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.
Dear museum baby boomers, this post is for you.
If you were born after 1964, this may confirm or support some of your worst fears, so you may want to give it a pass. Here at Leadership Matters we’re now in the chapter where some of our museum mentors are retired–taking cooking classes, exercising like fiends, traveling, reading novels–while others are beginning to announce their retirement dates. Or they are starting to do the work to make that happen: achieving the last, penultimate position, beefing up their consulting business, downsizing, buying the forever home. You know the drill.
Then there are the folks who should be planning their exit, but aren’t. The only decision they’ve made is to stay on as long as possible. They’re treading water, sucking up big(ger) salaries, and contributing in the most lacklustre fashion. They give the rest of us a bad name. Don’t get us wrong. We more than understand that the overall crappiness of museum salaries may mean working ’til age 70 isn’t a choice but a necessity. But, we firmly believe that employees should be judged by their contributions, never by their age, gender or race. And age and length of tenure don’t give you the right to coast–at least not until you’ve announced your exit date. In fact, no matter what your age, we hope you’re not coasting, but instead contributing your best self at work.
Study the colleagues you admire most, whether in the museum field or elsewhere. They are probably individuals who are constantly on a path of reinvention. They are probably not people hiding behind we’ve-always-done-it-that-way–or people who believe social media is the instrument of the devil. They’re the people who somehow link their institutional knowledge, which may be vast, to what’s going on the museum field, and always manage to say something new (and wise) in meetings. They are the people we all want to be when we get over our case of impostor syndrome.
So if you’re a boomer, we urge you to be a contributor ’til the day you pack up your office. Perhaps your museum or heritage organization has a succession plan in place. Whether it does–and they are excellent planning tools–you can have a personal succession plan as well. Just as you strategized your career when you were in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, a personal succession plan can help design your exit.
Don’t wait ’til you’re on your way to your retirement party to whine that no one picked your brain, and asked about that great store of knowledge you’ve amassed. Write it down. This actually applies to everyone. Commit work flow and basic tasks to a document. That way even if you have a skiing accident, your colleagues can step up and complete some basic tasks.
And if you are retiring, what information would someone need to do your job well on day one? How have your organization’s quirks informed the way you do things? Were you a path-breaker in your position? Would you be willing to train your successor, and if the answer is yes, what might that look like? Perhaps the most important thing you need to strategize is what you’ll do when your days aren’t consumed with meetings, openings, and planning. Write that down too, but don’t share it. That’s for you and the rest of your life.
It’s summer. The days are long, and a lot of us are on vacation. If you will retire this year, commit to making the next 12 months the most fruitful ever. Go out with a bang.
This post is a two-parter. First, it’s about saying what you mean. This is a big deal for museum leaders who often think they communicate clearly, only to find, when things go wrong, how lame their skills are. But whether you occupy the fancy office and go to lunch with trustees or not, you still need good communication skills. Here are five things you need:
- Be a good listener: Say you’re a curator. A colleague asks why boxes in your storage area are stacked close to the heating pipes. There are 1,000 ways to answer the question from “All our storage is inadequate and this is the best of many bad choices,” to “This is temporary while we empty another area,” to “Gosh, I was so anxious about the mold I found last week, closer to the ceiling seemed like a good thing.” But what if you don’t hear the question? What if what you hear is an attack on your skills as curator and your personal worth? The answer you give in that situation is likely to be different, less helpful, and since you feel personally attacked, may escalate a fairly innocuous situation.
- Don’t withhold information: Sometimes we don’t say what we mean because we’re locked in a silent power struggle with a colleague. That person may be struggling too in which case only a minimum of information gets through. Remember, work is work. You all serve the museum, heritage or arts organization. Focus on what the other person needs, provide the best answer you can, and surprise, surprise, your next interaction may be different, but in a good way.
- Do not babble: Do not go down conversational rat holes. Channel your inner Hemingway. Be simple, concise, and specific.
- Try to check your ego at the door: Great communicators make everyone else feel like they’re the only people in the room. Why? Because they communicate with authenticity and care. Try pausing for a moment or two before answering a question. Reflect on whether the question is about you and your skill level or whether it’s about the collection items next to the ceiling.
- When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong: If you snapped at the curator about the boxes, we hope you’re self aware enough to figure out what happened and apologize. Conversely, if you’re the curator, who responded as if you’d been slapped rather than as if a concerned colleague also cared about the collection, apologize. Don’t wait. Don’t write absurd narratives in your head about why this isn’t the right time to talk. Just do it. A real apology offered human-to-human builds trust. There’s no better ingredient for workplace communication.
And now to getting better at what you do: There’s likely a book waiting to be written on the perfectionism found in museums. It casts a pall over everything, putting dampers on experimentation and innovation because staff feels there is no room for risk. The results of too much perfectionism are often spectacularly mediocre.
We here at Leadership Matters constantly harp on reading widely so here are two very different articles. The first is from Outside Magazine on Getting Better. Yes, it’s about exercise, but it’s also full of stuff that applies to life without spandex and a water bottle. Learning to manage challenges, to break work into manageable chunks, to put the cell phone aside–those are skills that apply in the museum workplace just as much as the gym. And for a completely different voice, here is writer Jamaica Kincaid with advice on how to live and how to write. She too advocates less cell phone time and more focus. She’s also about learning how not to write crap, and she advocates not taking yourself too seriously. She is a writer after all. She lives on her imagination.
You are museum, humanities, and culture folk. You spend time trying to make art, living things, and objects speak. You need your imagination too.
Here in America’s Northeast we’re at the peak of the long days. That’s more time to pause, think about more skillful communication, and get better at what you do. Use it. Get better.
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
*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