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.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?
It’s a new year. For many it’s a time of resolutions. Eating healthier, exercising more, seeing friends, meditation, top lists of things we hope to do. But how about work? And most particularly how about work in your museum or heritage organization? What’s on the list there? Well, everyone wants a raise, but here’s another thought: How about owning what you do? How about making your work matter to you and your organization?
My grandmother–a woman of enormous independence for someone raised at the turn-of-the-last century–used to describe particular individuals with a sigh and pronounce, “She’ll only go as far as she’s pushed.” Needless to say, this was not a compliment. What she valued were individuals who not only completed whatever was assigned, but went a step further, as opposed to humans who had to be corralled into work, completing it without an ounce of extra thought or energy.
Why do my grandmother’s thoughts matter? Because, like her, employers, even at museums and heritage organizations where the sense of urgency is sometimes absent, prefer proactive rather than reactive staff. There is a laziness–maybe born of anger or job dissatisfaction–that allows staff to say things like “That’s not my job,” or “She didn’t tell me to do that so I’m not doing it,” or “He’ll be angry if I go ahead, so better to wait.”
Yes, you may work for someone who is an epically bad communicator, but it’s your career that’s at stake here, not hers. And while you’re thinking about this, know that according to a recent study, a shocking 37-percent of managers have no clue what their staff is working on. That means more than a third of employees can be on a permanent coffee break as long as they appear to be engaged in some form of activity. So…if you work for an individual you suspect may have no clue about your day-to-day work life, much less your career, here are some things you may want to contemplate.
- If you don’t already have a standing appointment with your boss, make one.
- Outline your day, hour-to-hour, and quantify percentages so you (and your boss) can see how much of your time is spent on what.
- Talk about prioritizing. Maybe you do a lot of nice things–maybe you’re the person who cleans out the volunteer break room or restocks the education space–and it’s nice, but you’re underutilized. You do it because others don’t, but it means you’re not doing things nearer and dear to your heart or your job description. And if you’re underutilized, you may be busy, but you’re likely not happy or challenged.
- Evaluate whether you’re reactive or proactive. Talk with your boss about how that could or should change. Own your goals and push for them.
And if you’re a leader, think about:
- How you communicate. Are tasks poorly executed because what staff heard was mushy and confusing? Do you ever ask “Did I explain that well enough?”
- Listen to your staff. Watch for signs of distress. Is one job full of responsibility but no authority? Does everything have to be checked with a higher power–like you? Are other staff showing signs of boredom? Are deadlines met in five seconds?
- Check-in often. Remember, check-ins don’t have to be formal. You can check-in in the hall or an office doorway, but they need to be meaningful. You need to have the time to focus and remember what your last conversation was about.
- Set deadlines and keep them. Is there a sense they matter because it will take your staff about a nanosecond to realize if deadlines don’t matter to you, they don’t need to matter to them.
- Know whether your staff is challenged or not. A recent study by Salary.com showed that more than 50-percent of employees were either not challenged or bored at work so ask yourself whether you really know what’s going on.
Work can’t be a bowl of cherries every day, but presumably many of us picked the museum field because we love it. We love collections or collections care or exhibition design or research or brilliant social media or school groups. In a world where development departments work double time nobody should be bored, unchallenged or feel they can’t move forward on a given project because they don’t have the autonomy. It’s January and a natural time for change.
Make some. Start today.
Here are three vignettes I witnessed or heard about recently. See if you can figure out how they go together.
- At a quarterly board meeting, a member of the leadership team speaks to the board. His presentation follows the director’s. Asked how it went, he responds, “Great, they loved it, but you’ve got to give them hope.” Then he stops and says, “That guy (meaning the director) doesn’t know how to convey hope.”
- A team member completes a really big, really complex project. There is public acknowledgment from the director, the board, the press, colleagues. From her department leader? Radio silence.
- A staff member works for a difficult boss. She tries. It doesn’t get better. She tries some more. Going to work stinks. She’s diagnosed with cancer. She takes time off. She comes back. She sits down with the director and tells him she’s accepted another job. She says she has one perfect life and she’s not going to waste it with him.
Did you figure it out? To me these stories are all about leaders who put self before the institution, in other words the antithesis of servant leadership. What’s that? Well, there are books about it, but in a nutshell, servant leadership is a workplace philosophy that puts people first, where leaders serve others, and ultimately, everyone serves the institution. Servant leaders possess rare combinations of humility and courage. Innately, they know service results in success, just not the type of success often associated with go-getter, entrepreneurial, winner-take-all leaders.
