I don’t know about you, but when I am besieged with obligations, meetings, and deadlines, I make lists. Over time the lists become a bit of a joke because things that weren’t accomplished one week don’t always move forward to the next. Instead they occupy a sort of list purgatory, haunting me as I go about my days. You may have a better way of organizing things. Your lists may be digital. Perhaps you’re more efficient, but however you make your way through your tasks, there is always a certain satisfaction in the strike-through, marking something as done, finished, complete, and off your plate for a while.
But then, and maybe this doesn’t happen to you, there is another sort of list. It’s the list from 30,000 feet. It’s always with me, a reminder of ways of being, things I need to focus on, ways I need to be more intentional. This week Anne Ackerson and I read papers from our Johns Hopkins University students regarding leadership at museums, zoos, and heritage organizations undergoing challenge and change. As I read them–many discuss museums that have been in the news for one thing or another–I am struck again, by how complex leadership is, how many moving parts there are, and how important it is that the personal integrate with the organizational.
As I’ve said here about a million times, reflection in leadership is key. So in that spirt, here are 10 things on my 30,000-foot leadership list for this fall.
- Remembering to pause: whether it’s going outside for 15 minutes for a walk; sitting with a non-work friend over coffee; laughing. Life isn’t all work.
- Understanding my organization’s origin story: Acknowledging the work, gifts, and goals of those who came before me, while moving forward in a world that’s changed and changing, and creating a way to make the two work together.
- Listening: Spending part of every day, not waiting to speak, but actually listening.
- Remembering not to judge: Trying to make my go-to be to understand, to empathize, and to be present rather than to judge.
- Acknowledging accomplishments: You’ve all probably read about Anne’s accomplishment jar. I am thinking about creating a team accomplishment jar where our program can acknowledge its best moments over the course of the year. Some times it does take a village.
- Making my observations my obligation: Standing up for injustice, for inequity, for the minor–the constant interrupter in staff meetings who rides herd over more reserved colleagues–to the major–the colleague who’s bullied or harassed.
- Looking for the through-lines, whether in history, race, gender, environment and class: I work with a collection created by white men in a different age, for a different age. I need to re-center, educate, and through acquisition bring community and collection into alignment.
- Give back to the field: In many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve managed to make a living, to use my imagination, to work in beautiful places, surrounded by interesting collections. I must always give back, pay it forward, and help those following behind.
- Make sure everyone’s at the table: From the board to the front-line staff, make sure we represent our communities. And then do my best to make sure all voices are heard equitably, whether in an exhibition or a staff meeting.
- Values permeate the workplace too: While values are important in the front of the house–see #7–they are also important in our workspaces. Leaders content to ignore inequitable pay and benefits are leaders perpetuating the worst kind of patriarchal system. See #6.
Your list may be different, but I hope you have one. Having one fuels forward movement and change.
Yours from 30,000 feet.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?
It’s a new year. For many it’s a time of resolutions. Eating healthier, exercising more, seeing friends, meditation, top lists of things we hope to do. But how about work? And most particularly how about work in your museum or heritage organization? What’s on the list there? Well, everyone wants a raise, but here’s another thought: How about owning what you do? How about making your work matter to you and your organization?
My grandmother–a woman of enormous independence for someone raised at the turn-of-the-last century–used to describe particular individuals with a sigh and pronounce, “She’ll only go as far as she’s pushed.” Needless to say, this was not a compliment. What she valued were individuals who not only completed whatever was assigned, but went a step further, as opposed to humans who had to be corralled into work, completing it without an ounce of extra thought or energy.
Why do my grandmother’s thoughts matter? Because, like her, employers, even at museums and heritage organizations where the sense of urgency is sometimes absent, prefer proactive rather than reactive staff. There is a laziness–maybe born of anger or job dissatisfaction–that allows staff to say things like “That’s not my job,” or “She didn’t tell me to do that so I’m not doing it,” or “He’ll be angry if I go ahead, so better to wait.”
Yes, you may work for someone who is an epically bad communicator, but it’s your career that’s at stake here, not hers. And while you’re thinking about this, know that according to a recent study, a shocking 37-percent of managers have no clue what their staff is working on. That means more than a third of employees can be on a permanent coffee break as long as they appear to be engaged in some form of activity. So…if you work for an individual you suspect may have no clue about your day-to-day work life, much less your career, here are some things you may want to contemplate.
