We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
We begin this week’s post with an invitation. For all of you traveling to Austin for AASLH’s annual meeting beginning September 6, we hope you will join us for “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” a panel discussion on women in the museum workplace. Moderated by Anne Ackerson with panelists Ilene Frank, Shakia Gullette, Wyona Lynch McWhite, and Jessica Phillips, this panel is for everyone across the history museum world who has experienced gender-related workplace issues. It’s for emerging professionals who’ve had to deal with sexual harassment; it’s for women of color, who deal daily with the intricate intersection of low pay and benign racism, and for leaders who handle complex personnel issues daily. Panels like this one can’t wave a magic wand and send you home to a changed workplace, but they can help you feel you’re not alone, and offer advice and encouragement.
So if you’re going to be in Austin, we hope we’ll see you September 7 at 1:45 pm. Anne and I will also be around afterwards if you want a copy of our new book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. We’ll even sign it for you!
Last week Artnet News ran an article titled “Is It Time for a Woman to Run the Metropolitan?” Their answer was a resounding yes, and just in case the Metropolitan’s interview list isn’t gender balanced, Artnet provided them with names of 11 stellar female candidates.
Leadership Matters would like to see the Metropolitan with a woman director too, but we’re going to go out on a limb here: The Met’s having a woman director is not the goal. The goal is equity in the hiring process. Frankly if the Met’s destiny is female leadership, history tells us now might be the moment. The museum has reorganized its leadership structure so that whoever becomes director will report to Daniel Weiss, President and COO. This “almost” position is a traditional spot for women. It is a place they frequently occupy in government museums, playing the role of task-oriented collaborator while the political appointee (often a white male) in the corner office is the performance based communicator. In addition, if you scan leadership positions in American museums, you will find that women are often hired to lead troubled organizations. Once they are off the respirator, they’re frequently handed back to a male leader.
Even though we wrote the book on women in the museum workplace, there’s something really depressing about parsing the leadership game by gender. In an equitable world we would assume that the Metropolitan’s top-five list might include women, people of color, and openly gay or queer candidates because we would assume that good leadership is good leadership. We would assume that as the country’s largest museum, the Metropolitan wants to lead by example. We would assume it incorporates blind screening into the hiring process, and that HR staff and board committees discussed how unintentional bias affects hiring. (They could learn a lot from AAM here.) Last, we would assume that the Metropolitan wants a professional with a proven track record and a particular skill set. This is very important for candidates who are not white males. Why? Because statistics show us that men are promoted on promise and potential while women are promoted on performance.
The bottom line? It would be awesome to see the Metropolitan join the Brooklyn Museum, giving us two organizations with budgets over $15,000, 000 with woman directors, but it’s the process we care more about. Changing lives for women leaders means museum workplace culture must change too, and that means boards need to be open, transparent, intentional, and as bias-free as possible in the hiring process. When it comes to hiring, boards need to recognize that what is paramount is the museum, not their private discomfort or uneasiness in the face of difference.
There is a trope in leadership literature that says you can learn from bad leaders just as you can from good ones . It’s cold comfort though when you are stuck in a soul-sucking job with a boss who doesn’t know how to lead. You find yourself raging or crying, lists full of things to do, but little authority to do them. You’re alternately placated or bullied so every workplace interaction is a walk over eggshells. In short, you’re so miserable it’s hard to learn anything until you’re safe in your next position where hindsight is a great teacher.
The vast majority of us watch events in Washington, D.C. from a distance, but it is possible to learn something about leadership just by observation. So, here Leadership Matters distills 10 lessons from the disruption and chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Planning really helps. Today’s museum leaders juggle an absurd number of plates. Having an agreed upon plan and policies is something board, staff and volunteers can support and depend on.
- It’s a given that museum leaders should surround themselves with the most talented team they can attract and afford. The lesson is listen to the talent. If they’re really so smart, if they really have particular areas of expertise, use it. Don’t make decisions without them.
- Check your biases at the door. If you secretly long for some stereotypical workplace where sparkling white women in tailored dresses laugh discreetly, while white men in expensive suits make weighty decisions, keep it to yourself. The world has changed. Join the 21st-century. Your organization needs a unifier, not a divider. Be the unifier.
- Deal with your anger somewhere else. We all get angry. As leaders, mostly we don’t show it, especially the personal, whiney variety.
