This fall Anne Ackerson and I will teach a course called “The Museum Leadership Challenge” for Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies master’s degree program. As a result, we’ve talked a lot about what we really think the key components of museum leadership are. It’s an ongoing conversation, but the thought of being in a classroom, even a virtual one, puts a different spin on things. I won’t lie: Participating in a program that annually launches newly-minted graduates on the museum world, makes us acutely aware of the museum ecosystem, particularly the job market. The job race is a daunting prospect, asking applicants to create (or shed) versions of themselves via social media, to send hundreds of resumes zooming around the Internet, all while trying to work or volunteer in this field they’ve committed time and money to. It’s a big, complicated deal. And the elephant in many rooms.
Even though a director’s position is sometimes the way out of the hideously low salaries plaguing the museum field, it’s often viewed as a painfully pressured role, so many emerging museum folk avoid the leadership challenge. At small museums and heritage organizations it’s the job that sends 26-year olds to board meetings with people old enough to be their grandparents. Instead, you aim for positions as curator, chief curator, collections manager or educator, director of engagement or social media guru. But here’s what we say: all those positions lead. And more importantly you need to be the leader of yourself. That sounds dopey, but think about it. Your career, in which you’ve invested a bundle of money, isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make happen.
When you get your first job and start moving up the museum ladder, you will spend hours in planning meetings. You’ll plan exhibitions, events, and programs. You’ll think about branding, messaging, and mission statements. This will be the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Hopefully, you will have good mentors, leaders and guides. Hopefully you won’t zone out with your iPhone under the table. And, hopefully, you will think strategically. Why do we care? Because we want you to think strategically about your own life and career. We want you to make things happen. So, if you’re a new museum person, here are five questions to think about:
- What makes you happiest at work?
- How do you manage a challenge and can you embrace and learn from failure?
- Who are your mentors and advisors?
- Have you made a list of your leadership qualities?
- If you’re already working in the field, do your plans and values align with your museum or heritage organization?
If you are a board member, director or department head, directly or indirectly responsible for hiring, know that the culture of your organization affects not only longtime employees and new hires, but the field as a whole. You are change agents. Here are five questions for you.
- Does your organization have a values statement? Have you read it recently?
- Does your organization have a HR policy and/or an HR department?
- What has your museum or heritage organization done to keep bias out of the interview room?
- What is the most important quality you (or your organization) looks for in new employees?
- When was the last time your board talked about staff salaries?
Strategic planning isn’t just for organizations. It’s for individuals, too. No, it’s not a panacea, but in an overcrowded field knowing what you want will help you move ahead of the pack.
*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:
- 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.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- 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?
- 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.
A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
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.
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.
Here at Leadership Matters we don’t often wade into interpretive waters. There are plenty of able bloggers out there writing about museum collections. (Linda Norris’s Uncatalogued Museum, Frank Vagnone’s Twisted Preservation or Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 are good examples.) For the most part, we are concerned with how leadership does or doesn’t function in the museum workplace. We write often about pay equity, workplace bias, gender issues, and the importance of human capital in the museum world.
Recently, though, we were struck by the synchronicity of things. First, came this quote from President Obama’s Farewell Speech in Chicago, IL, January 10. “Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.” The quote sits at the end of the speech where Obama reminds us not to take democracy for granted, citing George Washington who reminds us to protect democracy with “jealous anxiety.”
What struck us about this wasn’t the sentiment, which is really important, but the idea that the Constitution is just parchment until people give it power. We believe there’s a connection here to the museum world, particularly the world of history/heritage organizations where there’s a lot of moaning about whether people care about history any more. Is that really true or are we a little lazy? Is it possible that with the visual wealth of the internet visitors aren’t so awestruck by reality any more? And really why should they be? Anybody with a phone or a laptop has access to a gazillion images. Seeing them lined up in a museum with tiny labels that sometimes repeat the obvious might not be so compelling in 2017. So who gives objects power? Who engages communities in giving objects power? In our world, that would be museum staff. And how exactly does that happen in our frenetic, media obsessed world?
One answer might be the creation of context either in time or through time. Think about parsing an object the way you would a poem. Never did that? It’s not hard: Who made it? What does it do? What are its component parts? Is it something we use today? In today’s material culture, what are its descendants? Is it beautiful? Why? Who used it? Do they matter? If not, why not? Of course no one would stand still and do this endlessly, but if three objects in a room of things move from mute to thoughtful speech, and if those three things are linked together ideologically, visitors may leave with a sense of connectedness not only over time, but to today’s ideas and concerns.
But the real lesson here is that the history museum field has to want staff who thinks this way. One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters left the history field, moving to an art museum. Her reason? She was adamant that museum staff charged with interpreting culture should be as invested in the present as the past, and she felt that far too many history museum staff were in retreat from today’s world. But it doesn’t have to be that way, which brings us to the second synchronicity. This weekend Old Salem Village in North Carolina made a connection on its Facebook page between contemporary life and the way the Village’s original Moravian residents welcomed visitors. It was simple and direct. With no falderal it pointed out that over centuries there have been communities and there were “strangers.” It made you think about the way we’ve either welcomed and fed newcomers or stoned them into leaving. The Moravians, by the way, felt welcoming strangers was important.
So invest in your staff. Objects are important, but too many history museums are like badly written essays in need of good editors. Those editors (your staff) are as important as the objects they serve because they make them speak, and in making them speak, they make them matter.
Joan H. Baldwin