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
What do Helen Mirren, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Maddow, Michelle Obama, parents, partners, and a former boss or two have in common? Oh, and we can’t forget some of the museum field’s leading lights like Kathy McLean, Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Arnold Lehman.
What, or more precisely, who, is their common thread?
They are just some of the people our Leadership Matters interviewees spoke about when Joan and I asked them to talk about their positive role models. The role model question is a key one, we think, because the answer often provides surprising insight into a person’s values and aspirations.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in her 2013 article, “We All Need Role Models to Motivate and Inspire Us,”
As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a “role model,” as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who most influences you now, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now are giving you your most important life lessons.
Role models can be positive or negative. They all teach us, good or bad, and the positive ones inspire us. They’re mirrors by which we can examine our own strengths and weaknesses, measure our abilities and desires, and clarify our choices. Role models can change our outlook and encourage us to reach our own potential.
Why did some of our interviewees choose the role models they did?
For Ilene Frank, Chief Curator and COO at the Connecticut Historical Society, Joan of Arc lived a life by values and a belief system, “plus she’s a woman in armor and a sword.” Helen Mirren’s work ethic, authenticity, and flexible talent are key elements for Janet Carding, Director at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Michigan Science Center CEO and President Tonya M. Matthews cites Martin Luther King’s ability to deliver a message in context and Michelle Obama as a role model for African American female leadership. Parents, siblings, and partners provided life lessons, stability, encouragement, and a work ethic for many of our interviewees, including Jennifer Kilmer, Director of the Washington State Historical Society and Bob Burns, Director of the Mattatuck Museum. For Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Abraham Lincoln’s ability to diffuse tense situations with stories and humor are leadership competencies worth emulating.
Who are your role models and what do they say about you?
Anne W. Ackerson
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.
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.
Here is a simple truth: If you are a museum leader, you can tell your staff they’re a team any day of the week, but unless you make it mean something, the word “team” is just a random noun.
We think of teams as good things. They seem democratic. They flatten hierarchies. They bring people together. And, depending on how your museum or heritage organization defines victory, they’re sometimes winners. But if you have even a passing acquaintance with sports, you know some teams always deliver, and some never do, so it’s not about the name.
Recently I witnessed an incident where a department leader brought his team–his word not mine–together to plan a meeting of peer leaders. Although staff felt there was too little time to deliver a cohesive program, the leader wanted to push ahead. In the end, the event took place, and the leader ignored his team’s input, forgot to introduce or mention members of his staff, consistently interrupted others in their presentations, and made many believe they’d wasted brain power in planning for the event. Lesson one: Teams aren’t for everyone. As with so much in leadership, know yourself first. If teams and team work drive you crazy, you can opt out. We’ve all experienced the moment where–pick one–a board member, staff member, or volunteer misses a meeting and the chemistry changes. Discussion moves along. Decisions are made. Boxes are checked. If teamwork isn’t for you, let your staff plan. Go over the results with your assistant directors, make any changes you feel are necessary, and watch as they deliver the goods. Lesson two: Good teamwork, especially from the leader’s point of view, requires trust. Every time you authorize staff to act on your behalf, you say “I believe in you.” Say it enough, and they start to trust you.
Lesson three: If you’re going to lead a team, know where it’s going. In the scenario Leadership Matters observed, there was little understanding about why this presentation mattered, and if it did, why the team leader waited ’til the last minute to plan. If an event or grant application matters, be clear about why. Tell your colleagues why an event demands all-hands-on-deck, not because they’re dense, but because they deserve to hear it from you.
Teamwork doesn’t guarantee Nirvana. Productive teams often argue. Lesson four: Be prepared for push-back. Value your staff. Being willing to argue about something doesn’t automatically indicate staff hate each other (or you) or enjoy being disruptive. Instead, it may indicate they care about the museum and its programs. And yes, every team needs the one member who’s going to say the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because it makes everyone look at the question, project or event with new eyes.
