Trying to Plan in the Unsettling of COVID 2.0

John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA – Chaotic Wave 2009, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64289851

I want to begin this post with a brief comment about this blog. It’s called Leadership Matters after my book with Anne Ackerson of the same name. If you’re a regular reader you know this blog isn’t only for people in leadership positions, nor is it written only for folks who believe in leader-modeled leadership. Instead, it is for humans who understand change begins with you, no matter where you are in the museum food chain or as Halla Tómasdóttir, former Icelandic presidential candidate put it, “”There’s a leader inside every single one of us, and our most important work in life is to release that leader.”

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Those of you who know me or who read this blog weekly, know I suffer from a bit of an organization streak. I love lists. The strikeout feature gives me chills. My love language is planning. I am happiest when it feels like the future is laid out, and might actually move according to plan.

In the workplace, these attributes sometimes win you kudos because you appear organized and forward thinking. In some cases that may be true. You finish the project on time. You come in under budget. You don’t drive your colleagues mad by changing your mind every few seconds and never having a plan. You are orderly. You may be this person or you may know this person. If so, you should have no trouble imagining what COVID has done to them, myself included, because COVID is the great unsettler.

I have two exhibits waiting in the wings. One which focuses on generosity and justice, with a nod to Darren Walker, and another explores the color blue as mood, hue or symbol through the work of 24 contemporary artists. Needless to say, COVID lurks in the background of both like a fault in the earth’s plates. From paint, to plexiglass, to gas prices, to the very presence of other humans–And what artist doesn’t want or expect an audience for their work?–to staffing, there’s literally nothing COVID hasn’t messed with. If you’re a planner, COVID redefines the word disruptive. You find yourself planning not just for one future, but for many. If this happens, I will do this, but if something else transpires, I need to do that.

The Generosity and Justice exhibit was supposed to follow our school community’s Martin Luther King Day activities. The day, traditionally one of no classes, dedicated to exploring the man, his mission, and Black culture as a whole, was derailed by a post-winter-break quarantine. Changing a date in the age of COVID means working around completely unreliable schedules because thanks to the Omicron variant, at any moment one or more staff could test positive while not feeling actually sick. So what do you do? You plan for all the possibilities you can imagine, and the future becomes not a path ahead, but a hydra headed beast.

I think we’re way past the age of the hero leader, the lone individual who works everything out in the sanctity of her office before sharing decisions with her staff. Successful museum leaders in the age of COVID are the ones who say “I help lead the blah de blah Museum,” not “I run the Blah de Blah.” In a world that’s continually changing no single human can master everything they need to know. They depend on a team to navigate the volatile nature of the pandemic world. So what does that mean for people like me who adore planning for the future, and really love having those plans work out? I think it means:

  • Living firmly in the present because no matter how much you want the future to comply with your wishes it likely won’t. I mean did we ever think there would be a time when our loved ones could be hospitalized and die without our being there?
  • Working to protect our teams so they feel safe.
  • Working with our teams, creating a variety of answers to every problem so we can pivot, maybe not happily, but easily, knowing there isn’t one path, but several.
  • Acknowledge our mistakes speedily and publicly to earn trust and thus increase colleague’s feelings of safety.

And for those, like me, who live for checking the box, living a little more in the present, with all its possibilities, might not be the worst thing.

Be well, get boostered, keep your colleagues safe, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Taking Grief to Work 2.0

So it’s been a few weeks, in fact, almost a month since I last wrote. I like to think that if this blog has any redeeming qualities, one is consistency. So apologies for the radio silence. These pages were never meant to be self-revelatory. They were created to support the publication of both editions of Leadership Matters (2013 and 2019), and as such, be a springboard for the discussion of all things leader-like in museum land. But sometimes life just comes at you, slamming you in the face with your own worst thing. And that’s what happened to me. The specifics don’t matter so much except to say of the several cataclysmic things that can happen in a lifetime, this was one.

My experience made me think of what Lisa Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum, said in her Leadership Matters interview. When I asked her about work/life balance, her response was pure Lisa Lee. She underscored that siloing our energy and thoughts isn’t productive, that our lives aren’t binary, meaning work versus home. She added “At the museum we pretend we’re not grappling with other issues, but we’re human beings all day.” That seemed like an important statement to me when I heard it the first time, and equally important today as I prepare to return to work. I can’t shut off my grief the moment I walk into my office or my first meeting. I have to look it in the face, carry it with me, and move forward.

One of my “sheroes” is Brené Brown. Her short film on the difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty stellar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, because all good leaders should understand that what you say isn’t as important as simply being present and reminding the person who’s hurt that you recognize pain, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, and you’re by their side. And it isn’t about you. Nothing is worse than a hurting colleague comforting the comforter. Nor is there some unwritten scale of dire events that ranks human reaction. It’s not a worst experience contest. As a leader, your job is to respect what happened to your colleague and empathize, not weigh a pet death versus chemotherapy or a car accident. Life is hard, and we all meet challenges differently.

