If you’ve read this blog before, you know I am a frequent NPR listener. Because I listen in the car, I often hear pieces I might skip if I were reading. Recently, I heard a long piece on teaching improv, which I associate mainly with comedy and Saturday Night Live. (I was right, but not really.) The interview intersected with something else I heard that week, this time an in-person chat with poet and writer Clint Smith. I was lucky enough to be in the tent when Smith received the StowePrize in Hartford. He spoke with Linda Norris as part of the prize giving.
Improv, as you know doubt know, is live theatre where plot and dialogue are made up in the moment. Why does improv matter? How did my brain connect it to Clint Smith? And how do both link back to museums and their current state of peril?
First improv: For what appears as such a hilarious loosey-goosey enterprise, improv possesses a clearly defined architecture. One of its tenants is “Don’t deny” often expressed as “Yes, and….” affirming the speaker’s statement and connecting it to something else. This sends dialog forward as opposed to shutting it down with a negative.
Now, Smith: One of the questions Norris asked Smith was, while writing his prize-winning How the Word is Passed, what it was like to talk with 21st-century Confederate descendants? One of the places Smith visited was Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. Although its earliest grave dates to 1702, Smith went because 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried there, and it has long been a place of pilgrimage for people with family history bound up in the Confederacy. His visit with the Sons of Confederate Veterans took place on a Memorial Day weekend when he was likely the only person of color on the 189-acre site. Norris asked what it was like to speak with people whose belief systems were so different from his own? Smith answered that the man he spoke with “was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance of the American project.” In describing his Blandford conversation, Smith remarked how inconsistent our reckoning with history is, how dependent it is on the randomness of birth, where we grow up, our teachers, and the personal narratives handed down, treasured and burnished by our families. He was respectful of his interviewee, while fundamentally disagreeing with his ideology.
Both in conversation with Norris and in his book, Smith is clear his role was listener. Although he didn’t use these words, what he offered was improv’s “Yes, and…,” adding “there is something to be said for meeting people where they are, and extending grace and generosity……” He said that the best museum guides and teachers he heard while researching How the Word is Passed offered “a balancing act,…… while also not holding back on the truth,” extending an “and” that often included a sentence like “This might be difficult to hear, but I’m going to be on this journey with you.”
Maybe I am late to the party. Maybe you all got there before me, and have absorbed “Yes, and…” into your daily practice. If not, how could it possibly hurt? Not only with the challenging issues of re-centering the country’s history of enslavement, but how sites interpret and present issues of gender, religion, and politics, as well as our inter-staff relations where communication in our divisive age is often challenging. If you want examples of what improv exercises look like, here’s a handy Youtube video. Start at about 6:59 and watch through to around minute 10.
So how might this play out in daily life?
- When you say Yes, and…you’re living squarely in the present.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re promising to listen.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re being present, listening and therefore connecting.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting go of the judgement genie for yourself and for others.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re offering trust before it’s earned.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting others shine before yourself. (Adapted from David Charles @ Rollins College.)
Clint Smith quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during his Stowe House chat. That is the poem that famously ends “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” but Smith’s quote came from the first stanza, “I am a part of all that I have met.” How easy it is to forget those 10 words as we move through life, at home and at work, with family, with friends, colleagues and strangers, trying hard to say yes, and… to listen, and then speak our own authentic truth for ourselves or for our museums and heritage sites.
Be well, stay safe, do good work.
This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world’s governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.
From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn’t be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience–the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients–but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire’s position description is that it’s odd.
I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, “Joan, people don’t change.” I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were “unless they want to.” In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that–despite a five-year interval–the Berkshire Museum’s culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn’t much care for.
The job description begins with this sentence: “The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world,” a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it’s hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength….” Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield’s population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world’s narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director’s time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.
Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield’s people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn’t come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world’s ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County’s wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum’s biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections’ treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board’s relentless work, will vaporize.
