It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.
Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.
There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done. How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.
Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.
- Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
- Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
- Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
- Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or full staff?
- Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?
Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.
Few museums have enough money. Even big ones. Just look at this week’s headlines. The Metropolitan Tabled Its New Wing while it shaves $31 million from its deficit. Almost 400 miles to the south, the august Colonial Williamsburg laid off 40 more employees, bringing its total layoffs over 24 months to 100. These are two notable examples, but many museums and heritage organizations face similar scenarios. And even if they’re not downsizing dramatically, each hire is freighted with a sense of urgency. New staff need to be a good fit, and wherever they are in the organization they need to help move it forward, which brings us to the question of whether as a museum leader, when you hire, you replace a position or rethink it.
Let me interject here with a little story. I know someone who was hired two months ago to replace a long-time employee. As is the case with many individuals who’ve spent decades in an institution, what the outgoing employee did was a bit of a mystery. Myriad things had attached themselves to her job description like barnacles either because she was good at them or someone asked her to do them and she never stopped. Conversely, there were things she jettisoned because she didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. None of that web of “all other duties as required,” was included in the job description which was bland and boiler plate. The leadership agreed only that the position needed replacing without actually talking through what it wanted and what would be best for the organization. The new hire, whose resemblance to the outgoing employee is minimal at best, has found her acclamation hampered by the gap between what some of the leadership imagined for her position and what is actually written. And what is written is so useless that she is called to task for “not doing her job.” Yet who knows where the boundaries of her job really are? She consults with HR too often, and remains frustrated that what was offered is not reality. It’s not a good situation. And it’s definitely a waste of talent, time and money.
Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it comes from not pressing pause long enough to really talk about a new hire. These discussions shouldn’t be personal. It’s not about denigrating the outgoing employee; it’s about saying what does the museum need now? This should be the fun part. The in-a-perfect-world part I would hire a person who can do X,Y, Z. Once you identify what you need that’s new, you can go back and unpack the old job description to determine what the organization can’t live without. Some of those tasks may end up parceled out to other employees, while others will be included in the new hire’s job description. The point is only that even if you have buckets of money, it costs money to replace staff. Work slows while you cover for an empty position, and if your orientation program is poor, it may stay slow while the new hire tries to figure out her place.
As in so much of leadership, it’s better if you are intentional. Think a problem through. Talk to staff. Discuss what you need. Then act. Then don’t assume it’s all fixed. For goodness sake check in with your new employee. You may think you speak clearly, but that’s not always how people hear you. Make sure new staff are happy, challenged and understand their role.
Last, but not least, if you’re a wanna-be museum leader, a current leader, or a long time CEO, know that not all staff leave of their own volition. Firing is part of your job description. You may never have to act on it, but it’s a facet of the hiring process that everyone in leadership copes with. So, again, be intentional. Don’t hire a new employee simply because she’s 180 degrees different from the one you let go. Know your organizational needs, measure them against her strengths. Then decide. As a leader, your job is to drive your organization into the future with as much imagination and grit as you can muster. Make sure you have the staff you want on the journey.
Dear Friends, colleagues, readers,
2016 was a year of unending politics, the unexpected deaths of cultural icons, enough global warming to open the northwest passage, and way too many police shootings. Yet here, in the calmer waters of Leadership Matters, we continued to grow. We more than doubled our views, moving from 23,529 in 2015 to 55, 723 in 2016. Although most of our readers live in the United States, people around the globe, from Russia, India, Canada, Uzbekistan, Malta, Greenland, Rwanda and many, many more, continue to find us. Wherever you are, thank you. We’re honored to be part of a community of concerned, open and interested museum leaders.
If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary Conundrum; The Salary Agenda; The Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders; Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One.
And we didn’t just write blog posts. We finished the manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which we expect will be published by Routledge in May 2017. We spoke at AAM in May and NEMA in November. We worked with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Gender Equity in Museums Movement or GEMM, and to release the GEMM call for action which you’ll find in a pdf on the right side of this page.
Suddenly it’s a new year, and we have to do it all again, only differently, with equal or more imagination and energy. So we thought we’d begin with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the award-winning musical Hamilton, taken from The Daily Beast, December 27, 2016. Miranda was asked about the soul-crushing (for some) results of the presidential election. Here’s part of his answer.
“But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.”
We love this answer. It responds to the sadness many of us felt having ended up on the losing side of the Electoral College, but it acknowledges the hope and the energy that museums need to move forward, meaning if you’re an engaged leader of a value-driven organization that’s plugged into your community, you will move forward. You must move forward. You will fight for what you believe in–in museum offices, exhibition spaces, historic sites, and in your programming–and that is a tonic.
How can being engaged with communities or working for equal pay for women of color, as well as queer and transgender colleagues in the museum field be a bad thing? And how about committing to raising museums’ consciousness about bias? Wouldn’t that be an important goal as well? And isn’t it about time all museums were value-driven? Values are not just something left to sites of conscience. Every community has things it cares about, and its museums (and their leaders) should reflect those cares.
So..as we look toward 2017, we’ll leave you with another quote from the poet Mary Oliver in her new book Upstream. “For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground–and inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me–to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”
Take Ms. Oliver’s words to heart. Bring passion to your observations, be patient about your work, and live with care for others especially your colleagues.
Be well and best wishes for good 2017.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.
It seems fitting that a few days after Thanksgiving 2016, we should say thank you. So to all of you from 129 countries, who are responsible for Leadership Matters’ almost 85,000 views, we’re grateful, humbled, and inspired. It’s been an awe-inspiring ride, and we wouldn’t be here without you.
