Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
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?
It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”
Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.
The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.
It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.
Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.
It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny. How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.
There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?
Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.
AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.
There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.
Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.
It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:
If you have no money and want to stay local:
- If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends. They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
- Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
- Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
- Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.
**If you have money and board support:
- Consider applying for a spot at the Getty Leadership Institute.
- Explore AASLH’s Leadership Institute or look at Jekyll Island Management Institute
- If you are an art museum person, don’t forget the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s low residency NYC program.
- If your museum is one of 20 art institutions chosen for a combined initiative in diversifying museum leadership you may be eligible to participate in one of the programs supported by the Ford and Walton Family foundations.
- Think about a graduate or certificate program, either locally or online in leadership or business which these days often encompasses leadership.
**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.
Last, but not least:
- If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.
Texas may not have originated the phrase “Go big or go home,” but it could have. It’s a big place, bigger than France. Last week Leadership Matters traveled to Houston for the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) annual meeting where we keynoted day two for 550 museum folk from all corners of the state.
None of that is particularly unusual. Both of us speak fairly frequently on either leadership or gender or both. What was odd (and gratifying) was that out of the approximately 65 state, regional or national museum service organizations, it is TAM who chose to make gender equity the focus of its 2018 meeting.
Here on the East Coast, mention Texas and you may get some eye rolling. Folks will tell you that Austin has great music or food, but then conversation may turn to the fact that it’s a place you’re allowed to carry your holstered handgun out in public. Then there’s the weather (hot), and the fact that it might not have any trees. And maybe in the minds of the Metropolitan Museum-going public, it might not have any museums. But it does. Big ones, uber-wealthy ones, tiny historic sites, and major history museums, all nurtured and supported by TAM. And it is the TAM board and staff who chose this year–the year of Post-Weinstein, #MeToo, and #TimesUp– to make gender equity the centerpiece of its meeting. (In 2017 TAM also launched a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series headlined by Chris Taylor from the Minnesota Historical Society so this isn’t its first foray into challenging workplace issues.)
How bold was this gender equity focus? Pretty bold. Bigger organizations might shy away. Gender equity–despite its relentless focus on closing the pay gap, a gap that according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is dramatically worse for Native and Latina women than for black women, and certainly for Asian or white women–has been the after-thought problem in the museum world for 45 years. And this in a year when data shows us that nationally 81-percent of women and 43-percent of men experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Some might say that the museum world, with its 46.7-percent female workforce, should sit up and pay attention. That’s how TAM felt, and that’s how we found ourselves speaking to a lunch-time audience in the Hyatt Regency.
Before we went, we launched a survey on Facebook to confirm (or bust) what we believed about gender equity in museums versus working in other job sectors in the United States. As of Sunday 625 humans had taken part. The survey is still open if you’d like to participate. What did we learn? That 62-percent of those folks say they’ve been discriminated against because of their gender. And more alarmingly, that 49-percent have experienced verbal and/or sexual harassment at work. What does this say about the museum field? Haven’t you all had enough? Texas is taking care of its own, but isn’t it time for more museum service agencies to follow the TAM model and stand up and say gender inequity is a bad thing?
Gender inequity is insidious. For women of color, it means a workplace that mixes racial bias with gender bias in ways that multiply the occasions for hurt, harassment and EEOC complaints. We’ll leave you with the same quote that ended our TAM speech. It’s from a participant in our recent survey who wrote,
“I feel like a second-class citizen.”
No one working in the museum world should feel like that. We have the power to make change. Let’s do it.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
April 10 was equal pay day for white women working in the museum world. That’s the day they make as much as their white, male colleagues did in 2017. For women of color, equal pay day arrives in August, for Native women, September, and almost 6 months later Latina women finally catch up. If you are an Asian woman, you arrive at equal pay day a month ahead of your white female colleagues.
We’re reporting on all of this, not to make you feel discouraged although it undoubtedly will. We understand that for many people–including many women–the whole topic of gender is exhausting. You are not alone.
Asked whether she was contemptuous of smart women, writer Susan Sontag snapped, “Where did you get that idea? At least half the intelligent people I’ve known have been women. I couldn’t be more sympathetic to women’s problems or more angry about women’s condition. But the anger is so old that in the day-to-day sense I don’t feel it. It seems to me the oldest story in the world.”
For many, it’s this sense of being on an endless loop, playing out decade after decade, that annoys some and discourages others. We’ve heard it all before. We’ve lived it. It makes us cranky, but then we feel like it’s time to let go and get on with life. And it’s difficult to sustain hope when women are frequently seen as a huge Oliver Twist chorus of “Please sir, I want some more.”
Except for museum staff who work for municipal, state or federal organizations where salaries are transparent and public, most of us have no idea whether a particular museum or heritage organization has closed its pay gap. Many institutions actively discourage conversation around salaries, and for a host of reasons, employees comply and avoid talking about how much they make. So unless you accidentally see the CFO’s salary spreadsheet or a colleague’s letter of agreement, you probably don’t know much.
The exception? If you’re the museum director. Then you likely have access to a lot of information, and precious few excuses for an inequitable pay scale. When was the last time you tracked salaries by race and gender for your board? How uncomfortable would it make you, knowing your organization pays a Latina woman significantly less than a black woman, and exponentially less than a white man all for doing the same job?
We hope you are uncomfortable because closing the pay gap is a problem the museum world can solve. And making the pay gap disappear is something any museum or heritage organization should be proud of. So here are five ways to make change so that in April 2019 when Equal Pay Day rolls around again, you can say “Done and dusted” and turn your attention elsewhere.
- If you’re an individual offered a new job, negotiate. Know what you need to make to live without constantly worrying. Ask for it.
- If you’re a museum leader, chart your staff by gender and race. If you lead a smaller organization, you may not have two staff members who do even close to the same thing. In that case, compare your staff salaries to the ones in AAM’s salary survey. Are yours better by gender, better overall or are there multiple issues?
- Bring your salary information to your board, but before you do, understand what salary equity says to staff members. It’s not just words, it’s an acknowledgement that everyone in the organization chart is equally important, not more prized because they’re white and male. Make sure your board understands how important closing the gap is. Across the board raises–were they offered–deepen wage equity rather than fixing it. Close the gap first.
- Consider the way your organization hires. Is the hiring process relatively bias free or not bias free at all? Learn what you can from AAM’s Hiring Bias Project.
- Recognize your own biases and leave them at the door. Know that when labor economists look at the wage gap, 38-percent of it can’t be explained, meaning it isn’t about training or choices. It’s about how people and their occupations are perceived. Do your part and make change where you can.