As COVID-19 moves across the country, every sector of the museum workforce feels the pandemic’s power from the still employed, but working from home, to the temporarily suspended, to the recently let go. Every day museums and historic sites announce closures and massive layoffs, leaving many to wonder how museums will recover. One sector not much has been written about is independent consultants. Not museum employees who consult sporadically, but the group who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.
Being a consultant means you need to take work when it’s offered because a month from now when your calendar opens up the offer may have evaporated. It means your rates need to account for your business expenses, Social Security benefits and health care. It means working from home, punctuated by travel is your normal. And it means your access to COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program is delayed ’til April 10. Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, we checked in with a group of consultants to see how they’re doing. Here are their voices:
First, a little news catch up: Philadelphia Museum of Art’s CEO Timothy Rub gathered his staff together last week to apparently apologize for the museum’s handling of Joshua Helmer and the allegations of sexual misconduct that dogged his PMA tenure. The event was closed to the press, but the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Rub gave a statement similar to his initial one, offering apologies, but seemingly scant indication that museum leadership understands the gravity of the situation. Clearly, there are moments in leadership where staff expects (and needs) action not the equivalent of hopes and prayers.
Also, if you haven’t read Robert Weisberg’s The Schrodinger’s Career of Working in Museums, you probably should. Weisberg works at the Metropolitan and his blog, Museum Human, is now in its second iteration. This particular post unpacks the shape- shifting world of museums where their public faces rarely echo behind the scenes behavior. If you’re having a dark day, you may want to temporarily skip this or at least follow it by reading Darren Walker’s The Hard Work of Hope, Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, and believe me if he had groupies, I would be one. Wise, warm, and honest, he’s the kind of true-north human we should all have in our lives. Read him whenever you can.
In a museum world where hierarchy continues to flatten, it’s likely someday soon you’ll be asked to work with individuals from another team, program or department. That may happen as part of a merger or because you’re tasked with a specific project. You will suddenly find yourself sitting around a table with people you barely know, charged with something big. A speedy exit isn’t an option. Instead, you need to figure out how to work together quickly and well. And inevitably, and because adulting isn’t that different from 8th-grade, one of the people sitting across from you will prove themselves to be challenging. They may be unreasonable, passive-aggressive or just plain mean. They may also be lazy–forcing you and your teammates to shoulder their work as well,—while they gab from the sidelines. What should you do?
- Remember why you’re there: A team project isn’t about you, your agenda or your individual quiver full of skills. It’s about group work and the task your museum or heritage organization gave you.
- Decide on team norms: These are the behaviors under which your group will operate. They can spell out something as granular as how long individuals should speak or address how to communicate respect and open-mindedness. When creating norms, don’t forget to outline how they’ll be used, and how you’ll hold each other accountable if lines are crossed.
- And what about the proverbial participant who feels its their job to stir things up? Don’t engage, and for goodness sake, don’t personalize what’s happening. Focus instead on moving forward and problem solving. Lead from where you are, and draw the conversation back to the subject at hand.
- There are people–and perhaps you know some–who take joy in arguing. It’s their love language. If an arguer ends up on your team, again, separate the personal from the work-related, and pick your battles. You’re not on a team to make everyone think like you. You’re on a team to create, to build, to solve a problem or set of problems.
- There’s a lot to the proverb about attracting more flies with honey than vinegar. Not to sound like your grandma, but manners matter. You and your team all want to be safe, seen and respected. That means listening, being on time, and treating everyone, even the individual you perceive as too unimaginative to function, with respect.
Do good work. Be kind. Create museum workplaces we’re all proud of.
Resources for Teams:
Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High- Performance Organization. Harvard Business Review Press. 2015 (Reprint Edition).
