It’s Sunday morning. Leadership Matters has just returned from 36 hours away. We went to Seneca Falls, NY, to join 10,000 people in support of women’s rights–but particularly women of color and transgender and queer women–whose workplace issues, even in the august halls of museums and heritage organizations, dwarf complaints from their more privileged white sisters.
Why Seneca Falls? For readers from outside the United States, Seneca Falls was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yes, it’s dismaying that we’re still having a variation of the same conversation 169 years later, but so be it. The day was glorious. The speeches, from march organizer and Auburn, NY mayor Marina Carnicelli, to tribal leaders from the Seneca and Akwesasne Mohawk nations, to our own Sally Roesch Wagner, a professor, author, speaker, and museum founder who we interviewed for Leadership Matters, were inspiring. They were uplifting not just for their words, but because while we listened we were part of the 4+ million people on seven continents who took time to stand up for what they believe in.
Which brings us to our real focus: How important it is for museum staff to participate, not just in the life of the museum, but in the community. Don’t say you don’t have time. Do you vote? Can you recognize your state representatives, your city council people people, your town select people if you see them on the street? Do you speak to them? What do you do as a staff or as individuals to make your community a better place? If the answer is not much, think about what would happen if your staff showed up to help pack or serve food at the local soup kitchen, if you picked up trash in a local park or took old photographs to the community nursing home?
Museums are like novels or poems. They provide visitors a chance to step outside their own lives, to experience something different, and to make connections to the world they live in. As museum staff, how can we do our best work, interpret the past, link art and culture or connect to the natural world, unless we actually live in it? So as we begin 2017, make a promise to participate. Do what you can. Do what engages you. If you need inspiration, check out the Womensmarch 10 actions in 100 Days. Even if this isn’t “your” issue, it’s a great model for engagement. That way on January 1, 2018, when you look back, maybe it will be with a new understanding and commitment to some part of your community, city or region.
Good luck and let us know how you participate.
When we asked for possible topics as part of our 100th anniversary post, one of our readers suggested mentoring. Characterizing AAM’s page on mentoring as “sad,” she rightly called us out for mentioning mentoring often enough, but never really explaining it. So here goes.
First, if you care, mentoring is a gerund–meaning a verb form that functions as noun– and usually refers to advice or training offered by the old to the young. Second, we believe in it. And we think for the museum world in particular, mentoring should not be a generational thing. Too many of us think of being mentored as something museum Boomers should be doing for museum Millennials. While that’s a good idea, we would like to suggest that you don’t have to be a certain age to be mentored. Everybody needs one, likely more than one over the course of a career. And before we go any further, here is what mentoring is not: It’s not therapy. If you need a therapist, we hope you find one. And your mentor is not going to get you a job. That’s not a mentor’s job. Of course that may happen organically because of your mentor, but that’s not why you have one. You have a mentor so you can check in, talk, and receive counsel from someone who’s wiser, smarter, and more experienced than you are.
While it can and should be supported by graduate programs, employers, and service organizations, mentoring is an individual thing. You find them. You connect with them. Mentors don’t have to be your friends, and it’s often better if they’re not. They need to be folks, whether in the museum field or not, who can offer clear-headed career advice and a strategic 30,000-foot view of the profession.
And how do you get one? Don’t be shy. And don’t think if your graduate school professor is your mentor for a year or two, that she needs to be your mentor for life. Mentors change, just as you will. If you meet someone at a conference, seminar or workshop who seems smart, imaginative, and approachable, do not hesitate to ask them if mentoring is something they do. If the answer is yes, ask if they would mind if you called for an interview. If that goes well, you may want to set up quarterly calls, email exchanges, Skype, whatever works for you. But mentoring isn’t a once-a-year check in. You need regular contact to build trust in order for your mentor to keep pace with your career narrative.
If you and your potential mentor live in the same area, you may want to meet regularly face-to-face. And speaking of your local area, whether it’s a major city or a rural area, if there is someone you’ve admired from afar, you should feel free to contact them as well. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? They politely say they’re too busy? And we want to underscore that while this is traditionally the old(er) offering advice to the young(er), it doesn’t have to be that way. If there is a young, dynamic leader with a skillset different from your Boomer collection of talents, approach them.
