I’ve been away from Leadership Matters for three weeks thanks to posts by Jackie Peterson and Anne Ackerson. So rested and relaxed, I’m back with a few things to say.
First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the salary/gender controversy that started at AAM/NOLA and continues to percolate. It ignited with Kimberly Drew’s articulate, passionate, and bold keynote. If you missed it, you can read the whole speech here, but the lines below were important. For me, they speak not only to change, but to the dichotomy many of us live with: a field we love and are drawn to, but a workplace that disappoints as often as it pleases. The bold type is mine.
Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary which is here in the middle, but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary, ever, in my time at the Met.… Still very angry. That I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth.
In the wake of Drew’s remarks museum workers across North America (and now globally) created a Google Spreadsheet documenting their place of employment, and sharing salary information. Many also choose to include details of race and gender. By this weekend, roughly a month after AAM’s meeting and Drew’s speech, it numbers more than 2,500 people.
What’s the point? In a world where a graduate degree is de rigueur, and salary information shielded with uncommon zeal, this simple spreadsheet provides a chink in the walls erected around hiring practices, wages, race and gender. Unlike AAM’s own salary survey, which requires paid membership to use, this is free. Further, if you’ve dreamed of a position at a particular organization, you may be able to look it up by name, and discover what people in your line of work make.* In short, it matters because it provides knowledge for those without power. That’s important for anyone juggling the calculus of graduate school loans, trailing partners, mortgages, rent, children, and aging family members. Use it. Participate, and support one another.
And here’s something else: Since 2012 Anne Ackerson and I have preached the gospel of “anyone can be a leader,” also variously known as “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” While I believe in it, I’ve also struggled with it, but I couldn’t explain why except to say it’s harder than you think.
This week it hit me. Here’s my revelation: If everyone acts like a leader, everyone is being the best person they can be. You may be as far from the corner office, the flashy cocktail parties, and the trustees as it’s possible to be, but if you’re self-aware, understand the museum’s mission, take responsibility, demonstrate courage, act with imagination, and align your values and the museum’s, you’re a leader. Further, you’re a great follower.
Where this all goes to hell in a hand basket is when a layer of a museum’s leadership chart is weak. Then everyone below is constantly “leading up,” grappling with their own job description and their direct report’s responsibilities as well. That alone is debilitating. Moving forward with your own tasks–and the person’s you report to–is exhausting, but since you have no authority, it’s also tricky. Every day you stand on the tracks. Some days you hear a train in the distance. Other days, you see it. What’s your obligation? Do you move everyone out of danger or do you step out of the way and cover your ears? A poor metaphor, but you get the point. Check out the beauties of Nexus’ Layers of Leadership to see how iterative they are. What you need as an individual isn’t as nuanced a set of skills as those you need to be department leader, just as those competencies aren’t as sophisticated as the ones you’ll need for organizational leadership.
Don’t get me wrong: Staff should complement their leader, fill in where she’s weak and shore up areas she’s ignorant of, but they shouldn’t and they can’t be thinking big picture–where is the train on the track?–when their direct report is in the station having a latte. What can you do about weak stratification within a museum or heritage organization?
FROM THE TOP DOWN:
If you’re a trustee: What questions do you ask that get at organizational performance as opposed to staff performance? Do you ever chat with staff on their own turf?
If you’re a museum director: Have you ever had a 360-review? How often do you meet with staff, not just about the organizational to-do list, but about the way the list is accomplished? Do you delegate? And do you empower staff to run with an idea, not just a to-do list? How do you measure your staff’s people skills?
FROM THE BOTTOM UP:
If you’re staff: Try to understand your boss. If you know her and she trusts you, she’ll be more willing to let you help. Helping her will help you. Volunteer for stretch assignments. Be the person who gets stuff done without handholding and constant instruction. Use those successes to move forward. As hard, and as frustrating as it is, leave your judgement at home. You likely can’t change your leader, but a successful tenure at one organization may help you move toward a different position at a museum with stronger overall leadership, and one more aligned with your own values.
Do you find yourself leading up? If so, what strategies have worked for you?
*It’s wise to arm yourself with as much comparative salary information as you can find. That may require looking beyond what surveys exist for museums to the wider nonprofit sector and, in some cases, it may be prudent to examine for-profit salaries, as well. Online sites like Glassdoor and your state’s nonprofit association are two places to investigate.
