What Does Knowing Your Organizational DNA* Mean?

 

Organizational DNA

*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.

In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.

You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA?  Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.

Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.

To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”

Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?

An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.

Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:

  1. Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
  2. Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
  3. Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
  4. Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
  5. Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.

It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leaders and We’ve Always Done It That Way

AssemblylineIMG

Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.

We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.

Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is.  In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.

But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?

So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.

  1. Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
  2. If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
  3. Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
  4. Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
  5. Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
  6. Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.

Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership: The Why, Not the How

why how what

This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.

All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.

What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first?  Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for?  Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?

If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.

So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:

  • Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
  • If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
  • If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
  • Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
  • Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.

Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin


Museums and the Balance of Power: Some Things to Think About

balance-of-power

This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell.  With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.

But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.

Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times,  as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.

But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer,  on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)

So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:

  • Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
  • If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
  • Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
  • If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
  • As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.

Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.

Joan Baldwin


The Thin Ice in Your Museum Leadership

thin-ice

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.

  1. Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
  2. Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
  3. 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?
  4. Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or  full staff?
  5. 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.

Joan Baldwin


As Museum Leaders, Do You Replace or Do You Rethink?

were-hiring

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.

Joan Baldwin