and John Dichtl (AASLH President and CEO) and tell them how you feel about salary transparency in job announcements.
Then tell us what you think.
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
The museum workplace is full of feelings: Success–you got the grant; terror–the second floor bath really leaked and your insurance deductible is that high; delight–a child told you this was the best school trip ever; accomplishment–you might actually finish cataloging that collection; anticipation–the fall benefit is tomorrow. All these feelings and emotions connect to work, but you’re not a product of artificial intelligence. You arrive every day with your own jumble of emotions, and it’s the moment where these two paths cross that we need to think about.
You’ve heard that oft-mentioned workplace trope, “We’re like a family.” Maybe. Strong families are committed. They communicate well and regularly. They are resilient. They share values and belief systems. They like spending time together, and they are affectionate. Those are all good things, although not all are workplace appropriate. In addition, not everyone working in your museum or heritage organization comes from a healthy family. Some arrive with a host of baggage. Advertising the workplace as a family sets it up as a place that fills a host of unmet needs. Work quickly becomes a spot where individuals feel comfortable discussing their failed relationships, their children’s problems or less dramatically, a venue where they let go of the frustrations of modern life. And while some colleagues share too much, others don’t share at all, yet their silence says everything. They can’t focus, are absent or on the phone frequently. When the over-arching culture says “We’re family,” it’s hard for museum colleagues (and leaders) to separate the hum of personal drama from the day-to-day at work or to know what level of help or participation is appropriate.
Once, a boss I didn’t much care for, an individual who met alcoholism head-on so he knew a bit about controlling feelings, told me that the hardest thing about work is exercising restraint. At the time, I brushed it off, but it’s stayed forever embedded on my personal hard drive, a home truth about saying less. That’s true both as a leader and a follower. It’s a reminder to all of us to create a museum culture for the public AND for staff that is warm, embracing and empathetic, but at the same time clear that our first priority is the communities we serve and the objects, living things and buildings we care for. In other words, work is about work.
Not being like a family doesn’t mean museum leaders can’t or shouldn’t address staff’s problems when they interfere with work. But here’s a caveat: Do your homework first. If you have an HR department, consult them. Know what you can and cannot say, and what you can and cannot offer, and whether HR needs to be in the room when you speak to your employee. Too often people suffer through massive personal drama because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them. If you don’t have an HR department, use resources in your community — perhaps through your Chamber of Commerce — to get the advice and counsel you need. Make sure you’ve documented the employee’s behavior so you’re not offering vague descriptions that only add to the misery. If inattention costs your organization something, be prepared to explain. Work toward:
- Creating a climate where staff aren’t afraid to say they need to press pause.
- In the event of a personal tragedy, make sure staff know who to talk to.
- Remember that accident, illness or broken relationships can happen to anyone. Don’t blame an employee for circumstances beyond her control.
- Separate legitimate tragedy from a staff member who uses the museum to shed emotional load.
- Work with HR and your board personnel committee to understand what alternatives you might offer–sick leave, FMLA, short-term disability–and know what those mean.
- Build a museum workplace that is warm and empathetic, yet focused on work.
Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.