The museum workplace is having a moment, and it’s not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.
The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson’s The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) “The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be…” Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it’s mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.
Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they’re proud of, what they’ve accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can’t hire a search firm, don’t have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that’s how we grow.
Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I’ll see you in March.
There’s a blizzard here in the northeast this weekend, and it’s hard to think about anything except comfort food, a heat source, and a good book. But despite the relentless wind, blowing snow, and the fear we may lose power, it’s time to say something, and ironically it’s something about moving forward despite the circumstances.
Self-care and wellness permeate the online world of information exchange, preaching to the choir as it reminds us what a huge emotional and mental health toll three years of COVID has taken. I’m about to add to that. If you’re a regular reader you know that since the New Year, I’ve been a bit obsessed with change. In considering change, I’ve also thought about what holds us back, individually, organizationally, creatively, physically and emotionally. What keeps us in place when we find ourselves paralyzed, procrastinating, and frozen, unwilling to disrupt the current moment, which, while maybe not perfect, is at least familiar? Sailors call this “being in irons,” when a boat turns into the wind and stalls. The sails luff and you’re stuck. It’s not good. The only way to move is to turn so the wind hits you sideways, into the sails.
So what can we do to feel the wind in our sails again? And more importantly, why are we holding back? Well, the short answer is probably COVID. Along with being a pandemic, COVID was also a change agent, highlighting faults, issues and problems in the museum world and in society at large. Maybe you remember your college literature classes where the novels were filled with change agents. Frequently, a character left or arrived, their addition or absence acting as a destabilizer. Characters went to war, were enslaved, ran away, or found themselves somewhere new. The point being that movement often prompts behavioral change.
But back to real life. For some, COVID provided an opportunity to move. Having discovered we could work remotely, if we were lucky, we moved sometimes in the company of family or friends. Some found new jobs. The act of physically separating took us away from old habits, offering, whether we realized it or not, a new beginning. If you experienced this, you may find yourself a year later, already looking back on the original lockdown as a hinge point. By providing time you never meant to take, by putting you in a new environment–even if that meant 40 hours a week at home instead of in the office–it offered a chance to think, and perhaps to think differently. But now, for what seems like the third or fourth time, we’re beginning again. How can we use what we learned and not hold back?
- Take some precious time and think deeply about the last two years: What did you learn? What do you want to hold onto? What habits hold you back? Is your volunteer work suddenly more meaningful than your career? Ditto your COVID hobby? Can you nurture it rather than see it subsumed by work?
- Did you learn to work more mindfully? Maybe you had to create space between your playroom, the kitchen table and the sink to work, and because uninterrupted time was at a premium, you had to plan. You may want to read this, yet another reason to let go of your devices for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of your work day.
- Shed Load: Borrow from the power companies, and learn to shed load. For many, the pandemic underscored what is really important as opposed to what seems important, both at home and at work. Try letting go of what’s not.
- Can you take the creative time you had at home to work? How would your colleagues react if they were encouraged to take time every day to think without devices in the room? Is that possible?
- Did you discover new subject areas during COVID? Did you read astronomy and Rumi when you used to only read history or material culture? What can you do with that? Recently I read a piece in The Atlantic called Your Bubble is Not the Culture by Yair Rosenberg. My favorite line is “But when critics lose sight of why most people consume culture, they start missing what makes most things popular. In their search for significance, they forget about the fun.” The same could be said about curators, yes? Can we just be regular folks and put collaboration ahead of significance, working collaboratively with our communities to build bridges between collections and community? We might discover our bubble isn’t our community’s bubble, and low and behold we might find the wind in our sails.
Be well, be kind, do good, and do good work.
Have you ever been around someone who tells you they love you randomly and too often? I’m not talking about the love of your life because hopefully their words resonate differently, I’m talking about a friend or a colleague. And with every “I love you,” the phrase loses meaning so after awhile it’s like a verbal tic that you don’t really hear? Well, apologies can metastasize in the same way, quickly becoming hollowed out versions of themselves. That said, “I’m sorry,” is still an important, meaningful, and necessary phrase in the museum or any workplace.
