In a lot of small ways work is like school. We do it because most of us have to. Some do well; some not so well. And it’s a place where, like it or not, our likes and dislikes are frequently on display. As leaders, you need to make everyone feel valued, wanted and needed. You need to banish your own biases so others can and will too.
One of the hardest things about workplace bias–and I say this from my place as a white woman of a certain age and privilege–is to flip what you pay attention to. If you continually look for the source of your hurt–the colleague who reminds you that you are over weight, disabled, LGBTQ, a woman, really tall, a person of color or some combination of all those things– you’ll find it. That’s called confirmation bias. You may feel momentarily better about feeling bad, but will your interactions with problem co-workers change? Probably not.
Please note: I do not, under any circumstances, want to diminish the effects of bias. Implicit or explicit, it is hurtful, demeaning, and isolating. It diverts focus, and it shouldn’t be allowed. But we work with humans. And we’re all needy.
Having said that, I want to talk about being old(er) in the museum workplace. Depending on your age, older could be 40, but for this post, let’s assume older is Boomers, members of your staff born between 1946 and 1964. First of all, in case you haven’t noticed there are a lot of Boomers, 77 million to be exact, and while 10,000 retire every day, many Boomers have inadequate savings for retirement, and need or want to work longer. So, if you’re the typical museum leader your staff will likely include Millennials (currently the largest segment of the workforce), Gen-Xers and Boomers, and range in age from early 20s to early 70’s. That means every time you gather for a meeting you’re bridging a 60-year life experience gap, not to mention differences in approach to work. When many Boomers came of age, they expected to find a job, get promoted, settle down, and 35 or 40 years later, say goodbye to colleagues, and retire. Millennials may have as many as a dozen jobs throughout their careers. Coaxing these groups into teams, building respect, and parking bias at the door is a challenge.
So do Boomers experience ageism? The short answer is yes. If you’re unfamiliar with this, here are some common examples:
- She should retire already. Alternately known as “When is she going to retire so I can get promoted?” Let’s bust that myth by asking why one generation’s work needs supersede another’s? People between 55 and 75 continue to work for personal fulfillment and financial gain. While there is opportunity to retire, there is no rule that says you have to.
- She can’t use a Google doc. Shouldn’t that be a requirement? As hard as it is to understand some days, our lives aren’t all about IT savvy. And if a Boomer needs to use a Google doc–in fact, if everyone does, then make it a requirement, and teach everyone. Don’t equate tech savvy with museum or heritage organization savvy unless you’re hiring for IT.
- She couldn’t even remember the phone code. Maybe she’s got Alzheimers. All of our heads are clogged with too many numbers and passwords. Further, it’s a fact that over time, a full mind impacts short term memory like remembering a number or password. It’s ageist to assume that not being able to remember one of the gazillion numbers or codes the modern workplace requires is a symptom of a serious disease associated with aging.
- If we’re going to hire, I’d rather have someone younger who’ll have more energy. Every life chapter comes with issues, and being under-40 may mean there are other drains on a person’s time–children, training for a marathon, finding a partner, getting married–that a later-in-life employee will have passed through. Energy and focus are individual characteristics. If you hire for passion and energy, you’ll get it regardless of age. And P.S., according to the AARP, not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination.
What if you are an older employee:
- There’s a law that protects you: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act. While it differs from state to state, and it applies only to workplaces with more than 20 employees, it prohibits age discrimination in decisions about hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, demotions, performance reviews or any other condition of employment.
- Don’t act old: I mean that in the kindest way. Don’t come to work and act as though you wish you were home in your La-Z-Boy. (Actually, that’s true for everyone, but it fulfills every stereotype when someone over 55 does it.) Continue learning, read widely, engage, engage, engage. You and everyone around you will be better for it.
- Don’t use your past experience as the reason not to try something new. If you’re over 55, how many times have you felt younger colleagues eye-roll when you launch into a story about the time your museum tried a variation of the thing your Millennial co-worker just suggested. The operative word here is “try.” Ask the questions that you wish someone had asked the last time this particular program, exhibit, or idea was launched, and then go with it. Listen, participate. Ask more questions and use the teachable moment to its best advantage.
- Be humble, and steer away from age-centered comments. Don’t try to bridge the age-gap by talking about your 30-year old niece. Your colleagues don’t need to know they remind you of much younger relatives or children.
- Be wise, not a know it all. With age comes the ability to synthesize. The more information you have in your brain, the more you can detect patterns. Be the person who (gently) helps co-workers see the big picture.
So for those of you who aren’t Boomers, the next time you’re feeling the need to eye roll in a meeting as that guy drones on or that older woman dithers, remember, age is egalitarian. Unless you die young, some day you’ll find yourself the oldest person in the room. So grow some empathy, and learn to work with everyone.
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.