Two of my favorite myths at the beginning of Leadership Matters are: “We are the source of our own best ideas,” and “Anyone can lead a museum.” They come from a place that says museums are simple organizations doing simple stuff, and pretty much anybody can do what needs to be done. After all, there’s a gazillion books and YouTube videos. How hard can it be? I’ve never worked in a really big museum, but I know first-hand that among tiny to medium-sized heritage organizations and museums these two myths spawn a lot of problems, and the biggest may be they limit imagination.
You may have seen this type of behavior cast generationally–the proverbial eye-roll from older staff members when a Millennial suggests trying something new. Or it’s attributed to a particular subgroup within the museum, frequently with the pronoun ‘they’ — as in “It’s a great idea, but they would never go for it.” They refers to a nameless group of powerful people who make decisions for everyone else. Despite the fact staff may have no real understanding about the board’s decision-making process, ascribing blame in these situations is useful. Then there is the financial version, which goes something like, “I love that, but we just don’t have the money right now.” And last, but certainly not least is the version that combines one or more of the others: “We tried that before the recession, and it wasn’t that successful.” If your therapist were in the room for all these comments, she’d tell you you’re writing the script before anything’s happened. And she’d be right.
I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. And it can buy a lot, and ease even more worries. But an organization can be really rich and also really boring. Surely you’ve been to some of those. They are beautifully presented, but stiff, still, and flat. There is, to quote Gertrude Stein, “No there there.” But there are other organizations where, without warning and often without huge budgets, you’re challenged, confronted by things you hadn’t thought about before or presented with memorable narratives. They are the places you remember. They are the ones that stick with you.
Imagination and ideas are a museums’ biggest tools. Otherwise you’re just a brilliantly-organized storage space. And yet how do you get out of the scarcity mindset? Practice. Truly. And start small.
If you’re a leader:
- Read widely. Listen and learn from a variety of sources. If you’re a scientist, read the book review. If you’re an art curator, read the Harvard Business Review.
- Model respect, and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Use the ideas that work now. Start small. What percentage of your guests are elderly? Will moving some benches afford a view and make walking from place-to-place easier? Try it. If it doesn’t work, move them back.
- Change is a muscle. Build strength slowly. Don’t over do it.
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a board member:
- Model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Know what matters. Understand your organization.
- Invite a different staff member to your board meeting every month. Ask them what they would do if you gave them a million dollars. Listen. (And ban the eye-roll.)
- Devote some time as a group to talking about ideas as opposed to what’s just happened, what’s currently happening or what will happen. How can you raise money for an organization if you’re not excited about what it’s doing?
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a leader or a board member, you’re role isn’t to maintain the status quo. You want more than mediocrity, don’t you? You’re a change agent, and change doesn’t have to come in a multi-million-dollar addition. Sometimes it comes in a volunteer program that models great teaching, a friendly attitude and deep knowledge.
Yours for idea stimulation,
P.S. Two items of note passed over our screens this week: Nikki Columbus, who was briefly hired by MOMA PS1, settled the claim she brought against the museum. Kudos to Ms. Columbus for following through on her claim which accused MOMA PS1 of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination. It takes money, courage and will to take on a monolith, but in the end cases like this one set precedent for others. Second, the Guggenheim Museum joined Britain’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery in no longer accepting gifts from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, donated $9 million to the Guggenheim between 1995 and 2015. Aligning gifts with core values is a tricky topic so stay tuned.
Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?
We can’t begin this week without mentioning museum staff who are among the many U.S. Government workers furloughed for a month. Words aren’t worth much, but we feel for you. We often whine on these pages about low pay, but you’re in the land of no pay, and we wish the shutdown would end. It’s likely cold comfort, but we’re proud AAMD offers a list of museums across the country offering government workers free admission. If you are among the federal workers currently out of work, check this out: a state by state list of free admission.
Based on last week’s post–a back-and-forth between Frank Vagnone and me –I thought maybe we should talk about governing boards. If you’re a leader they’re the people you probably see a lot of–some weeks maybe too much. They are the deciders. They may exercise that obligation too frequently or not often enough. They may fret about capital expenses, about decaying infrastructure, about risk, but–if you’re a leader, here’s a question for you–does your board worry about staff? Or is the staff your problem? You and your leadership team hire them, nurture them, and, if need be, fire them. What does your board know about them?
Here are some questions for you and your board:
For you, the museum leader:
- Do you know what it costs to live in your county, city or town? Not what it costs you, what it costs your lowest paid full-time employee.
- Do you know what the living wage is for your locale?
- Do you know the ratio between your salary and your lowest paid FTE?
- What benchmarks do you use to set salaries?
- Do you know whether your organization’s salaries are equitable or not? Does your museum or heritage organization have a race/gender pay gap?
- What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? Is it among the 46-percent of museum boards that are all white?
For your board members:
- Do they know what it costs to live in your county, city or town?
- Do they understand what a living wage is and why it matters?