Image: The New York Times
Prompted by another lively discussion with our JHU students, I have been thinking about urgency. Not the fakey-wakey-I’m-so-stressed kind, but the this-really-matters-kind. I come from a long line of list-making people. People who perpetually arrive early, and for whom planning a complicated family event is as exciting as being with relatives. Urgency is in my DNA, but it has taken me decades to realize not everyone functions that way, and that life without lists or Google calendar isn’t everybody’s idea of hell.
Urgency is in fact a two lane road, one for your museum, and one for you. In the organizational lane are the billboards strategically placed by museum leadership that tell you where the organization’s going. They might say things like: “Collaborative Community Engagement” or “2020 is the Year of Women of Color.” In the personal lane urgency is sometimes a little mushier. The directional signs leaders post to help staff get from idea to reality aren’t available when it’s you by yourself with tasks that are sometimes boring, repetitive, or unclear. Sometimes you have to post your own signs: “Beware the swamp of never-ending cataloging” or “Gallery talks ahead.” And then there’s your own career. What role does urgency play when you know you’re in a mid-career slump? When you’ve actually outgrown your work, but the only person who knows it is you, and you’re avoiding thinking about it, and yet every day on the way to work the signs could read “Another Day at the Job that Bores You,” or “Have Fun Being Unappreciated.”
Urgency is what tells us something matters. And knowing something matters, and we’re part of it, is a key ingredient in what gets us up in the morning. If you go to work every day bored, sad or angry, those feelings have their own destructive kind of power. Here are 10 ways to put that urgency to work:
- Reflect on why you’re not happy at work. Is it the work itself? Is it the team you work with, the organization as a whole or is it something separate from work, that were you to land in museum nirvana, would still be with you?
- Try only thinking about yourself. When there’s actually a job on the table that’s more than a pipe dream, you can worry about finding an affordable rental, your aging parents, good school systems or the new intriguing human you just met.
- Give yourself a deadline to tweak your resume. Make sure it actually sounds like the person you are now. Make sure it reflects new skills and experiences along with your career wants and desires. And offer yourself a reward for a task completed.
- Ditto your LinkedIn page. (I know, really? But it is one of the ways 21st century people study one another.)
- Pull out your current job description and re-write it, not for your boss, for you. Make it read like the job you really want. Ponder how it’s different from the job you currently have.
- Talk about career moves with your kitchen cabinet, your posse, your group of colleagues dedicated to supporting one another while telling each other the truth. Once you share your game plan and enlist their support, the fact that you’re “looking” is in essence public. For some, having a group hold you accountable makes for progress.
- If sharing with a group puts you off, try working with a career buddy. Collaborate on resume writing and reading, for example, or share job descriptions. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes helps us see what we’re avoiding.
- When you’re commuting or waiting in the doctor’s office, scan the job lists. Look for language that makes you comfortable.
- Apply, apply, apply. What’s the worst that can happen? That you won’t hear anything? And that really is the worst because it’s a kind of neglect and unprofessionalism that in the age of algorithms and email is unforgivable.
- And don’t apply to anything that doesn’t at least list a salary range. There’s too much on your plate to worry about going down a rabbit hole to discover they can only pay minimum wage.
One of our 2019 Leadership Matters interviewees is Karen Carter. Carter is smart, dynamic, and co-founder of Canada’s Black Artists Networks Dialog. She told me, “I try to do a job interview every two years or so because it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised.” That’s Carter creating her own urgency. How will you create yours?
In the United States, this week is Thanksgiving. Many of us will gather with family and friends to eat, touch base, reflect and simply say thanks. In that spirit, thank you to all our readers in 153 countries around the world who share in this endeavor of being good leaders for museums and heritage organizations.
My program is searching for a director. As a result, we are currently led by an interim with many other responsibilities. That could have been an awful choice, but we’ve actually benefitted. Here’s why: He’s so busy his time with us must be efficiently managed. As a result, we have suddenly emerged from the meandering, Seinfeldian, nothingness of our former meetings to gatherings that are very focused and blissfully short.