Brené Brown always says presence trumps perfection. There is nothing about being a museum leader that makes you a people fixer, so don’t try. Today a colleague asked if she could stop by, and when I said yes, she simply wanted to tell me she was there for me–big or small–lunch companion, after-work walk, chair to sit and rant in. It was incredibly kind, and my only job was to realize she’s on my side. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that this colleague is someone I can trust because she’s willing to sit with me at my lowest. I know I can go to her office and weep if I need to, and she will share the space, metaphorically and actually.

The American workplace, which is the only workplace I know even a little about, is not a place where emotions are on parade. We’re not supposed to yell (well, men can, but that’s another post), nor are we supposed to cry (especially if we’re women), because crying means you’re emotional which is sometimes code for hormonal or menopausal which is definitely bad or wait, maybe just human? Sometimes checking our emotions at the door, and locking up our grief just isn’t possible because, as Lisa Lee reminds us, we’re human.

So 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this post. Maybe I would have suggested that we need to button up those emotions, park them at the door, and just get on with it. But in a world of climate change, systemic racism, pandemic fears, and gender discrimination, not to mention all the bad stuff that besets us individually, I don’t think that’s the workplace any of us want to work in any more. We need to know we can be our real selves–or at least as real as we choose to reveal–because it’s only in environments where trust flourishes that we, whether leaders or staff, feel safe, seen and supported.

Be well and be kind.

Joan Baldwin


Workplace Trust in the Age of COVID

Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon Many Hands, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40058042

Every fall Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in museum leadership for Johns Hopkins University. It’s online and asynchronous so for much of the semester we know our students only through class discussion. Towards the end, though, they’re asked to create a career development plan. That’s the moment I frequently feel guilty because we discover how far some of them are stretched. They’re working, going to graduate school, taking care of parents, parenting children, coping with illness, looking for jobs and dealing with unexpected expenses. And, of course, there’s COVID.

I have been thinking about that experience of leadership–because what is teaching but another form of leadership–and how important it is to create a sense of trust, while at the same time maintaining a balance between personal and professional, friendliness and friendship. Feeling safe, seen and supported is key to a well functioning team, but where is the line between personal and workplace? And how much is too much? Where is the line between supportive and hovering?

I once had a colleague who completed a complicated divorce, at work, on the phone, sitting six feet from me. Every day she would settle in, turn on her computer, give every appearance of working, and then the phone calls would begin, endless, whispery dialogues about how to untangle a marriage. I suppose it was a compliment that she allowed me enough to hear so many intimate details, but that’s not the kind of trust that builds a team. Context helps, but only when it speaks to character. And I don’t know about you, but when your team is on a screen, trust building is a challenge.

When you Google workplace trust you get 265,000,000 results, and that’s just the articles. Put the articles end to end and they’d stretch half way around the world. Clearly we all think it’s important, and yet when the rubber hits the road, how it’s implemented is a different kettle of fish. In 2019 Amy Jen Su wrote Do You Really Trust Your Team (And Do They Trust You?) for Harvard Business Review. Su identifies four areas where trust can be wonky in the workplace: Whether you trust your team’s ability to perform; whether you trust their judgement, meaning do they bring good judgement to questions besetting your museum or heritage organization? Do you trust your team to represent you and your museum? Su argues answers to these questions are more data driven and less subjective than the last group which reflect “softer” more subjective behaviors like discretion. For example, being transparent is a big deal in leadership at the moment, but it’s hard to be transparent if you don’t trust your team to be discrete. Su also asks whether you trust your team to keep each other safe, meaning can they argue without plunging into a non-speaking marathon? Do they tolerate bullying? Are they kind and appreciative of one another? She also asks leaders whether they actually create teams from across the organization to manage projects, arguing that working collectively connects us to our organization, which in turn, builds trust.

What was interesting to me about Su’s approach was that it points out in a quiet, firm way how much individual behavior affects a group. If, deep down, you don’t believe your team has what it takes to make a presentation to the board, you’re going to hover, micro-manage and potentially destroy whatever confidence they bring to a nerve-wracking experience. You control your behavior. Taking care of that first, avoids pigeon-holing your colleagues as not quite capable. For more on the architecture of building trust, you might also enjoy Brene Brown’s Seven Elements of Trust.

This winter my team is working with an experiential educator in a series of guided workshops to help us get to know one another better. When COVID arrived, some of us had a long institutional history while some were still in a learning curve. Quarantine, masks and Zoom don’t exactly break down barriers so our team building workshops provide ways to learn about one another that will hopefully lead to more confidence (and trust) as we move forward. For me though, as important as the workshops have been, working together to create a number of successful projects was equally important. Moving from idea to discussion, experimentation to implementation asks each of us–no matter where we are in the hierarchy– to give and to get, to control and let go, to be the leader and be the follower.

How do you build trust?

Joan Baldwin