- Does your board understand there’s a national gender pay gap and how it affects your organization?
- What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? How does it affect the board’s decision making? How does it affect the community’s view of your organization? Is that something your board has discussed?
- Have the words “implicit bias” ever been mentioned at a board meeting? If so, what happened?
Have you and your board tried any of the following:
- Have you talked about wage equity as a serious and ongoing problem in the museum world?
- Have you addressed the costs of hiring, replacing and retraining staff?
- Do you and your board know what it’s like to live in your community on the lowest hourly wage your organization offers?
- Do you pay men more than women? Do you pay white staff more than staff of color? And that’s not a question about your personal beliefs, it’s about what actually happens.
- Has your board and your organization come to consensus on a values statement?
These are complex problems. Board and staff have to believe in change to make it happen.
- Board and staff are co-dependent. Make sure you have the right people on the staff and on the board. Acknowledge the importance of each team, board and staff.
- Make your meetings about doing rather than reviewing. Plan, reflect, strategize.
- There are museums without walls, without collections, but there are almost none without staff. Paid or volunteer, staff carry out mission and reflect the museum’s values every day. Boards and leaders who don’t invest in staff and volunteers equitably, preside over a a work and volunteer force that’s disaffected, dissatisfied and discouraged.
- Find hope and optimism. If staff feels victimized, the solution isn’t to hire new staff, it’s to find the source of their victimization, and correct it.
- Don’t let yourself fall into the scarcity mindset: the pie is as big as you choose to make it.
- Staff matter. Let them know it.
Image: Field Museum staff at the Speak Up for Science March, 2017
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
As people who’ve written and spoken about the museum pay crisis since 2012, Leadership Matters was heartened to read 7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down. Written by Michael Holland, it was wonderful to see such an important topic addressed by a forum like Alliance Labs since by inference it carries AAM’s blessing. But that was before we read the article. In our opinion, Holland skipped a few key points. And judging from some of the 20-plus comments, one of which was ours, we weren’t alone. So here’s our response:
1: Gender inequity and the pay gap failed to make Holland’s list. In some ways this isn’t a surprise. Michael Holland is male, and by his own admission, he frequently works for large, well-endowed museums so maybe he hasn’t encountered the gender pay gap? Maybe he doesn’t know that many women doing work similar to his (exhibit design)–not to mention the traditionally female bastions of museum education or event planning– will not make as much as he did in 2017 until April 10 of this year? Maybe he doesn’t understand that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, and that when a field slips down the pink collar slope it’s not a good thing?
2. While Holland lists the “Spousal Income Subsidy” as a way the field depends on hiring people who bring along a second income, he never explores what that means. Whether it’s an employee with a hedge fund spouse or an employee with a trust fund, the need for a second income frequently acts as a class and race barrier. Is it any wonder the museum workforce has a diversity problem?
3. He addressed the question of a burgeoning number of museum studies programs, offering both undergraduate and graduate training, and the resulting glut of too many inexperienced candidates desperate for employment, but he doesn’t mention these programs are costly, and that many emerging professionals begin their working careers with educational debt that’s the equivalent of a mortgage. And yet we work in a field that tells people if you don’t have a master’s degree, you can’t come to the party.
4. This is a corollary to #3. Holland makes passing reference to unpaid internships. (It appears he’s not a fan.) But he never addresses the damage done by an expensive graduate school education, followed by a series of unpaid or poorly paid internships, meaning that someone could be “in the field” for four years or so before finding a salaried position. And that’s if they’re lucky.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re glad Holland wrote his article, glad to see it published by Alliance Labs, and glad to see it debated and questioned in the Comments. Sometimes it’s depressing being the broken record yammering about gender, pay equity, poor pay, and lousy leadership every week. So–in the tradition of Leadership Matters–where we believe we can all make change, here are some things that might help the museum salary crisis.
For individuals, and women especially: Don’t take a job without negotiating. Use the GEMM (Gender Equity in Museums) 5 Things You Need to Know About Salary Negotiations tip sheet. And for goodness sake look at MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to make sure you can afford to live (really live) on what you’re being offered. If you’re already working in a position you enjoy, when your annual review rolls around, don’t forget to ask for a raise. Again, there’s a 5 Things Tip Sheet for that.
For organizations and directors: Work with your board to make sure it understands the value of your museum’s human resources. People matter. Make sure you and your board know what it costs to live in your community. Make sure the board understands the cost of a churning staff, the time it takes new staff to get up to speed, the resulting loss of institutional momentum and organizational knowledge when someone leaves, and the damage done when a team is disrupted.
Solve your wage equity problem first. Do men at your organization make more than women? Do white women make more than women of color?
If you’re faced with the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument, make an effort to put all the other pieces in place to support staff–HR support, equitable benefits, paid time off, maternity/paternity leave, even housing if that’s available. When was the last time you reviewed your personnel policy? Make sure new applicants know the work you’ve done around wages and benefits.
For regional and national museum service organizations: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the field to tackle this problem?