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.
It’s May, so it’s time for the the American Alliance of Museums–AAM for short–annual meeting in St. Louis. Anne and I are lucky enough to not only be going, but we’re also proud to be part of a discussion based on our forthcoming book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017) Our session, “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” takes place Monday morning, May 8, in Room 127, America’s Center, where we’ll be joined by Kaywin Feldman from MIA, Jessica Phillips from Fraunces Tavern Museum, Ilene Frank from the Connecticut Historical Society, and Wyona Lynch-McWhite, VP at the Arts Consulting Group. All four women were interviewed or contributed to our book, and have plenty to say about gender equity. This isn’t for women only. It’s a session for everyone interested in an equitable workplace. We hope to see you there!
Our session is part of AAM’s Career Management track, so if you’re coming to the meeting and searching for other programs like this, try looking under “Management and Administration” as well. And don’t forget the “Museum Directors” track. You don’t have to be a director to attend those sessions. Altogether there are over 30 sessions related to leadership. There’s even one on failure as in the famous Samuel Becket line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Anne’s facilitating a leadership discussion in the CEO Roundtable on Monday, 3-5 pm, in Landmark 4 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand. She’ll be sharing the Layers Leadership, a recent outcome of work by museums, libraries and archives as part of the IMLS-funded NexusLab project. If you’re interested in talking about the varying leadership roles one plays and their attendant challenges, skills and outcomes, stop by Anne’s table.
If you prefer a smaller discussion format, we will also be part of the Peer Mentoring Roundtables for Emerging and Career Professionals on Tuesday, May 9, from 11:45 – 1:45 in the Expo Hall. This event offers 23 tables with smart, experienced folks, along with colleagues, friends and mentors, ready to talk about everything from resume tips to mentorship, to aligning career and organizational goals. We’ll be at table 12, ready to talk about Self-awareness, Career Planning, and Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Learning Curve.
We hope you’ll drop by the Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion on Tuesday morning, 9-11 am, where we’ll be representing GEMM — Gender Equity in Museums Movement. We’ll have the 5 Things You Need to Know tip sheets on leadership, salary negotiation and networking, along with other GEMM materials!
The annual meeting can be overwhelming so use your travel time to identify where you want to go and what you want to do. (If you arrive by Sunday morning, AAM runs an intro session from 9-11 am in the America’s Center.) Make sure to divide your time between career building–that’s for you, and idea building–which you may discover in sessions you select or in visits to St. Louis’s museums, galleries, zoo and botanical garden–and network building–that’s for you and your organization. It will be another year before you’re in a place with so many museum folk so make the most of it.
In the meantime, channel your inner Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis). We hope to see you there.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Some of you will read this post’s title and start laughing. Professional development funds are often the poor step children of organizational budgets, quickly whacked when finances are under siege. Yet in our ongoing quest to have museums and heritage organizations take their staff seriously–not just we can always depend on you to open the doors seriously, but you are the change agent(s) and we value that (seriously)–Leadership Matters believes in professional development.
Last week Fast Company did a piece on Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Admittedly, this is all workplaces and museums are only a tiny minority, but guess what? Fifty-five percent of American workers aren’t in love with work. They don’t hate their jobs either, they’re just indifferent. Why, you ask? Workers cited their bosses as poor communicators, and not just about work stuff. They felt management failed to explain a job’s benefits, and one of the principle benefits listed was professional development. The article suggests that unlike other more intangible workplace qualities, lousy or inexplicable benefits make employees leave. And leaving costs organizations money.
As a museum leader, you and your board of trustees want a stable, happy staff firmly entrenched with the 45-percent of American workers not trolling job announcements for greener pastures or better benefits. That means being an organization that demonstrates care and concern about employee growth, for conservators, curators, museum educators, and everyone else on your staff. And why does that matter? First of all, because of what it says. A clear and equitable employee development program says: We value you. Whether you are the lone ranger director provided with enough funding to take a course or go to a regional or national meeting or a member of the development office sent to learn the latest donor program, it is an ongoing way of saying thank you, an explicit demonstration of trust, and staff actually care if leadership takes a genuine interest in their future.
Who should get professional development funds? Well, in a perfect world, just about everyone. Museum leaders get more because their positions demand more, and the board and everyone else expects them to think and act at the speed of light. But wouldn’t it be nice if even the non-exempt staff who meet, greet, and instruct had the opportunity to go to a regional or local meeting once a year, to take an online course or work with a group like Museum Hack? So if your organization’s professional development program is lame or doesn’t exist, here are five things to think about:
- Boards need to understand that when it comes to staff, the best of the best seek self-improvement. They tend to leave organizations who make professional growth difficult or impossible.
- Professional development program budgets need to be transparent and equitable, meaning all exempt staff receive X and all non-exempt staff receive Y. And a gentle reminder, it’s not helpful if the museum leader seems to have unlimited professional development funds, while other staff have to go through a request and approval for every ask.
- Don’t hide behind the “we don’t have time for that” excuse. You are not curing cancer. You are a museum. You are an idea factory. If you can’t afford to let a staff member leave for three to five days, then you have other issues.
- It is helpful if professional development experiences are hinged to something at work, otherwise it is easy for them to become out of body experiences with nothing to do with work. As a leader, when you agree to staff attending a meeting, program or online training, talk about how that experience will integrate into the workplace on the back end. Be mindful that “What I did on my trip to AASLH” can be mind numbing for staff left behind, so make sure these interactions are intentional, directed, and, to use a sports metaphor, move the ball up the field.
- Boards and museum leaders want staff who can adapt. Employees who engage in learning on an ongoing basis adapt more readily than those who don’t. What does an organization have to lose?
Tell us how your organization sustains professional development.
Dear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,
Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.
A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.
Articles and Short Reads:
42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.
Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.
Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.
Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.
When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.
How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.
Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey. This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.
The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign
And to Listen to:
Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.
SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.