What’s that got to do with the three mini-stories above? Everything. If you parse each case, you find a leader who put herself before the organization. Leaders who do that frequently aren’t hopeful. They can’t paint what authors Dan and Chip Heath call “destination postcards,” metaphors that make staff want to get in line and build a wing, finish a major exhibit, complete a fund drive. They can’t do that because in their minds, the future is theirs not the organization’s. It’s tied to “me” and my success as opposed to us and the museum’s success.
In the second story what kind of leader fails to acknowledge staff success except one who’s consummately self-involved? Ditto for the third narrative. Even though we’re missing the details we know in a field where jobs are hard to come by, leadership has to be truly awful before staff walk in and say they quit.
We can’t all be servant leaders. In fact, of the many leadership qualities, servant leadership is one of the hardest because it asks a leader not to be the center of attention. Instead, it puts staff and organization in the spotlight. It makes for a museum where director/staff relationships are strong, where staff know the director has their backs, and where there is always hope because collectively everyone serves the museum. Sounds like workplace heaven, right? Maybe. It’s not a panacea, but take a week and be intentional about the following:
- Standing behind your staff.
- Saying thank you.
- Listening. A lot.
- Acknowledge a diversity of opinions. And really listening to them.
- Modeling the behavior you want. If you wish staff would shut off lights in spaces not in use, do you do it yourself? Or do you just send emails asking others to do it?
- Mentoring, counseling, developing leadership in others.
Not your cup of tea? Tell us how you lead.
The museum workplace is full of feelings: Success–you got the grant; terror–the second floor bath really leaked and your insurance deductible is that high; delight–a child told you this was the best school trip ever; accomplishment–you might actually finish cataloging that collection; anticipation–the fall benefit is tomorrow. All these feelings and emotions connect to work, but you’re not a product of artificial intelligence. You arrive every day with your own jumble of emotions, and it’s the moment where these two paths cross that we need to think about.
You’ve heard that oft-mentioned workplace trope, “We’re like a family.” Maybe. Strong families are committed. They communicate well and regularly. They are resilient. They share values and belief systems. They like spending time together, and they are affectionate. Those are all good things, although not all are workplace appropriate. In addition, not everyone working in your museum or heritage organization comes from a healthy family. Some arrive with a host of baggage. Advertising the workplace as a family sets it up as a place that fills a host of unmet needs. Work quickly becomes a spot where individuals feel comfortable discussing their failed relationships, their children’s problems or less dramatically, a venue where they let go of the frustrations of modern life. And while some colleagues share too much, others don’t share at all, yet their silence says everything. They can’t focus, are absent or on the phone frequently. When the over-arching culture says “We’re family,” it’s hard for museum colleagues (and leaders) to separate the hum of personal drama from the day-to-day at work or to know what level of help or participation is appropriate.
Once, a boss I didn’t much care for, an individual who met alcoholism head-on so he knew a bit about controlling feelings, told me that the hardest thing about work is exercising restraint. At the time, I brushed it off, but it’s stayed forever embedded on my personal hard drive, a home truth about saying less. That’s true both as a leader and a follower. It’s a reminder to all of us to create a museum culture for the public AND for staff that is warm, embracing and empathetic, but at the same time clear that our first priority is the communities we serve and the objects, living things and buildings we care for. In other words, work is about work.
Not being like a family doesn’t mean museum leaders can’t or shouldn’t address staff’s problems when they interfere with work. But here’s a caveat: Do your homework first. If you have an HR department, consult them. Know what you can and cannot say, and what you can and cannot offer, and whether HR needs to be in the room when you speak to your employee. Too often people suffer through massive personal drama because they’re ashamed of what’s happening to them. If you don’t have an HR department, use resources in your community — perhaps through your Chamber of Commerce — to get the advice and counsel you need. Make sure you’ve documented the employee’s behavior so you’re not offering vague descriptions that only add to the misery. If inattention costs your organization something, be prepared to explain. Work toward:
- Creating a climate where staff aren’t afraid to say they need to press pause.
- In the event of a personal tragedy, make sure staff know who to talk to.
- Remember that accident, illness or broken relationships can happen to anyone. Don’t blame an employee for circumstances beyond her control.
- Separate legitimate tragedy from a staff member who uses the museum to shed emotional load.
- Work with HR and your board personnel committee to understand what alternatives you might offer–sick leave, FMLA, short-term disability–and know what those mean.
- Build a museum workplace that is warm and empathetic, yet focused on work.
Here is a simple truth: If you are a museum leader, you can tell your staff they’re a team any day of the week, but unless you make it mean something, the word “team” is just a random noun.
We think of teams as good things. They seem democratic. They flatten hierarchies. They bring people together. And, depending on how your museum or heritage organization defines victory, they’re sometimes winners. But if you have even a passing acquaintance with sports, you know some teams always deliver, and some never do, so it’s not about the name.
