We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.
This week I thought I would write a little bit about “process.” By process I mean the way we as individuals and groups work our way through something, whether it’s a project, a press release, a benefit, an exhibition. As leaders you’ve all been there. Not only do you have to bring whatever it is to fruition, you have to bring your staff along with you. Hopefully, along the way, you play to their strengths, engage them, light creative fires, and make something that is better than any one of you would have made alone.
But before we talk about process, a story. I spent my vacation in Maine in a tiny coastal town that is about as far from the state’s moniker of “the way life should be” as possible. It’s a town that never quite pulled itself out of the mess of 2008. There is too little work and there are too many houses for sale. In the center of the village, though, is the library, which shares space with the historical society. They are both housed in a handsome mid-nineteenth century house and have a huge group of volunteers who keep the place running. They are also in the middle of a $100,000 fund raising drive. Last week as part of that campaign, they held a pie sale. Here are the particulars: Volunteers bake pies and quiches. They deliver them to the library before 9 a.m. the morning of the sale and people like me spend $12 to $15 per pie. I have to assume that purchases are a bit of a gamble because all the bakers can’t be as good as the person who made the three-berry pie I bought. In any case, at the end of six hours they made almost $1,000.
I spent a lot of time at the Library around the pie sale, and it made me ponder the question of process. I learned that the volunteers scour tag sales throughout the year for pie dishes and that when you buy a pie the dish is included. I learned they buy personal size pizza boxes to put each pie in. I learned that the pie sale spawned a silent auction and an art sale.
All of this made me think about process, about the way, we as leaders and department heads, volunteers and board chairman, make something happen. Because I think too often what we forget, and we do it for the best possible reasons, is to begin with a vision statement. Why are we selling pies? And to make sure everyone has the same answer, which might be: To make a lot of money for our fund raising campaign. What needs to happen next, but often doesn’t is an outline to keep people moving from A to D and so on without wandering into the weeds of art sales and silent auctions. It might also help staff or volunteers save time. Maybe it isn’t necessary to scour tag sales for 11 months. Maybe there’s another way to get pie pans.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions at our Library, but merely to ask if part of your leadership mantra is clarity. Before you head into a meeting, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Do you deliver your vision clearly? Have you learned to pull staff back when in their enthusiasm they want to add the art sale to the pie sale? Can you curb their enthusiasm kindly while channeling it into pies? Is your staff used to tossing ideas in the air and batting them around? Are they kind when someone offers up an idea that seems a bit loony and out-of-the-box? To the best of your abilities, does everyone leave the room ready to take on their part of the project?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you and your staff are in a good place. And, I suspect, will sell a ton of pies. If not, think about the places where you stumble and go into the weeds. Is it during the delivery of the idea? Perhaps you think your ideas are clear as a bell, but they’re not. Are you someone who’d rather not direct the meeting too much and as a result it zigs and zags, before becoming a contest with pies as prizes? Or are you the leader who has trouble pulling staff back on track. It’s rough sometimes, but know you’re not the only one who is suffering. Colleagues all around the table are waiting for you to pull the group out of the ditch. You will not only get the project back on track, your staff will applaud in their heads, and as long as you are kind, the person who’s off-track will get over it.
Leaders don’t get a lot of rest. At least not at work. And as a leader, meetings are your time to shine. So next time you deliver the news about a project, event, exhibition, make sure you’re on track so your staff can follow. Remember, an unclouded vision spawns creativity, which leads to a great “to-do list,” which leads to a meaningful event or program or project. Good luck. And share your “pie stories” with us here at Leadership Matters.