But if you’re a leader, you understand that thank you’s shouldn’t be reserved for once or twice a year. Good leaders, whether in a museum, heritage organization or other non-profit know the power of an authentic thank you. Here’s a story: As many of you know I am a curator serving in a large organization whose primary focus is education. As a former boy’s school, there is a long shadow of testosterone that imbues our organizational DNA. A while ago a male colleague approached me. He has distinctive handwriting and he wanted me to write handwritten thank you notes for him addressed to some of our administrative staff. Why? He felt they were rarely thanked, and he wanted the praise to stay with them, not bounce back to him. I wrote about 20 notes. Each was accompanied by a fresh flower. Did we unlock the key to American education that week? No. Was there a lot of smiling in the hallway? Yes. That was a thank you that took planning. Most don’t. They are genuine often spontaneous compliments for jobs well done.
You know that old phrase “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, it’s true. Gratitude is a trait, an emotion and a mood. Genuine gratitude is a response for good work, for a strong team, for an innovative program or exhibit or out-of-the box thinking. So, as we do for so many topics, here are some thoughts about gratitude for individuals, leaders and organizations.
- When something goes well, when it’s a pleasure working with your team or department members, thank them. Gratitude doesn’t just come from the director; you can thank your colleagues as well.
- When someone compliments you, own it. And say thank you.
- Make a thank you matter. Don’t diminish its meaning through overuse.
- Understand what your staff is doing so you can thank them appropriately, and so you know the difference between a daily job done well and a challenge met with new and inventive thinking.
- Be clear about whether you’re thanking an individual, a group or both, and don’t hesitate to call out an individual’s or a team’s exemplary service.
- Remember that 4 out of 5 employees say they would stay in a job longer if their boss showed appreciation for their work. This is not the moment to play Scrooge. Check out this link for more details on how employees feel about being appreciated: Glassdoor Survey.
- Be equitable in your thank yous. Don’t favor one demographic–new employees vs. experienced, young vs. old–over another.
- Be creative in how you thank folks. Can you offer an exemplary employee a chance at a juicy, creative project or a new parent the chance to telecommute?
- Respect your staff. Your behavior is an ongoing thank you.
- Appreciation–the act of saying thank you is a great motivator. Museums and heritage organizations thank donors all the time. Don’t forget to thank staff as well.
- As with leaders, thank you’s come in many forms. Raises are the most obvious and reflect gratitude for dedication and achievement at work. If that’s not possible, how about career development opportunities, time off or an unexpected gift? (My colleague’s notes and flowers, for example.)
- And speaking of time off, if you can’t close the museum or heritage site, can you offer half the staff four or eight hours off while the other half covers, and then reverse the procedure? Everyone gets paid time off and it may prove eye-0pening to experience the museum while covering someone else’s job.
- Make sure your board (or the the board’s compensation committee) understands what your museum staff values when it comes to employee appreciation and what they don’t, and make sure the leadership and staff are comfortable communicating that information.
So for those of you on a break from work this long weekend, we hope it was a happy one. Write and let us know how you say thank you as employees, leaders or as an organization.
Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.
On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.
- Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
- Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
- Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
- Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
- Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
- Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
- Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?
And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.
There are a lot of consultants in the museum world. There are great ones, good ones, and ones who should hone their skills a bit more. Museums hire consultants to provide advice, spearhead special initiatives, and fill gaps in their staffs on a temporary basis. In July we published a guest post by Sarah Erdman on a consultant’s view from the outside. Today’s post looks at consultants from the other direction–the inside out if you will.
Hiring a consultant to fill a specific task-oriented skill should be an easy fit. If you need a designer, a writer, a conservator–even an architect is a consultant of sorts–you advertise, review resumes, and interview. The winning candidate will plug a hole in your collective staff skill set. If, for example, you’re a small shop, it makes perfect sense to hire a consultant to walk through planning for new collections storage. You probably don’t have a conservator on staff, but neither do you have money to waste so good advice is important.
We’ve all seen talented staff become overworked and burned out when they take on too many tasks. Consultants allow museum and heritage organization leaders to put the breaks on ever-expanding job descriptions, at least temporarily. Yes, consultants cost money, but so does losing staff, either through attrition or illness. As a museum leader, it’s your job to integrate the consultant’s work into your organization. Hiring a consultant is not a judgement on anyone’s work ethic. Instead, it’s a chance to create an even better exhibit, program, or PR campaign.
But what if you need a consultant whose skills are broad based and theoretical? What if you want someone to help with mission, strategic planning or succession, topics that everyone has opinions about? What then? Here are some things to consider:
- A consultant’s work will only be as good as the information she gets. Make sure she receives the necessary reading material before she arrives. Previous plans, mission statements, job descriptions, whatever provides a sense of the problem she is there to explore.
- Your consultant is not a soothsayer. Make sure you and everyone else knows why she’s been invited.
- Make sure she meets everyone, and that everyone has a copy of her charge. This is important because you, your board, and staff may all mean different things when, for example, you hear the words “strategic plan.”
- Be sure your staff understands that for a consultant to work well, she needs to hear from everyone so encourage participation.
- Don’t hide the truth. Make sure your consultant has the whole story. Leave blame and baggage at the door.
- And last, don’t expect magic or miracles. Consultants whose specialty is strategic planning or governance can’t fix a broken organization; nor are they there to do your work for you. Be prepared to listen and roll up your sleeves when the final report arrives.