To start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.
My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.
Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.
On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.
So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?
- Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
- If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
- Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
- Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
- Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
- When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.
Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.
Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective
We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.
That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.
But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).
If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.
Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:
- By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
- Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
- Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
- Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
- To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
- Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
- Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.
Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.
Anne W. Ackerson
California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.
National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”
Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.
Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.
Last week a number of thought leaders–Margaret Middleton, Nina Simon, and Seema Rao–commented on an extraordinary piece that appeared in The Phoenix New Times. Titled “Nightmare at the Phoenix Art Museum: Docents are Fleeing, Donors Drying Up,” it details a confrontation between longtime docents and a museum director. Leaving aside the article’s gossipy style, it lays bare a whole host of issues about the 21st-century museum without really meaning to.
It’s a long article which you can find by clicking on The Phoenix New Times above. And just so you know, like many counterculture newspapers, the New Times began on a college campus in the wake of the Kent State tragedy. More recently it’s had notable and ongoing issues–including the arrest of its editors–resulting from its coverage of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff recently pardoned by President Trump. But back to the Phoenix Art Museum. In case you don’t have the patience to read a multi-page article about another museum’s woes, here are the highlights: Amada Cruz became director of the Phoenix Art Museum in 2014, replacing a longtime male director; the article also alleges that more than 100 of the docent staff have been fired or left, angered by the museum’s change in direction. The article suggests more than a dozen employees resigned as well as a result of Cruz’s leadership.
And before we go any further–some disclaimers. This is one article. We have no inside knowledge, nor do we pretend to, nor, might we add, are there multiple articles on this story. That said, if we get out of the weeds of she said, she said, what can we learn? First, Phoenix Art Museum is a perfect example of an organization hit hard by the 2008 recession that offered its directorship to a woman. This is not a bad thing. Women directors are scarce in the rarified air of budgets over $10 million. However, studies show that across the for-profit and the non-profit world, women are more likely to lead in times of crisis. Why? Is that the moment when boards of trustees believe a woman’s combination of soft skills and collaboration may actually be useful? Perhaps.
And don’t doubt for a moment that leadership and gender aren’t inextricably intwined. Boards come to the table just like the rest of us bringing the baggage of a lifetime–slights, jealousies, likes, dislikes–and, whether articulated or not, all of that comes to bear on their decision making. For more about the complexities of this issue, read Harvard Business Review’s “Why Are Women Discriminated Against in Hiring Decisions?”
Second, change is hard, and succeeding a longtime executive director is harder. (Phoenix Art Museum’s former director held the position for 32 years.) Unlike schools, some colleges, and many churches, few museums appoint interim directors to serve while the board, staff and volunteers grieve and get over the outgoing leader. And yet, boards and senior staff often forget how much change affects all staff, even volunteers.
Third, change at the top often brings staff turnover throughout an institution. Any time an executive director leaves, there’s reshuffling. Sometimes staff leaves with the outgoing director. Sometimes senior staff stay because of the director, but ultimately find her impending absence a motivator to find new positions, too. And sometimes the chemistry with the new director just isn’t there, and staff, especially senior staff who have a lot of contact with the ED, jump ship.
Last, volunteers are people. They may be treated like wallpaper in a large organization, but a highly-trained, well-organized volunteer corps is staff. They represent the organization on a day-to-day basis in front of the public. Whether it’s true or not, one of the things that comes across in the Phoenix Art Museum story is how ambushed the volunteers felt. Is it possible that a lack of transparency and poor or absent communication left them feeling as though their years of training and knowledge wasn’t applicable any more? If there was going to be a shift in emphasis from say the sage-on-the-stage approach to a more Museum-Hack-collaborative-method of gallery interpretation shouldn’t the volunteers have participated in the change? They are, after all, members not only of the workforce, but donors of time, and in many cases money, and a voice to be reckoned with. That doesn’t mean they call the shots, but inclusion means inclusion.
If your organization is going through a transition, think about:
- Communication. Communication. Communication. And remember, communication also includes listening. A lot of listening. And that may mean listening to people who are hugely upset and distressed.
- Channel your inner Heath Brother and “paint the destination postcard,” because change is easier when you know where you’re going.
- Prepare for change. Work with your staff to understand bias and how it intertwines and impacts change and leadership.
- Prepare a succession plan. According to AAM only 14-percent of AAM-accredited museums and 8-percent of non-AAM accredited museums have one. If you plan for natural disasters, you ought to plan for leadership transition.
- If you are a woman leader you probably already know you will be judged differently in your practice of leadership than a man. Know how that practice plays out.
Yours for healthy change and succession,