*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.
If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.
- Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
- Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
- Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
- If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
- Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
- Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
- Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
- Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.
If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.
Joan H. Baldwin
We haven’t written an equity piece in a while, and given that in a few weeks when the administration changes in Washington, D.C., gender equity may move from the back seat to the way, way back, we thought we’d take a final opportunity to remind readers that we all bring biases to the office. Even in museums where we are uber careful to engage and embrace our community at the front of the house, bias may be alive and well in the staff room. And if your hair is starting to smolder, bias isn’t a gender thing, meaning it’s not something men do to women. It’s something we all do, whether we mean to or not.
Think of bias as a lot of small suitcases that we carry around with us. As babies and toddlers, those bags are empty. Over time, experience, our parents, our extended family, our peer group fill those bags. Some are packed with deep-seated angry thoughts with no basis in fact, some with yearning for particular individuals who symbolize larger issues, some with our ability to deflect and hide from situations that upset us. Don’t believe me? Try serving on a jury. It’s an excellent place to see bias at work. Why do you think there are jury consultants? Because whether we admit it or not, we judge people and situations all the time.
But isn’t just going to work difficult enough some days? You betcha. We all wish we had privately endowed funds that would permit us to work or volunteer on our own schedule. And don’t museum workers have enough on their plates? There’s raising money, raising more money, strategic planning, board building, being there for community in contemporary and meaningful ways, connecting to community, being catalysts for imagination and inspiration. And behind the scenes, away from the public, there is strategic planning (again), working in teams, reaching across disciplines and departments, saying thank you, and being respectful of colleagues. And yet through it all those little bags of bias accompany us.
Are you aware that taller people make between 9-15 percent more than their shorter colleagues? That blond women make 7-percent more than their brunette or black-haired peers? That overweight employees make less than their slimmer co-workers? This is especially true for women where extra weight costs women workers between $9,000 and $19,000 annually. It’s doubtful anyone hiring for museum positions would admit to preferring tall blonds who could be extras in Viking movies, but that’s the thing about bias, it’s not necessarily something we control. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias.
As museum leaders, acknowledging workplace bias is the first step in making it less of a problem. So here’s a Leadership Matters to-do list to send bias packing in 2017:
- Know yourself. Do you prefer one employee over another? Instead, spend time with the person you prefer less. Make an effort to understand them and their point of view. Identify your own bias so you can keep things equitable.
- Remember that as a leader you model behavior for your staff, team, department. Bias toward an employee may lead to the entire group isolating that person.
- Research shows that white Americans associate positivity with white folks and negativity with black folks. That may not be what people say they believe, but it is the result when psychologists test for implicit bias. If you’re a white American, unpack those bags before you interview, hire, or do an annual performance review.
- A lot of people are biased against women in leadership positions. That is not code for men don’t like women leaders, that’s a sentence that means a lot of men and women are unconsciously more comfortable with a male leader. You may want to take AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to help you sort out your own feelings.
- Know that having a diverse team or staff doesn’t eliminate bias. That’s how your staff looks. How they behave is something else. Self-awareness, empathy and understanding are all necessary weapons against bias. Work at developing them.
- You may think you’re a great communicator, but find out if that’s true. Provide feedback so you know whether your staff, team, department has the safety and sense of belonging it needs.
Leadership Matters will be back next week with a Holiday Reading List to tide you over until 2017. In the meantime, be well, and tell us how you eliminate bias in your museum workplace.
Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?
SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.
What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.
If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”
As part of our 100th post celebration we asked readers to tell us what was on their minds. One reader sent us an email that included this question: How do you work for an organization you love, with a mission you believe in, and cope with the horrible struggle of poor management behind the scenes? First, let’s acknowledge up front that there are often times in our lives when we don’t want to or can’t get a new job. If you are the trailing spouse or partner, if you have family ties that will be exacerbated by moving, or if you’ve only just begun a job and discover it isn’t the bowl of cherries you thought it would be, you may find yourself stuck when, in other circumstances, you would apply for a new job immediately.
So…what do you do? You’re doing work you like in a field you adore for a person whose idea of great is your idea of mediocre. Or worse, you work for a person who can’t get out of her own way, and who manages to make things worse not better. First, some coping strategies: These types of leaders can’t be depended on for much except confusion and mismanagement. As a result, don’t be rude, but try to avoid hallway conversations or spontaneous chats. You aren’t going to get the support you need and you will likely leave more confused than when you began. Poor leaders often don’t think strategically. That means you need to do the heavy lifting. Make sure your meetings are scheduled ahead of time. Make lists, and use them to guide conversation. Take notes during the meeting. Once it’s over, email a thank you and follow up with “This is my take-away.” That way, your job/role/project is down in black and white. Should anything go wrong or there’s any kind of misunderstanding, you’ve left the door open for your director to comment.