So why is saying “I’m sorry” important? Well, it’s a bellwether. The ability to apologize indicates so many things about human behavior: You’re willing to make yourself vulnerable in front of others; you possess some humility; it also indicates a level of self-awareness that’s trust building for colleagues, and indeed to the whole office food chain.
I was once worked for someone who had huge issues with humility. He was blithe about his own mistakes, never running up against one he couldn’t overlook, explain away, or simply ignore, from small things like lateness, to the more obvious like Google chatting during meetings and then getting caught when his laptop was projected on the big screen, and ultimately escalating to more serious issues like missing deadlines, neglecting development or possessing a vision. As someone subject to his decision-making for almost a decade, I can assure you that when an individual is unable to apologize, the small, petty part of you rears its head and says “If he doesn’t have to, I don’t either” Why do I need to take personal responsibility if the guy making the big salary doesn’t? (I told you this was petty.) That, of course, engenders a workplace culture rife with blame, but absent humility.
There’s another thing about apologies: They indicate our acceptance and understanding of failure. A lot of leaders blather about creating a culture of experimentation and creativity, but unless it’s really part and parcel of institutional DNA, it only lasts until there is a screw-up. Then suddenly, as staff meets to address the issue, concerns about creativity and experimentation evaporate. What follows is a WTF moment where everyone scrambles to assign blame, while putting things right again. Creativity or its absence isn’t mentioned. Yet none of us is perfect. Far from it. We all love to work in an atmosphere where experimentation is encouraged and supported. And as any artist or scientist will tell you, many experiments result in failure or at least in more experiments.
So what’s a museum leader’s role? How do you protect your colleague’s right to experiment, acknowledging they are human, and will mess-up in big and small ways, while also building a culture that expects staff to own their own behavior? It’s a tall order. Begin with yourself. If you can’t or won’t do it, why should they?
- Give the apology you want to hear from a leader.
- Don’t delay too long. Collect yourself, calm your emotions, but don’t let so much time go by that no one can remember what you’re apologizing for.
- Take responsibility for your actions. It’s not your fault the benefit was spoiled by a fierce thunderstorm; it is your issue if the donor’s name is misspelled.
- Don’t over-explain. Saying I was rushed is preferable to a long and detailed explanation of your child chipping a tooth, leading to an emergency dental appointment, leading to car trouble, and on and on.
- Close with what you learned. Sometimes we learn we can’t be the autonomous super human we think we are, and that we need help from our colleagues, whether it’s editing, planning, or logistics.
- Look to how you might handle a similar situation going forward. If needed, ask for support in crafting a plan to keep whatever happened from happening again.
And if you are counseling a staff member or colleague who’s messed up?
- Do not channel your inner Miss Trunchbull. You may be furious, but your role isn’t to lock anyone in The Chokey. Listen to what happened. And listen for an apology.
- Ask what your colleague learned and how whatever happened can be avoided in future.
- As a leader, make sure you understand your own role and responsibility in whatever happened. Are there things you need to correct? Were staff given too much responsibility without the authority to resolve problems?
- Deal with the now. Help your staff move forward from where they are, not from where they wish they were.
- Moving forward, watch to see how staff members apply what they learned. Self-aware staff, even those who didn’t mess up and subsequently need to apologize, will internalize what happened and avoid doing it in future.
In my experience, which admittedly is not vast, museums, archives and libraries tend to attract individuals passionate about their work, often with huge internal motivation–all good traits–but traits frequently predicated on perfection. A staff who doesn’t make mistakes isn’t experimenting. A staff who doesn’t apologize can’t show humility, and therefore isn’t building trust. And who doesn’t want to work someplace where creativity is the driver, and staff, no matter where they are on the food chain, is trusted?
Be well. If you’re on the east coast, stay out of Henri’s way, and be safe.