According to the Harvard Business Review for-profit leaders spend up to 23 hours a week in meetings. How horrific is that?And when does anyone get any actual work done? Leadership Matters speaks frequently about the need for diverse voices around the staff table, for equitable discussion, for differing points of view, but how are your meetings discussions? Or are they simply audio book versions of someone’s to-do list?
We all want a better museum workplace, so here are Leadership Matters‘ 10 tips for better meetings:
- Know who needs to be in the room. Just because there are five or 10 people on your leadership team, does everyone need to meet every week?
- And speaking of weekly meetings, do you need them or does your meeting schedule date to some time before email? Consider experimenting with your meeting schedule.
- Make sure your meetings point forward not backward. Meetings are not an opportunity to rehash the week in minute detail. Looking back is helpful if you’re tweaking something to move forward.
- Agendas are like mini-strategic plans. The people around the table should know why they’re there and where they are going. That means crafting your agenda carefully.
- Meetings are not a stage. If leaders (or anyone else) hog the floor, staff cease to speak up. It’s that simple. And you end up talking to yourself.
- Meetings are an opportunity to be fully present. Unless someone on your museum staff is secretly hiding their career as a high-powered surgeon, there is likely no reason they can’t live without their phone for 40 to 60 minutes. Put a basket in the middle of the table or ask staff to turn their phones off and place them face down.
- Start and end on time. Be respectful of your staff’s time and their other obligations, and stick to the allotted time table. If you’re presenting anything that involves IT, for the love of God, set it up ahead of time and test it. No one wants to wait while you experiment with something that’s not working.
- Don’t expect staff to be creative just because you ask. If you want your colleagues to focus on a particular question or problem during a meeting, use a flipped classroom approach and send them whatever materials they need to prepare ahead of time.
- Staff isn’t family. I know there is a school of thought that says colleagues should be like family, but be mindful that’s not a sentiment shared by all staff. Birthdays and holidays or what staff did over vacation are probably better left in the break room.
- Learn to listen. If you’re a leader, you spend a lot of your workweek in your own head, thinking, questioning, moving organizational puzzle pieces around. You also likely move at a frantic pace. Use your meetings to touch base with colleagues. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t ask empty questions. Ask real ones. Listen to the answers, and welcome push back. At the end of the day, you all serve the same organization, and you all want it to be the best it can be.
Yours from meeting heaven,
This week I spent time with a consultant. She’s visited us before so we know her well. She’s wise and kind, but also direct. Her role is to provide us with a programatic review in preparation for hiring a new director in 2020. At one level it has a Fiddler on the Roof quality–you know, “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch–” but as with any possible hire, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation too.
Part of that work is to make sure we understand our job descriptions, and how they co-join, creating a strong program. In our conversation she pointed out something so simple I can’t believe I never thought about it. First, she said our job descriptions were empty, anemic things. Then she asked whether we felt valued. We hemmed and hawed, answering sort of and maybe. Bear in mind, there were only three of us in the room. We’re the happiest team members: we love our work; we work well together; we get stuff done, and yet, we struggled with this question. Then she tied the two ideas together, suggesting the former — our bland and formulaic job descriptions, coupled with a general miasma of misunderstanding over what we do and what we’re capable of — left us under-valued. Fortunately, we’re self-directed, confident, and like I said, happy, so the question of value hasn’t been a huge issue, and yet, once she drew our attention to it, it’s hard to un-see.
So all of you out there in museum land: What about your sense of value and self-worth? Who tells you you’re doing a good job? And when was the last time you read your job description? Was it just before your potentially useless annual review when you tried to figure out how far you strayed from the way your position was originally advertised?
As a leader you report to someone higher up even if it’s your board, and you certainly have people reporting to you. If you feel valued, and value those working for and with you, stop reading. If you’re not sure, before you eye roll and say something about leaders are not counselors and your employees’ self worth is their problem, think about this: hiring costs money as does training. People need value and meaning in their lives, and if they can’t find it in your museum, there may be a larger problem.