What should museums or heritage organizations or service organizations do about mentoring? They should support it. It’s part of good leadership. In larger organizations it’s possible to offer internal mentoring opportunities. These have the advantage of access, but you may find yourself paired with someone who doesn’t work for you. Again, don’t be shy. If it’s not working, say so. On the other hand, some organizations offer one-to-one leadership training for their department heads that may come with mentoring. Or, if you’re in a less urban area, don’t forget about the Chamber of Commerce. It frequently offers leadership training and may also have opportunities for mentoring. And we support our reader in believing that AAM and AASLH should take a robust stance on mentoring, particularly at their annual meetings where the number of meet and greets is exponential.
We are always advising readers to read outside of the museum world. So here are some great mentoring pieces. If you’re not a Harvard Business Review reader, you should be. Read this piece: Demystifying Mentoring or this one Mentoring in a Hypercompetitive World. If you are a museum curator, the Association of Art Museum Curators, AAMC, has a formal mentoring program. In addition, the Center for Curatorial Leadership developed a Diversity Mentoring Initiative, and don’t forget about Museum Hue. In its role to increase diversity in operations, governance and staffing, it too provides mentoring opportunities. Last, we’d like to point to the UK’s museum organizations. We recommend these pages: Resources for Museum Mentors and Professional Development and Mentoring. Finally, there are people like Linda Norris who pay it forward by mentoring.
In closing, not everyone prospers in a mentoring situation. So know what you need. In order to work, mentoring means time, and a level of self-awareness so you understand enough about yourself to ask questions that are helpful. Don’t ask for a mentor if you can’t make the time to meet with one. Conversely, you may want to think about your life, if you know you need a mentor, but can’t find the time to talk with someone, perhaps something needs to change.
There’s a presumption in these blog posts that most museums leaders are good at what they do. Or at least that they strive for something beyond mediocrity and plain vanilla management. And that their employees do, too. We’ve met enough really great leaders to know that not everyone in museum land is struggling with bad leadership. But it’s probably too much of a Kumbaya moment to believe everyone out there is blissful, so we’re going to use this post to try and think about what to do in the case of failed leadership.
One of the most problematic things about working for or with a poor leader is that it’s not always something you can talk about objectively or even constructively. Friends are sympathetic to a point. Spouses, partners and significant others take your side and feel angry for you. Therapy’s not for everyone. Then there’s quitting. That’s obviously a solution, but it’s often not the easiest. So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about being an employee when the leadership is weak:
- Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to do. Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many organizations haven’t updated their job descriptions. Is your skill set lightyears from your job description? Making sure the two are in synch may change expectations–yours or your CEO’s.
- Take care of yourself. Check in. Don’t allow yourself to be used, made uncomfortable or insulted. Ignorance is not an excuse.
- Take ownership for what you can control. If your institution allows one professional development opportunity a year, make sure it serves your needs. If you are allowed to take an online course at work, make sure it builds your resume, not just the organization’s.
- If things are uncomfortable, write it down. Know when the dumb jokes started, when you stopped being part of senior leadership team or how long it’s been since you had an employment review. Even in the digital age, it’s not a bad thing to keep a work journal in pen in a spiral bound notebook.
- Be the leader your boss/department head or director isn’t. That doesn’t mean trying to take their job, it means taking the high road, being kind, being collegial, pulling the team together even when bad management makes everyone feel unsafe.
- Network! Obviously the lack of leadership at your own institution is a drag, but it isn’t the end of your career. Find your role models elsewhere, whether they’re digital or colleagues you meet locally or regionally. And if there isn’t an organization, call up six people who do your job in your city, town or state, and ask them for an after-work drink or an early morning latte.
- Learn to speak for yourself. That’s not the same as speaking about yourself, but look for openings to tout your own successes.
- Know when to leave. Sometimes we are so inured to bad management that we allow inertia to hold us in place. Yes, there are a million complications from significant others to aging parents to college tuitions to keep us in place, but if you’re going to stay, understand why and give yourself a time limit or a goal–I’ll stay ’til my car is paid off, my partner finishes graduate school, my child finishes eighth grade.
So we’re guessing not all of you out there in museum land are blissful. Tell us how you manage.