This first part is mainly for women who read this blog. This week I spoke with a colleague who, despite the fact that we work on the same campus, I see infrequently. So when we check in it’s with a degree of seriousness. “How are you?” isn’t just a pleasantry, but a real question. She reported crying in the doctor’s office. I responded I had too, both of us in answer to that simple question, “How are you doing?” Her doctor told her she needed a vacation. She laughed. There are eight more weeks of school so vacation seems as unlikely as being hit by a meteor. Mine asked what I was doing for relaxation. My only answer was joining a wine club which didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.
Let me be clear: We are the lucky ones. We are healthy. No one in our families was stolen by COVID. We are employed. We have colleagues, friends and families. We have partners who love us. But this is still hard, and it’s hard in a particularly gendered way.
I know there have been about 8 million articles, essays, and news pieces on women and COVID, one or two have appeared right here. The illness, the changes in economics and home life, and the spillover at work–for those who are working–has unnecessarily burdened women. And left some of us in tears. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll offer the one recipe for healing you haven’t heard about yet–two shots of Brené Brown, followed by a morsel of Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou and a brisk walk on a sunny day–but I haven’t found the recipe yet. I do know my colleague and I ended up laughing, a little irrationally, but honestly what else can you do? The universe demands a lot some days, and some times the best response is to laugh with a friend, even if what you’re laughing at is really the pain of the pandemic.
As some of you know, I’ve spent the last 10 months as interim director of a library, archives and special collections. Beyond keeping the ship on course, my primary job was to serve as point person for the search for a permanent director. I’m happy to say, it’s over, and in a few days when the last of the paper work is complete, we will be able to announce our new director. In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the search process, so here are some random ideas and considerations.
- Hiring over Zoom is unnatural. Does it privilege the extroverts and actors? Maybe. The things you’ve read about how to dress, how you present, are true. You should look like you’re sitting down for a semi-serious conversation. You don’t need a fancy living room with strategically placed books just over your shoulders, but you do need to appear as though your entrance to the Zoom room is something you actually thought about and consider important. (Hint: Not everyone does.) And while we all have bad IT days, a device that’s steady, and doesn’t make your interviewer feel as though they’re on a tilt-a-whirl is a must.
- Your references matter, and maybe not in the way you thought. Presumably your references believe you’re brilliant or they wouldn’t have agreed to speak for you, but many employers, my own included, don’t want a letter extolling your virtues. They want to talk one-on-one with your references. So it’s important that the people you ask are not only willing to say nice things, but are good talkers–articulate, smart, and generous over telephone or Zoom. Reporting you have soft skills, and then repeating a list of soft skills from Muse.com isn’t helpful. As someone about to hire you, your new organization wants to know you, specifically how your soft skills exemplify themselves in the workplace.
- NBC News reported this morning that there are now more jobs open than before the pandemic began. It attributes the spike not just to a rebounding economy, but to the fact that many job seekers are too fearful, hesitant, and discouraged to go through the process. My advice? Don’t apply if you don’t mean it. Yes, all job searches are an elaborate dance between job seeker and employer, with each one making choices based on what they discover. While the lucky and the talented may find themselves fought over by more than one employer, that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t start the process without first engaging in the necessary soul searching. It’s been a rough 18 months. Are you ready to move? Is your partner? Your family? You’ve created a pandemic routine that works for you. Are you willing to disrupt it? Not really wanting to move does not make you a bad person, but job searches are costly, not just money wise, but they are time sink holes. It feels wrong to go through three quarters of a complex process to have a job seeker tell you they really can’t imagine moving during a pandemic.
- Be clear in your own head why this job matters to you. New isn’t enough. Neither is admitting you have a crush on the organization since your crush may be based on half-truths and beautiful Internet photos. It helps if you can explain why this job matters to you now, at this very moment, and how it builds on what you’ve done so far, and challenges you in places you need to grow. And for the love of God, a mid-life crisis is not a reason for a new job. (Yes, that really happened.)