So if you’re a museum leader, consider the following:
- Make sure your goals and expectations are clear: Write them down and rank them. That way employees, especially front-line employees who are the museum’s public face, don’t have to choose between competing expectations.
- Build a culture that acknowledges good work: sometimes it’s a simple thank you; another day it’s cider doughnuts for the team; or maybe the salaried staff takes the hourly staff’s jobs for an afternoon for work well done. Find your own way to say what your staff does matters.
- Increase staff visibility: When you have the opportunity, toot your team’s horn. Talk about what they do and why it has value. And make sure everyone’s contribution is acknowledged at the completion of an exhibit, program or campaign.
- Consider what you can do: Workplace wellness is one of the top concerns cited in Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends survey of for-profit businesses, not to mention the numerous articles and posts in museum-related publications. Think about instituting an on-site health screening, a wellness challenge, or a paid hour a week of wellness time for employees to use. If museum leadership puts wellness on the table, that permits everyone to be concerned. Working a 12-hour day isn’t an option because–oh, you’re valued–and you need time away to re-charge and re-group.
And if you’re a staff member who’s under-appreciated:
- Talk to your boss. Does she know what you’re doing outside the lines of your job description? Bring your list of recent accomplishments. Does your job description need editing based on what you’re doing?
- This isn’t kindergarten and getting a gold star won’t give your work meaning. That comes from you. Carve out time for personal reflection, daily or weekly or even monthly. What went well? What gave you satisfaction? Pat yourself on the back when you get a win.
- Are your skills wasted? Is there a gap between your job description and your talents? If yes, talk to your boss. Maybe it’s time to alter your job description.
- And if not, know when it’s time to move on. People who love their work and their job, find meaning and value in what they do almost every day. There are a billion reasons to tell yourself you can’t change jobs. Do you tell yourself you should quit, but somehow looking for another job always moves to the bottom of the list? Figure out why, and then move toward something new and better.
In a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving when we gather with friends and family to say a collective thank you. Don’t wait ’til then. In fact, don’t wait. Tell your colleagues, your staff, and your board when they matter. Let them know they’re valued. Who knows maybe next time they’ll return the favor?
Once, a million years ago, I worked for a museum leader who liked all the office shades pulled to the exact same length. Hilarious, right? In the aggregate I think we understood the building looked better from the outside, but beneath that idea was an undertone of “Really?” and also “What if I like a lot of light?” and a thousand other petty questions. What we learned over time though was that the shade thing was a metaphor for so much more. It symbolized a level of micromanagement that limited us in ways we probably couldn’t even articulate. I certainly couldn’t. It made us intellectually lazy. Why should we waste brain power when the boss would and could think of everything? And if he hadn’t thought of it, it probably wasn’t worth thinking about. At least not at work.
But what if you’re a museum leader and control matters to you? You have high standards. You’ve always been a planner. It’s your love language? Your partner says that if you had to, you could move tanks across the EU. And the little things really irk you. When you walk by the ticket desk and you see a random iced coffee, when you see the interpretive staff chatting with teachers instead of students, when no one seems to have followed up on changes for restroom signage. None of your micro corrections are a bad thing, right? The museum looks better, functions better, and hopefully there’s a better visitor experience. But ask yourself? Are you the only one who’s thinking about these things? Have you asked?
Good leadership isn’t about perfection and control so much as it’s about empowerment and place. In other words, painful though it may be, it’s not about you. It’s about your team and your museum. But my site is known for its beauty and serenity you say, and it can’t be beautiful or serene if staff don’t put up the correct signs, keep coffee cups out of the way, and not use the galleries for gossip. If I don’t micromanage it won’t happen. Maybe, but what if you talk about how the public sees your site? Maybe you’d learn that your staff doesn’t see it your way? Maybe your visitors don’t either. Maybe coming to consensus regarding your museum’s vision means consensus regarding how it’s carried out.