We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.
That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.
But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).
If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.
Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:
- By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
- Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
- Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
- Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
- To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
- Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
- Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.
Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.
Anne W. Ackerson
California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.
National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”
Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.
Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.
Once, a million years ago, I worked for a museum leader who liked all the office shades pulled to the exact same length. Hilarious, right? In the aggregate I think we understood the building looked better from the outside, but beneath that idea was an undertone of “Really?” and also “What if I like a lot of light?” and a thousand other petty questions. What we learned over time though was that the shade thing was a metaphor for so much more. It symbolized a level of micromanagement that limited us in ways we probably couldn’t even articulate. I certainly couldn’t. It made us intellectually lazy. Why should we waste brain power when the boss would and could think of everything? And if he hadn’t thought of it, it probably wasn’t worth thinking about. At least not at work.
But what if you’re a museum leader and control matters to you? You have high standards. You’ve always been a planner. It’s your love language? Your partner says that if you had to, you could move tanks across the EU. And the little things really irk you. When you walk by the ticket desk and you see a random iced coffee, when you see the interpretive staff chatting with teachers instead of students, when no one seems to have followed up on changes for restroom signage. None of your micro corrections are a bad thing, right? The museum looks better, functions better, and hopefully there’s a better visitor experience. But ask yourself? Are you the only one who’s thinking about these things? Have you asked?
Good leadership isn’t about perfection and control so much as it’s about empowerment and place. In other words, painful though it may be, it’s not about you. It’s about your team and your museum. But my site is known for its beauty and serenity you say, and it can’t be beautiful or serene if staff don’t put up the correct signs, keep coffee cups out of the way, and not use the galleries for gossip. If I don’t micromanage it won’t happen. Maybe, but what if you talk about how the public sees your site? Maybe you’d learn that your staff doesn’t see it your way? Maybe your visitors don’t either. Maybe coming to consensus regarding your museum’s vision means consensus regarding how it’s carried out.
If you’re a leader who’s micromanaging….
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Try and figure out what’s driving you to control the small things.
- Meet with your team(s) for conversation rather than reviewing to-do lists and reminding them what wasn’t done. Get to know them.
- Re-read your museum’s vision and values.
- Listen before judging.
If you’re a staff member who works for a micromanager…
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Have you let deadlines slip? Are you the only person getting the micromanaging treatment or is it global?
- Step up and stay ahead of her needs. By anticipating her anxieties you may build trust and start to alleviate her nit picking.
- Don’t take it personally, particularly if her behavior is the same everywhere. This is not the moment to be Joan of Arc on your white horse. Lead from behind instead and keep it about the work.
The best leaders empower their staff. They give them the tools to get where they need to go, have their backs if they hop a guard rail, and support them when they cross the finish line.
This weekend many of you began gathering in New Orleans for AAM’s Annual Meeting. Along with thousands of folks you know or wish you knew, you’re attending sessions, listening to keynoters, and networking like crazy. Hopefully, it will be the equivalent of pressing your brain’s re-set button, returning you to work energized and enlivened, with your creative juices flowing.
Creativity’s been on my mind lately. Last fall I completed work on a big exhibit. I work in a small shop, and it was the culmination of 24 months of conversations, research, zigs, zags, re-dos, and anxiety. In the end, thanks to my rock-star colleagues, it was awesome, and in many ways better than I imagined. And yet, since the show came down, I have found it hard to dig down and re-focus. Why am I telling you this? Because creativity isn’t an easy resource in the museum world’s rule-driven cosmos.
Granted, I do museum work in an academic setting, but some weeks the relentlessness of daily life overwhelms us. There’s no time to think, to putter, to experiment and, frankly, agendas, meetings, and their follow-ups aren’t necessarily fertile ground for creativity. Meetings are rooted firmly in the now; if they have hope, it’s that things will turn out right, meaning a successful event, program, exhibition, artist’s residency (you choose) will draw audiences that look big, busy and diverse in Instagram photos. And too often the monster of skepticism, as Frank Vagnone puts it in his recent blog post, takes over.