- If you’re stepping out of your lane, for example, you have little leadership experience, but you’re applying to lead a team of seven, be clear about what you know, what you done, what your skills are, and why they matter. Think like an interviewer so when they ask you, “And why should we let you run our team of museum educators, when you have next to no leadership experience?” you have an answer that lets them see you actually understand the act of leadership even if you haven’t had the title.
For all of you looking for work, I wish you the best of luck. Yes, the museum world is competitive, but positions are opening up. My last two bromides: Don’t write the script before anything happens. By that I mean don’t create a novel’s worth of reasons why you couldn’t take the position when you haven’t even applied. If you want a job and believe you’re capable, apply. Second, do the work you need to do before applying. What do you want? Of course you want a job, but if you knew you could earn just as much at Amazon, with better benefits, as you can at a given heritage site or regional museum, why there? Why does joining their team make sense for you?
And last, and this is for the folks at AASLH and AAM, recently I heard an NPR journalist speaking about his own field. He was making the point that print journalism has changed profoundly since last March, adding that his field lost 39,000 journalists in less than a year. Does the museum world know who it has lost?
Be well. Stay safe.
This week I learned someone I’ve known for decades will be leaving their position. Amidst platitudes about going in a new direction and spending time with family there is the scent of a leave-taking that’s less than mutually acceptable. How is it that some museum and heritage organization leaders can believe life is good, and all is well, when their boards feel so differently? How do leaders lose touch with their organizational DNA enough to let things slip out of their hands? And isn’t there enough to worry about for leaders in age of COVID without constantly considering whether you’ve overstayed your welcome?
When you consider the careers of longterm leaders, there are some common characteristics. They are self-aware. I know, duh? But they really are. They review their days, their weeks, learning from what went well, while tweaking and changing what didn’t. And they definitely aren’t bored. In other words, five years, 10 years in, they are still creative, coming to work ready to collaborate for meaningful change, and constantly ready to think creatively about their organizations. And they have healthy, respectful, and productive relationships with their boards. This last one is perhaps the most challenging since it’s one person–you, the president, CEO, or director–and a group of people who, in theory, work collectively rather than individually. The board hired you, and frankly, good, bad or indifferent, they have all the cookies.
So how do you know when it’s time to go? Here are some things to consider:
- I know it’s COVID, and just walking into your office sometimes feels like a challenge, but does your leadership position feed your soul? Challenge and change keep us agile and resilient. A job with the comfort of a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes doesn’t always demand your creative side. Instead, it makes you complacent. Are you ready for a change?
- Conversely, are you stressed beyond measure? Do you long, not just for time off, but time away? Are you out of ideas, and it’s affecting your health, making you impatient and cranky at the very moment when your organization needs patience and empathy?
- Does it feel like there’s a shadow museum happening without you? Do conversations end when you walk into a room? Are decisions you once would have been integral to now made without your input? Is your relationship with your board, once friendly and collaborative, now a long slog over egg shells?
- When was the last time your board completed performance review for you? Indifference is sometimes worse than dislike. If your board won’t put the energy into its relationship with you, what does that tell you?
- While this is mostly about you, consider how your unhappiness affects your team. Staff who work for an engaged–and presumably happy–leader are 59-percent more likely to be engaged themselves.
There is an old adage that it’s easier to get a new job when you’re already employed than when you’re not. That might mean resigning a leadership position at your peak or soon after rather resting on your laurels. This is a moment when, unlike so much in leadership, it IS truly about you, and your ability to move elsewhere depends on your self-awareness and your humility, as well as your ability to recognize that you’ve done as much as you can do.
Museum leadership isn’t a lifetime appointment. You challenge and change an organization and you move on. You know deep down if your job as museum director is no longer fulfilling, and you may suspect that there is someone–maybe even someone on your own staff–who might make a better leader than you are now as opposed to the person you were when you arrived. Some leaders look several times a year–not formally–but they do put the periscope up and look around. For some, that may be too disruptive, but it exercises a set of muscles that otherwise lie fallow.
In Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord Anne Ackerson and I talk about leadership as a journey rather than an end game. Remember Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and how he stresses “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn?” Leadership is learning. If you’re not learning or someone is hell bent on preventing your learning, it’s probably time to exit gracefully.
There is a scene in an old Woody Allen movie where Mr. Allen and a tall, chic woman sit on a bench in Central Park, and comment on everyone who walks by. No, it’s not nice, but years before the words implicit bias were everywhere, it highlights the social stereotyping taking place when we look at our fellow humans. Every day we process, consider and judge. That’s what humans do. This week I posted an article titled How Gender Stereotypes Can Kill a Woman’s Self Confidence on the Leadership Matters Facebook page. The reaction to it, like Mr. Allen’s pigeon-holing scene, underscored the contradictions of women and work.
As the article’s title suggests, there are a host of workplace stereotypes that women navigate from pay—yes, nothing has changed about the gender pay gap—to parenting, to being liked, to how we dress, to being angry. The question Anne Ackerson and I encountered time and again when writing, and then subsequently talking about Women in the Museum is should these stereotypes matter? Variations of this question include: Why should I be blamed for the way other people think about women? Why should I have to dress, marry or have children to meet some unnamed standard? And most complex, why should I tailor my behavior to comply with absurdist, Stepford-like assumptions about women?
There are plenty of folks who believe all the restrictions and stereotyping placed on women in the workplace is bunk, and shouldn’t matter. In a perfect world, that’s true. In a perfect world museum workplaces would be human-centered, and equitably paid. But I have news: We’re not there yet, and there are plenty of folks, whether trustees who grew up in another era, big time donors who live in gilded bubbles, earnest volunteers, or our colleagues, whose places in the enlightenment circle may be different than our own, but we work with them. We make decisions, we share common goals in running museums. Their lack of enlightenment may bother us more than them, and occasionally they say hurtful things. Sometimes their expectations, often built on stereotypes, are the polar opposite of ours, and when we don’t live up to those imagined stereotypes, we’re trapped. And sometimes punished.
So…is it important for museum women to know where the mine fields are? My answer is yes. Eleanor Roosevelt, who probably knew a bit about being stereotyped, wrote, “If someone betrays you once, it’s their fault; if they betray you twice, it’s your fault.” So the first time an older trustee says that a pretty little thing like you ought to be married or when your male colleagues interrupt your thoughts during a meeting or leave you to do the scut work while they engage in deep conversations, forgive yourself. It’s the first time, and maybe you didn’t see it coming. But be self-aware enough that if it happens again, you’ve thought it through and know how to react.
If you’re a woman leader, you have two issues: First to be aware of social stereotyping for yourself, and second, to model a nimble, human-centered workplace for your staff.
If you’re a leader, consider…
- Creating a value-driven workplace. Make your museum’s value statement widely available to visitors, staff and board so everyone understands there is an expected code of behavior on your campus.
- Keeping your HR policies up to date, and reading them periodically so you are current on how your organization confronts problem behavior.
- Being conscious of how gender plays out in staff meetings: Do men talk more than women? Do women allow men to talk more? Why? Because they’re weary and it’s easier to let men blather and then cut to the chase afterwards? Or because there are power differences and being silent is self protection?
- Remembering everyone is intersectional and few problems define themselves solely around gender. They may be overlaid with race, age, class, and looks or some horrible Gordian knot of many issues at once, so try not to reduce a problem to something too simple.
- If you’re concerned about a staff member, ask. Help your team members find ways to navigate a professional identity separate from the ways they may be stereotyped.
- As we know all too well, words matter, and it’s a hot second from what one person deems a harmless remark or a joke to another’s breaking point. Don’t let gender stereotyping hurt your team.
If you’re a women in a leadership position:
- Remember that you, like other women in your museum or heritage organization, likely don’t get paid equitably. Can you use your power and position to lead a pay equity audit?