Second, make sure you have a mentor/advisor. This can be someone internal or better yet someone external. Remember, mentors aren’t therapists; they are there to help you navigate work and career situations. Don’t personalize or demonize your bad leader–that’s for drinks with your friends. Use time with your mentor to sort out your own communication style. Perhaps the way you ask questions is too oblique and you need to be more direct. Perhaps you are waiting for acknowledgement of your excellent work from someone who doesn’t recognize excellence, her own or anyone else’s. Perhaps you need to let go of things that aren’t your responsibility; in other words, play your position.
Once, when I launched into a rant about a co-worker, a very wise director looked at me and said, “People don’t change.” I sputtered to a halt. Of course people could change, and besides it’s for the sake of the organization. Why wouldn’t they want to moderate their behavior? Her answer: most of the time they don’t and they can’t. If you’re going to be good at the non-content part of your job, then you need to be adaptable, someone who can size up staff no matter where they are on the food chain and get along.
Last, here are some suggestions about how to make the external part of working for Mr. or Ms. Mediocre better.
- Don’t be the servant employee. Be a bit more self-centered. Think about your job as a resume builder. What can the job offer you–training, travel, mentoring–that makes you a better you.
- If you work in development, communications, HR or any field museums share with other non-profits, are there job opportunities that build your skill set away from the field, but allow you to stay in your community, city, town?
- Read last week’s post on More Than a Mentor and make sure you have a posse.
- Consider taking on an outside project as a consultant or a volunteer. Again, be strategic. What will it do for you? Allow you to work with folks you admire? Be a resume builder? Earn some extra money to fund either a vacation (re-charging in these situations is important) or professional development that your institution might not pay for.
- Look for opportunities and take them. Is it your turn to schmooze trustees through your department? Don’t avoid it because the trustees hired the incompetent leader in the first place. Meet them and sell your own piece of the pie.
- Finally, as we said last week, always check-in with yourself. Only you can know how sad, angry or tortured a job is making you. If it’s making you sick, step aside. You’re smart, well educated. There are other jobs in other fields. This may be the universe telling you to press pause on the museum field, so listen.
Are you working for the stress-you-out director? How do you cope?
First, we are looking forward to meeting many of you at AAM in Washington at the end of May. After two years of blogging about the museum workforce all of a sudden we’re no longer alone. A lot of people–including AAM itself–are talking about museum working conditions. In fact, we made Nicole Ivy’s blog which conveniently lists all the sessions connected to museums’ backstage life. If you didn’t see it, you can find it here. Your Guide to Labor 3.0 at the Annual Meeting. Our session, which is titled What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Women in Museums with Marieke Van Damme and Jessica Ferey, will have some great music, a chance to share some thoughts and make change together. We hope to see you there.
While we are in Washington, Anne and I will also be doing some teaching for AAM’s Getty program. This week I worked on a case study for that presentation. My topic is leadership and self-awareness, something I’ve written and spoken about frequently since we published Leadership Matters, so self-awareness has been on my mind. For too many leaders it’s akin to exercise, something we know is good for us, but hard to focus on. Or worse, it is seen as part of the massive self-help literature found in airport bookstores. It’s probably both those things, but self awareness, for museum leaders is critically important.
And the reason it’s important is that it’s not only about you, it’s about your staff as well. Think of it as an internal check-in. One for you, one for your staff. A self-aware leader is constantly calibrating her behavior to align with the people she’s leading.
On the way to work in the morning do you strategize the day? Do you think about which meetings are up first and your goals for each one? Do you also think about the people you will meet with? Today will you sit down with the museum department you consider least likely to succeed? The ones lacking self-confidence where mediocre work is a good outcome? Have you experimented with strategies to gain trust, improve communication, increase teamwork?
Don’t eye-roll here. Or at least if you’re doing it, be self-aware enough to recognize it. Museums are places of great beauty and big ideas. They are fabulous places to work. People envy those of us lucky enough to care for and interpret the world’s patrimony. But we do that by working with people. And museums are better places when we work well together. So here are 10 things to think about on your way to work:
- Check your judgement at the door. Assume everyone is trying to do their best.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to delegate when you need to. Do it with grace.
- Write down your plans and priorities. Check back often. Did you succeed or do you need to revise.
- Develop a group of friends, mentors and colleagues. Anne calls them your “posse.” They are straight shooters. They adore you, but they’ll tell you the truth.
- Check in with them. Ask them how they think you come across.
- Listen. Really listen. Don’t just wait for a chance to speak.
- Know how the chemistry changes when you walk in the room. Plan accordingly.
- Make a 360 assessment part of your annual review.
- Get out of the office. Your work is important, but you are not curing cancer. It’s spring. Go outside.
- Make this your mantra: Act, reflect, refine.
Last, if you haven’t already, take one of the many personality tests. Myers Briggs or the Disc Assessment are popular. Harvard Business Review also has an entrepreneurial aptitude test: Entrepreneurial Aptitude Test. If you think being an entrepreneur is for business–well that’s another post.
And share how you know yourself.