How many of you work for a truly creative individual or, if you’re a museum leader, how many of you work for a creative board? Whether you do or not, you may want to dig out Linda Norris’ and Rainey Tisdale’s book Creativity in Museum Practice. Published by the late Left Coast Press in 2014, it’s full of brilliant recipes for moving from mediocre to exceptional. One of my favorite pages is a little chart that compares creative and traditional leaders.
Not surprisingly, creative leaders lead in many of the ways we harp on in this blog every week. Creative leaders engage, they’re authentic, they experiment. They are hopeful. They understand how to hear criticism. The more traditional leader is (sigh) the sage on the stage who needs to be correct, both metaphorically and actually. She loves a harmonious workplace even if it’s at the expense of creativity and engagement. She asks for feedback, but staff learn it’s not something she knows what to do with. Her work is about sustaining things the way they’ve been. It doesn’t take staff long to learn that innovation is sloughed aside in favor of “getting the job done right.” What’s right? The least threatening way that still delivers results: Wonder Bread versus a fresh-baked brioche.
So what’s this magical, nurturing leader look like in real life? First, she often has her own creative practice whether she’s an artist, dancer or chef. She encourages collaboration and her staff knows it’s imagination and ideas she values, not just elbow grease. For her, product isn’t the end all and be all. Process is equally important. Why? Because that’s where the magic happens. If she were to create the perfect staff, the folks around her table would be a wildly diverse lot, who communicate well, who bat ideas back and forth, and who value collaboration over competition. Her team reads widely, and thinks in terms of metaphors, analogies, and stories.
Need to move the needle toward some creativity? Here are five things to try:
- Understand your museum or heritage organization’s bureaucracy. Know what happens to innovative ideas when they wend their way from the could-we stage to implementation. If competing constituencies deplete their innovative qualities, they are born shadows of themselves. Figure out how to protect ideas while they grow.
- Encourage imagination, discussion, and dissension at the staff table. Disagreement forces staff to identify the values and ideas that matter most.
- As the leader, you don’t need to be the source of all ideas. You need to be the gardener. Identify the viable ideas, and nurture them. Toss the weeds. Know when to connect ideas that echo one another.
- Provide intellectual challenge. Bored staff are boring.
- Play to your staff’s skills. Hint: That means you actually have to know them.
Yours for less mediocrity.
Twenty-first century museum leadership is complex. That’s true, at least in part, because you oversee not only your own performance, but everyone else’s. And, as more and more museums and heritage sites move toward flatter organizational profiles and team-based project management, it’s critical that teams work well together. That’s a leadership challenge. And, it’s a particularly complicated one when team members fail to pull their weight.
Many of us are introduced to team work in middle school. There it’s often a dreadful experience, complicated by gender roles, hormones, competition, and snarkiness. There are always one or two hyper-organized students who act as self-appointed leaders; others toss ideas around while resisting both organization and action. You may remember your ninth grade angst at the thought of trying to wrangle your peers. The choice was stark: Either you shouldered all the work, enabling weak or lazy students to do nothing or you focused on your own portion of the assignment, knowing the team’s collective grade would suffer. Sadly, we often find ourselves in much the same situation as adults. The only difference between your workplace and middle school is that these days you are the leader, not simply one among many trying to persuade your peers that doing the work is a good thing. So as a museum leader, how do you manage weak staff? Can you make them contributors? If so, how?
As a leader, you are responsible–whether it’s to the whole museum, a department or a program– for everyone functioning as a team, a team that’s neither too dependent nor a bunch of anarchists. You need to know what’s going on, meaning you need a team that communicates. At the same time you need implicit trust that if you’re temporarily vaporized, your team will still move forward, completing the assigned projects. Easy to say, but what about the staff member who’s on permanent coffee break or the person who can’t start a project without asking a billion time-sucking questions or the cranky pants who seems to dislike you and your project, and stalls forever? And then there’s also the pinball person who spouts way too many off-topic ideas to focus or the person who’s quick to take responsibility but impossibly slow to deliver. You may not have hired these folks, but now, somehow, they’re yours.
Some suggestions for dealing with those who are off-track, lazy, or poorly focused:
- Offer some understanding: Assume everyone has the skills for their jobs even though they’re not demonstrating them.
- If their non-performance makes you angry, don’t go in hot. Cool down before confronting them.