- If you’re a parent, remember that studies show parents, including men, are further penalized salary-wise and reputation. If that’s you, how can you change the culture in your organization?
- Consider that women who are perceived as competent are frequently not liked. Be aware of the likability penalty you face.
- Women are penalized for being angry at work because it violates a stereotype. Studies show women are rewarded for being sad, but anger doesn’t gain them anything, and in many cases it penalizes them. How will you model navigating skills so your staff sees you as authentic, someone with real emotions, but not reap the anger penalty?
What stereotypes have you encountered? How have you dealt with them? And most importantly, what will help museum workplaces move from gendered to human-centered?
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking around. Lewis Carroll
Every leader out there knows some weeks are just not your week or as an old friend used to say, “Some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” I’ll just put this out there: a) What is life without irony? and b) How funny is it that after eight years of writing about leadership as a follower, now the shoe is on the other foot?
I understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a leader who can’t apologize or who can’t make decisions to save their soul. I’ve thought deeply about what it means to be bullied at work, to have your colleagues shun you because supposedly you can’t get along with the person who’s bullying you. But in those situations I was only responsible for myself. Leadership is different, right?. I know, duh?
As a leader I’m responsible not just for myself, but for my team, for their well being and professional growth at work. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: I have a team member who appears to collaborate, who appears to listen, who seems friendly and nice, but I’ve come to realize maybe what’s happening is more like a facade where credit is given, but where collaboration is absent. Why? Well maybe there are some control issues going on, maybe there is some insecurity, but I’m an interim leader not a psychologist, and all I know is absent real collaboration we don’t get a multiplicity of skills, voices, and creativity.
Let me pause and say that the work in question is good and in some instances very good. It’s brought our team attention, compliments, and respect. So what’s not to like? Well, sharing credit with your colleagues isn’t sharing ideas. And despite the rhetoric, it’s exclusionary. People are left out, and when they’re excluded often enough, they stop trying, which in a weird way fulfills the bias of the bossy team member who acts as though they weren’t good enough in the beginning. What makes a person want to do everything themselves? Why don’t they trust their colleagues? I don’t honestly know, but here’s the journey I’ve been on this week:
- First, I had to get my own feelings out of the way. I’m someone who would likely walk over broken glass to avoid out-and-out conflict, so there’s that. Sitting down to explore something negative isn’t my go-to place as follower or leader.
- I also had to figure out whether my distress was because another team member had been hurt or because my own ideas were being stone walled. That meant exploring this pattern of someone who says they’re happy to partner, but only if things are done their way, while making everyone else feel a teensy useless. Was I just cranky because my own ideas weren’t being applauded? The answer was maybe, until I realized this wasn’t about me. Projects and programs are outward facing, and in this case, the community needs to decide what’s useful, not an individual, and particularly not me.
- Next I had to talk about what was happening without making it personal, and hopefully to help our team member be not only self-aware, but socially aware, conscious of how their colleagues are feeling.
- Then there is that old saw, listening. Perhaps we all need periodic re-sets on whether we’re really listening or just waiting to speak.
- And last, as part of listening, to discover a way team members can identify their strengths so when they do collaborate, they contribute the best of their skillsets?
Change is a challenge, but it’s necessary to keep us all growing. There are too many days when like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts we’d like to say, “Off with your head,” rather than ask open-ended, thought provoking questions that create a safe space for creativity. But it is creativity we all need to move our team, program, museum or heritage organization out of mediocrity. So let’s play to our strengths, listen, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Who knows how we’ll transform.
P.S. In one final nod to the ongoing deaccession discussion, if you haven’t read Glen Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning in Apollo Magazine, read it. It’s beautifully expressed, thoughtful without being ranty, and it makes it clear deaccesioning is more than a binary choice of keep or sell. Done right it is thoughtful, nuanced and about the future, not an apology for a century of bad choices.