- If you don’t already have a standing appointment with your boss, make one.
- Outline your day, hour-to-hour, and quantify percentages so you (and your boss) can see how much of your time is spent on what.
- Talk about prioritizing. Maybe you do a lot of nice things–maybe you’re the person who cleans out the volunteer break room or restocks the education space–and it’s nice, but you’re underutilized. You do it because others don’t, but it means you’re not doing things nearer and dear to your heart or your job description. And if you’re underutilized, you may be busy, but you’re likely not happy or challenged.
- Evaluate whether you’re reactive or proactive. Talk with your boss about how that could or should change. Own your goals and push for them.
And if you’re a leader, think about:
- How you communicate. Are tasks poorly executed because what staff heard was mushy and confusing? Do you ever ask “Did I explain that well enough?”
- Listen to your staff. Watch for signs of distress. Is one job full of responsibility but no authority? Does everything have to be checked with a higher power–like you? Are other staff showing signs of boredom? Are deadlines met in five seconds?
- Check-in often. Remember, check-ins don’t have to be formal. You can check-in in the hall or an office doorway, but they need to be meaningful. You need to have the time to focus and remember what your last conversation was about.
- Set deadlines and keep them. Is there a sense they matter because it will take your staff about a nanosecond to realize if deadlines don’t matter to you, they don’t need to matter to them.
- Know whether your staff is challenged or not. A recent study by Salary.com showed that more than 50-percent of employees were either not challenged or bored at work so ask yourself whether you really know what’s going on.
Work can’t be a bowl of cherries every day, but presumably many of us picked the museum field because we love it. We love collections or collections care or exhibition design or research or brilliant social media or school groups. In a world where development departments work double time nobody should be bored, unchallenged or feel they can’t move forward on a given project because they don’t have the autonomy. It’s January and a natural time for change.
Make some. Start today.
It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.
We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index.
Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.
But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?
Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations. Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.
It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” a commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College, May 2005
Over the past month, we’ve spoken to several people who are more than miserable in their jobs. We’ve also read tales of workplace misery on Facebook where individuals question how they should move forward in the wake of situations that redefine the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Some of these situations are truly horrific, some frustrating, and some just examples of a museum worker’s really, really bad day. But one thing seems to be universal: Everybody tells the complainer to quit, to leave, to find the nirvana job. These comments come in a chorus. Some are couched in concern for the worker’s mental health as in “this can’t be healthy for you.” Some are little red flags demonstrating the listeners have heard enough as in, “I can give you some phone numbers if you think you’re ready to move on.” And some respond only to the technical details of whatever workplace horror the story outlines.
Maybe there’s another way though. Maybe since most of us aren’t social workers, psychologists, or HR people, maybe, in Post-Weinstein America, we ought to respond a little differently. First, remember you’re the listener or, in the case of Facebook, the reader. That’s your job. Just listen. Next, establish if the person feels safe at work. If they do not, are they experiencing sexual harassment, workplace bullying or simply horrific leadership? If they are not safe, if they are bullied or harassed online or in the workplace, a site like AAUW or the EEOC (and there are many more) can help with filing a harassment claim.
Part of listening–regardless of the nature of the individual narrative–is that leaving one job and getting another isn’t as simple as ordering on Amazon. Leave aside the competitive nature of today’s museum job search, there are also questions of partners, partner’s jobs, real estate, children, extended family, and love of place that tie us all to our positions. While walking out may be a healthy choice, it’s not always possible, and brings with it its own set of stresses, not least of which is no pay. So remember, advocating quitting is not always helpful.
And don’t let the person narrating a workplace complaint believe that because they work for the Who-Knows-Where-Historical-Society that this is business as usual, that non-profits aren’t subject to employment law. They are. Yes, it may require more courage or at least a special brand of courage to take on the big wigs in a small community as opposed to walking into HR at a big museum, but the law still applies.
Last, remember that sometimes humans just need to be heard. They need to know they’re valued. Channel your inner grandma: Smile and look people in the eye. If you can’t say anything nice, be quiet. Be kind. Be respectful. Say thank you. Model the place you want to work in, and build a better museum work culture.
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.