Teams are about group, not individual, behavior. That’s why a soccer team practices drill after drill. Their individual skills are in service–literally–to the goal. Lesson five: If you’re a team leader, you have a role in helping the group do its best. That means for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s not about you. Instead, your role is to manage the team: To be positive and encouraging; To pull it back on task; To ask if things are clear and make sense; To make sure everyone understands their tasks; To ask the group to reflect on what they’ve done before pushing on to the next goal. And perhaps, most importantly, to decide what tasks are best left to individuals rather than the group.
Do you work in a museum where staff are referred to as a team? Is that a good or bad thing?
There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?
Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.
AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.
There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.
Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.
It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:
If you have no money and want to stay local:
- If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends. They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
- Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
- Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
- Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.
**If you have money and board support:
- Consider applying for a spot at the Getty Leadership Institute.
- Explore AASLH’s Leadership Institute or look at Jekyll Island Management Institute
- If you are an art museum person, don’t forget the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s low residency NYC program.
- If your museum is one of 20 art institutions chosen for a combined initiative in diversifying museum leadership you may be eligible to participate in one of the programs supported by the Ford and Walton Family foundations.
- Think about a graduate or certificate program, either locally or online in leadership or business which these days often encompasses leadership.
**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.
Last, but not least:
- If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.
April 10 was equal pay day for white women working in the museum world. That’s the day they make as much as their white, male colleagues did in 2017. For women of color, equal pay day arrives in August, for Native women, September, and almost 6 months later Latina women finally catch up. If you are an Asian woman, you arrive at equal pay day a month ahead of your white female colleagues.
We’re reporting on all of this, not to make you feel discouraged although it undoubtedly will. We understand that for many people–including many women–the whole topic of gender is exhausting. You are not alone.
Asked whether she was contemptuous of smart women, writer Susan Sontag snapped, “Where did you get that idea? At least half the intelligent people I’ve known have been women. I couldn’t be more sympathetic to women’s problems or more angry about women’s condition. But the anger is so old that in the day-to-day sense I don’t feel it. It seems to me the oldest story in the world.”
For many, it’s this sense of being on an endless loop, playing out decade after decade, that annoys some and discourages others. We’ve heard it all before. We’ve lived it. It makes us cranky, but then we feel like it’s time to let go and get on with life. And it’s difficult to sustain hope when women are frequently seen as a huge Oliver Twist chorus of “Please sir, I want some more.”
Except for museum staff who work for municipal, state or federal organizations where salaries are transparent and public, most of us have no idea whether a particular museum or heritage organization has closed its pay gap. Many institutions actively discourage conversation around salaries, and for a host of reasons, employees comply and avoid talking about how much they make. So unless you accidentally see the CFO’s salary spreadsheet or a colleague’s letter of agreement, you probably don’t know much.
The exception? If you’re the museum director. Then you likely have access to a lot of information, and precious few excuses for an inequitable pay scale. When was the last time you tracked salaries by race and gender for your board? How uncomfortable would it make you, knowing your organization pays a Latina woman significantly less than a black woman, and exponentially less than a white man all for doing the same job?
We hope you are uncomfortable because closing the pay gap is a problem the museum world can solve. And making the pay gap disappear is something any museum or heritage organization should be proud of. So here are five ways to make change so that in April 2019 when Equal Pay Day rolls around again, you can say “Done and dusted” and turn your attention elsewhere.
- If you’re an individual offered a new job, negotiate. Know what you need to make to live without constantly worrying. Ask for it.
- If you’re a museum leader, chart your staff by gender and race. If you lead a smaller organization, you may not have two staff members who do even close to the same thing. In that case, compare your staff salaries to the ones in AAM’s salary survey. Are yours better by gender, better overall or are there multiple issues?
- Bring your salary information to your board, but before you do, understand what salary equity says to staff members. It’s not just words, it’s an acknowledgement that everyone in the organization chart is equally important, not more prized because they’re white and male. Make sure your board understands how important closing the gap is. Across the board raises–were they offered–deepen wage equity rather than fixing it. Close the gap first.
- Consider the way your organization hires. Is the hiring process relatively bias free or not bias free at all? Learn what you can from AAM’s Hiring Bias Project.
- Recognize your own biases and leave them at the door. Know that when labor economists look at the wage gap, 38-percent of it can’t be explained, meaning it isn’t about training or choices. It’s about how people and their occupations are perceived. Do your part and make change where you can.