- Don’t let things fester. The longer you allow less-than-able work, the more disruptive it becomes, which ultimately reflects on you and the rest of the team.
- Don’t assume the person in question has a clue what you’re talking about when you confront them with their failing. If their work was considered okay by their former leader, they may have no idea why suddenly it’s a problem for you. Don’t be oblique. Explain how their work needs to change.
- On the other hand, be reasonable. Change isn’t easy. Give them time to make changes, but be sure to circle back.
- Reinforce and compliment staff when their work style changes for the better.
- If your museum has an HR department, pull them into the discussion especially if change isn’t happening the way you’d like it to.
- Make sure staff understand where they fit in your department, program or museum structure. Do they have performance goals? Are those reviewed annually?
- If you’ve tried everything else, be ready to let someone go. Remember there’s nothing more demoralizing for other team members, than watching someone–whether staff or volunteer– fail to commit to the museum mission.
- And last, always question yourself first: Were you clear in your expectations? Did everyone get the same information, training and opportunities or is there bias in the way?
Image: Savannah State University Professor Nicholas Silberg leading Coastal Heritage Society Interpretive Staff.
We’ve talked a lot on these pages about the tyrannical leader, the my-way-or-the-highway devil, who makes the staff’s life a living hell. But what about the leader who is the exact opposite? What about a leader who absorbed the let’s-flatten-the-hierarchy lesson a little too much? Is that a thing? The answer, I’m afraid is yes.
Weak leaders hope to empower staff by stepping back, but the result is a scenario that looks like leadership, but is hollow at the core. Discussion is endless, results negligible. The leader enjoys the benefits of her position, bigger salary, bigger office, but brings little value to the museum, program or department. She may feel she’s doing good, but, in an effort not to be a despot, she flees from controversy, criticism or simply expressing her opinion. The result is a confused team that spends too much time chasing its tail and rarely moves forward. Weak leaders think that by not sharing their own thoughts, they’re more egalitarian. They’re not. Their staff or department may be perfectly nice, but if you probe a bit, there’s likely no creativity.
We have written and spoken about leading from anywhere in the room. Maybe we were too blithe about the whole enterprise as if group dynamics, congeniality and the power of the team weren’t a thing. As if it’s easy for individual staff to demonstrate they are courageous, visionary, authentic, and, of course, self aware. We’ve also noted, that museums and heritage organizations are more creative and better at risk taking when the traditional pyramid is gone because it allows colleagues to engage with one another more, cross pollinating, while tapping colleagues’ talents. But the absence of the pyramid shouldn’t mean the absence of leadership.
Does any of this sounds familiar? Maybe in an effort to be liked and not be seen as Cruella De Vil you’re leading less than you thought. If so:
- Have an opinion. Sometimes leaders hide behind group decision making. That may work for a time, but in pandering to the group and trying to keep everyone happy, what’s the result? Decisions that are neither imaginative, creative nor inclusive. Leadership is about experimentation, recalibration, and implementation. Experiment.
- Don’t be afraid of feedback. Feedback is the lifeblood of creativity. You need it and so does your museum and your team. If you shut your team down, they learn not to offer an opinion. Instead, listen, listen, listen. Ask questions. When you speak, incorporate what you heard with your own path toward mission and vision.
- Share what you know. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are leaders who either out of fear or a need to control, don’t talk to their staff. You are the bridge between the board and the staff. You see the big landscape. Tell your staff what’s on the horizon.
- Participate. This is a mash-up of numbers one and three. Your team needs to hear what you think. You don’t have to go first, but make sure you’ve spoken by mid-way through the discussion. And for goodness sake don’t just reiterate the ideas already on the table.
- Don’t avoid confrontation. Your staff needs you. Don’t be afraid to wade in and help quell dissension. If tensions escalate between staff members, call them together and talk it out.
On the contrary, if you’re a follower and some of this sounds familiar, you may work for a weak leader. You need to do your job, while simultaneously collaborating with colleagues to shore up your leader’s weak spots.
- Learn who your leader is. By understanding her personality and leadership style, you may be better able to experiment and make change. For example, if she’s a slow processor, it’s probably better to present a new initiative in writing followed by a meeting. If she’s still a mystery, sit down with colleagues who seem to get along with her and talk.