Recently I witnessed an incident where a department leader brought his team–his word not mine–together to plan a meeting of peer leaders. Although staff felt there was too little time to deliver a cohesive program, the leader wanted to push ahead. In the end, the event took place, and the leader ignored his team’s input, forgot to introduce or mention members of his staff, consistently interrupted others in their presentations, and made many believe they’d wasted brain power in planning for the event. Lesson one: Teams aren’t for everyone. As with so much in leadership, know yourself first. If teams and team work drive you crazy, you can opt out. We’ve all experienced the moment where–pick one–a board member, staff member, or volunteer misses a meeting and the chemistry changes. Discussion moves along. Decisions are made. Boxes are checked. If teamwork isn’t for you, let your staff plan. Go over the results with your assistant directors, make any changes you feel are necessary, and watch as they deliver the goods. Lesson two: Good teamwork, especially from the leader’s point of view, requires trust. Every time you authorize staff to act on your behalf, you say “I believe in you.” Say it enough, and they start to trust you.
Lesson three: If you’re going to lead a team, know where it’s going. In the scenario Leadership Matters observed, there was little understanding about why this presentation mattered, and if it did, why the team leader waited ’til the last minute to plan. If an event or grant application matters, be clear about why. Tell your colleagues why an event demands all-hands-on-deck, not because they’re dense, but because they deserve to hear it from you.
Teamwork doesn’t guarantee Nirvana. Productive teams often argue. Lesson four: Be prepared for push-back. Value your staff. Being willing to argue about something doesn’t automatically indicate staff hate each other (or you) or enjoy being disruptive. Instead, it may indicate they care about the museum and its programs. And yes, every team needs the one member who’s going to say the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because it makes everyone look at the question, project or event with new eyes.
Teams are about group, not individual, behavior. That’s why a soccer team practices drill after drill. Their individual skills are in service–literally–to the goal. Lesson five: If you’re a team leader, you have a role in helping the group do its best. That means for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s not about you. Instead, your role is to manage the team: To be positive and encouraging; To pull it back on task; To ask if things are clear and make sense; To make sure everyone understands their tasks; To ask the group to reflect on what they’ve done before pushing on to the next goal. And perhaps, most importantly, to decide what tasks are best left to individuals rather than the group.
Do you work in a museum where staff are referred to as a team? Is that a good or bad thing?
Guest Blogger: Kimberly Boice
Passion. noun \ˈpa-shən\: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.*
If you’re lucky, you possess some amount of passion for your work. The brain surgeon enjoys the challenge of human physiology, the teacher seeks to nurture curiosity, the museum curator aims to preserve that precious artifact. Passion is the catalyst that makes many people push themselves a bit farther to ensure that the patient is well, that the person understands, or that the object is accessible. It’s a privilege to feel strongly about one’s work and we should count ourselves lucky.
Many of us pursued a career in the museum field because we want to make a difference in how the general public learns and perceives history, science, art or some amazing combination of all those subjects. Our passion drives us to work late into the night, early in the morning, while off-duty, and for relatively little money or benefits. We somehow continue to do more things with fewer and fewer resources because we’re creative, caring people who possess a deep passion for our work and how it impacts the people who benefit from it.
Most days I love my work as a museum educator and I believe it’s apparent in what I produce. Yet supervisors, family, and friends remind me I’m fortunate to have my job as if I were unaware of the fact. They believe that we chose a career in this field knowing salaries often remain low for the majority of workers while many positions require experience beyond a four-year college degree and therefore larger debt. Although they are not wholly wrong, we have worked hard to achieve what we have. Passion does not pay the bills, nor does it make us immune to the hardships and complexities of day-to-day tasks. If anything, the emotional ties to the job make many of us endure on fumes for longer than we should, threatening to jeopardize our mental and physical health. Add to this strain, the fear of retribution in the workplace and the larger museum community for being too vocal about legitimate hardships and it’s no surprise that some choose to pursue alternative careers.
So where does all this leave us? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, finding yourself entirely burnt-out and/or in a toxic work environment is not good for anyone. You must decide if leaving the situation is a viable option for you and what that means in the short and long-term: can you relocate to a similar job elsewhere? Do you attempt to reinvent yourself for another type of work? Will returning to school make you the best hire? Should you take that promotion? Will you be the change you seek or simply suffer until retirement? How do you retain passion for the work while maintaining a good work/life balance? Is the passion enough to sustain you?
*Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary online, 12 March 2018
Kimberly Boice has worked professionally as a museum educator at an historic site since July 2003, although she began volunteering in the museum field as a teenager. Her passion for interpreting history often finds her working nights and weekends at her site and elsewhere, serving on committees and boards, and coordinating learning weekends for her fellow history enthusiasts as Mrs. Boice’s Historie Academie.