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
It’s Memorial Day weekend. It’s Wild Bill Hickok’s birthday. And it’s definitely not a beach day here in the northeast. With some gray days ahead, we thought about this blog. The last several Leadership Matters posts tackled our impressions of AAM, organizational DNA, and diversity vs. salary. This week we return to the workplace, and more specifically the meeting.
I work in a large organization. Embedded in its institutional DNA is the need to meet. We do a lot of meeting. We meet in pairs. We meet in groups, Charged with solving a problem, we meet regularly over long periods of time. Occasionally these meetings are sprightly; many are not. Some of our meetings are scheduled weeks, even months in advance. If your organization schedules far ahead, make sure meetings can be canceled if there’s no need to meet. Going to a meeting just because it’s on the calendar to listen to colleagues banter about nothing is its own special hell.
And for those of you charged with managing meetings, here are six ways to make your meetings better:
- Use the flipped classroom method: If you want to make sure everyone’s on the same page, provide a reading the day before. This is not a graduate level course, so make it pithy and brief. Don’t ask people to read something only to neglect it the next day. Use it as a catalyst for discussion. And while you’re sending things out, send out your agenda. This will help organize your thoughts and objectives.
- And speaking of your agenda, stick to it: This may seem self-evident, but how many of us have been in meetings where the agenda is something to doodle on or worse, talking points for the meeting leader who never, ever shuts up except to ask if anyone has any questions. Few do.
- Tell people where you want to go: This is different from an agenda. Your agenda contains discussion points, your objective is what you want to accomplish. You can’t blame staff for not getting things done if you don’t tell them what they need to do.
- Don’t ask for discussion if your mind is already made up: Being in a meeting where it’s clear the leader has pre-digested all the information and only wants an audience of eager handmaidens wastes everyone’s time. It’s also disrespectful. Don’t be that leader. Instead….
- Encourage debate: We’ve talked about this a lot on these pages. Debate and discussion are healthy. Your staff, team or department (and you, the leader) need to know that discussion doesn’t equal hostility, that all voices have value, and help make a better collective concept. Take a page from Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, who reputedly asks staff to argue two opposing points.
- Leave with an action plan: Meetings that end without an action plan are worthless. Staff should understand what they accomplished, where they need to go next, and what is expected of them.
Last, as a leader, the main thing you can do in a meeting is shut-up. JUST LISTEN. Keep discussion on point and moving forward, but for goodness sakes, don’t pontificate. You will learn a lot. In the meantime, you will demonstrate respect for your colleague’s ideas, foster healthy debate, and hopefully leave with a feeling of accomplishment. You hired smart staff, right? Well, point them in the right direction and let creativity happen.
Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.
Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.
There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done. How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.
Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.
- Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
- Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
- Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
- Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or full staff?
- Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?
Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.
Dear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,
Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.
A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.
Articles and Short Reads:
42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.
Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.
Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.
Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.
When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.
How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.
Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey. This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.
The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign
And to Listen to:
Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.
SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.