- Triangulate: One of the oldest workplace tricks in the book. Make friends with your leader’s friend or confident. Take them with you when you need to present a new idea or program.
- Ask for help: Even if it kills you, asking a weak leader’s opinion about something builds trust, allows you a peak into her brain, and makes her feel like she has a voice.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Weirdly, many weak leaders have strong teams. Why? Because one of the ways to make change is through coalition. When the meeting agenda appears, work with your colleagues to anticipate discussion and get the outcome you want.
Think about what happens at your staff or department meetings. If you trace engagement across the table, drawing a line from one speaker to another, would you have a spider web of interaction or do all the lines radiate from one or two spots, dying a slow death in the center of the table? Is your leadership a presence or an absence? How does your team create connection?
Applying for a new job is stressful, a time sponge, and from an organizational point of view, costly. For an individual, even if it is done as much to exercise a muscle as out of need, it requires diligence, self-awareness, and confidence. If you interview as female, it’s even more challenging. Why? Because you have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you believe, and public perception.
I’ve spoken to a number of women in the museum and library fields about job interviews. These women aren’t novices. They all lead organizations or departments, and they are well read, not in the book group sense. Rather they read widely about leadership, and they’ve had opportunities to put what they read into practice. Before I go further, here are some givens about men and women in the job race. They are all supported by research, and I’ve included links so you’ll know I’m not just ranting.
- Men think they’re smarter than 66-percent of their peers. For women it’s less so, 54-percent.
- Women don’t think of themselves as ready for promotion and they consistently underestimate their talents. See #1 above.
- A lot of what’s happened in the American workplace has focused on “fixing” women, making them more like successful men, rather than simply leveling the playing field.
- Women are more frequently hired to take over organizations, departments or programs that are troubled than men are.
So what happened to the women I spoke with? These issues came to a head when they were faced with the proverbial interview question about change. It goes something like: “Based on what you’ve seen today, what is your vision for our organization, department, program?” Anybody who’s read anything about leadership knows that rapid change, particularly from a new hire, goes nowhere. These women knew that. Each gave an answer that was a variation of: change takes time, buy-in is important, describing how they like to observe, watch, listen and learn before experimenting, analyzing, testing again, and implementing. None of them got the job. The positions went to men.
Is it possible the men offered less measured and reasoned responses? Is it possible they replied with a laundry list of changes, delivered with a confidence and panache that was just what the interview committee wanted to hear even though few organizations–except the most desperate–can sustain wholesale hierarchical change?
I can imagine you eye-rolling here. How do you know, you ask? And you’re right. There are a million reasons for offering a job to one person over another. But is it possible that boards or hiring committees confuse confidence with competence? That a confident answer even if it flies in the face of every good leadership best practice is more acceptable than a more measured response? And might that be a gendered thing since we know men tend to sound more confident? In fact, if I were asked, going forward, I’d tell each of these women to answer that question differently. I’d tell them to practice sounding confident, responding with a vision statement and a list of areas that need experimentation.
Some final caveats: This isn’t about getting women to act more like men even though it seems that way. Successful women are confident, but the consequences of acting confident are different for men and women. Women are judged differently than men, and therefore answers to the most basic questions are heard differently. Women need to be twice as good to be seen as half as competent. All of this is 10 times harder and more complex for women of color, women who are overweight, women with disabilities, LGBTQ and transgender women because the opportunity for bias multiplies.
And lastly, if you are hiring:
- Remember, an interview is like a wedding. If that’s the happiest day of your life, you’re in trouble. Hire for the long haul, not the razzle dazzle. There are many who ace the interview, but there’s no there there when it comes to real leadership.
- Because the museum field is tipping so precipitously toward becoming a pink collar profession, hiring committees may think they’re doing the field a service by hiring a man. That may be. Just make sure the process is equitable. Tokenism is tokenism no matter who’s in the mix.
- Talk openly about issues of bias–where and how they appear–with your search committee before the process begins. You may want to use a bias exercise to help your committee understand where they are.
- Build a diverse interview committee that includes POC, the young, the experienced. Let the committee discuss its governance rules ahead of time. Make it a safe space where all thoughts are welcome.
- Discuss the difference between diversity and difference. Is your program, department or museum ready for a challenge? See suggestion #2.
- Be open. Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about your organization. Look for the person who will help your museum grow.