If you’re a leader who’s micromanaging….
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Try and figure out what’s driving you to control the small things.
- Meet with your team(s) for conversation rather than reviewing to-do lists and reminding them what wasn’t done. Get to know them.
- Re-read your museum’s vision and values.
- Listen before judging.
If you’re a staff member who works for a micromanager…
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Have you let deadlines slip? Are you the only person getting the micromanaging treatment or is it global?
- Step up and stay ahead of her needs. By anticipating her anxieties you may build trust and start to alleviate her nit picking.
- Don’t take it personally, particularly if her behavior is the same everywhere. This is not the moment to be Joan of Arc on your white horse. Lead from behind instead and keep it about the work.
The best leaders empower their staff. They give them the tools to get where they need to go, have their backs if they hop a guard rail, and support them when they cross the finish line.
Uncertainty is a leadership hallmark. Museum leaders need to expect it, confront it, and cope with it. Control is almost impossible, especially when it comes to people, who are unpredictable at best. And who does a leader interact with most? That would be your staff.
Sometimes a leader tries to limit unpredictability with command and control. The result is a staff who rarely talks about anything, and if they do, they report and confirm, as opposed to think, wonder, or discuss. By endorsing what the leader says, they agree in public while dissenting in private, a dangerous combination. Thankfully, autocrats like that are increasingly rare. What’s more common is a leader who flees from dissension of any kind. But in today’s fractured world, conflict avoidance can leave a leader in a swamp of unresolved feelings, making change difficult if not impossible.
Conflict is uncomfortable. How many of you have experienced two staff members arguing? It feels both unpredictable and intimate, as if someone were under attack. And if you’re the leader, it may feel as though everyone else in the room wants you to step in and steer the team back to calmer waters. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they may never have participated in appropriate work conflict and they’re fearful that in the end it won’t be about the work, it’ll be about the individuals involved. And it might.
Learning to argue constructively takes time, so if you’re hopeful that a box of expensive Belgian chocolates will turn a disparate group, ages 24 to 75, into a cohesive team, think again. Healthy conflict begins with trust. Trust grows over time. As a leader you need to:
- Be open, honest, and transparent.
- Apologize when things go wrong and show some humility.
- When things go well, show some gratitude.
- Be consistent and equitable; don’t treat some staff as confidants while leaving others in the cold.
- Share information.
- Listen, don’t judge.
Allow your team to get to know one another. Again, trust in a group builds over time. It’s rarely accomplished by an afternoon hike or a potluck supper. There is a reason outdoor leadership programs frequently incorporate “highs and lows” into team building. By sharing a weekly low and a high, team members get to know one another and quietly build empathy and trust.
And just a reminder here, the bottom line is a better product. When team members are silenced, ideas are sidelined, and what comes to the table is underdeveloped, poorly thought out, and doesn’t include everyone’s thoughts. A team that can really talk about what matters at your museum builds a better museum. So begin by agreeing on communication rules:
- to speak respectfully to one another.
- to attend meetings, be on time, listen fully, and not interrupt.
- to agree on a method for conflict complaints and how they should be handled.
- to agree how decisions will be reached.
Then, grapple with the twin ideas that conflict is healthy, and that you don’t always need agreement. You need compromise, but believing and implicitly asking everyone to agree is a different scenario. Make sure your museum or heritage organization creates a culture of discussions. Ask (you can model this too) staff to back up statements with data and facts so change happens through what you know, not random anecdote or wishful thinking. And last, discussion is iterative. If you reach compromise on a program, exhibit or fund raiser, return to the compromise afterwards. Talk. Decide with hindsight what worked and what didn’t. Move forward.
Bottom line? Assume you hired the good guys. Assume they all want the best for your team, department or museum. Treat them and their ideas as if they matter. They do. Your reward will be a flowering of imagination and creativity. Run with that.