- Respect social media. It’s a powerful thing. If you choose to ignore it, you’ll pay a price. If you choose to participate without a communications plan, you’ll pay a different price.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a good speaker or writer, have staff help you craft your remarks. The more important the event, the more important your remarks. Ditto if spreadsheets drive you to distraction. Staff can’t get you off the hook, but they can and will support you. Again, use their expertise.
- Respect your office. Understand on whose shoulders you stand, literally and metaphorically. Know the history of your organization, know its subject matter. Believe in it.
- Don’t take it personally. Being a leader means a lot of anger, complaint and crankiness floats in your direction. Pay scales to parking, health benefits to number of exhibitions, exhibit content to stock in the shop, it all comes back to you. Or rather to you as the executive director. Separate your emotions from your job.
- Be ready to apologize. You’re not perfect. Leaders who can’t apologize breed staffs who can’t trust, and bad karma abounds.
- Be kind. Yes, as a museum leader your plate is full, but you model the behavior you want in others. A warm, kind leader tends to attract a warm, kind staff. Not so kind leaders tend to attract different folks. Ask yourself–am I the person I want to work for?
The President’s post-Charlottesville remarks are a slow-burning fuse. AAM, AASLH, and many state arts councils have written responses. And this week the Committee on the Arts and Humanities walked off the job in protest. Leadership is tough enough without steering the ship of state into an ocean littered with anger and racism, a place where everyone feels entitled and emboldened to utter the first thought that comes to mind. And it’s an especially strange world where it’s possible to learn leadership by doing the opposite of what the 45th president does.
I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.
In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.
We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.
Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:
- Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
- Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
- Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
- Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
- Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.
This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.
As we predicted last week’s post generated some lively thoughts. Since not all our comments are posted on the blog itself, in the spirit of change coming from the bottom up, we thought we should share a comment with you. With the writer’s permission, here it is:
“I am in the process of writing a grant, or as we say, I am playing the hunger games. The request is for a FT staff position and the salary I am requesting is $33,000 plus health and life insurance, total compensation package approximately 40,000. I am requiring one year of experience (internships count), but I am not requiring an MA because I believe doing so has made our field less diverse and less equitable over the past 25 years. When I showed the job description and salary package to a colleague, her reaction was “Wow! That’s a lot of money.” When I explained that it was just over the soon to be minimum wage of $15 hr, she just said, “Oh.” We all need to stop thinking that an MA is required to work in a museum (or a library). We need to invest in the next generation, believe and act on the belief that less than minimum wage is unacceptable, for anyone.”
What would happen to the museum field if more people did this? No, one individual’s act won’t change the salary crisis, nor will it deal with the gender pay gap, but if even a quarter of museums opened their doors to newly minted college graduates, let them test the water, mentored them, advised them, would the field be worse off? Might it be more diverse as the writer suggests? Might emerging professionals be better off understanding the field a little bit before investing in graduate school?
Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum’s announcement last week. If you’ve been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone–the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings–monetizing the collection isn’t usually a board’s first or even second choice when it’s desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.” The Museum’s director responded in The New York Times by stating, “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”
What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell’s exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking?
But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It’s a museum. When current board members agreed to serve–and serve is an operative word– did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn’t matter?
This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.” Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words “executive branch” with the “America Alliance of Museums”? In other words, the Museum hasn’t done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field’s ethical boundaries.
While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby’s, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum’s pending sale seems like a train that’s not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there’s always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like “fiduciary” and “duty of care”? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM’s Pledge of Excellence or AAMD’s Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don’t operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field’s ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things–political office, for example–you can’t only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let’s do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us.
There is no question that museum salaries are the field’s third rail. Whenever they are mentioned here, we see a spike in readership and the number of comments. Museum directors tell us that if salaries go up, there’s no money for heating/cooling or the education department or exhibits or the institution’s digital presence. Or how about an organization’s crumbling infrastructure? After our July 10 post a reader wrote, that she felt the low salary issues were really a two-fold problem. On the one hand there’s salary equity within an institution. Her concern was directors whose salaries are out of proportion to the rest of the staff. Obviously if a director’s or CFO’s salaries are hugely inflated in comparison to other staff, that is a problem that needs the board’s attention, and the first issue might be getting them to understand this type of inequity is a problem. And speaking of salary inequities, don’t forget the gender salary gap, but more about that later.
The writer’s second point relates to the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument. Here’s what she wrote,” The other issue has to do with the limited overall funding available for running a museum (which could probably be expanded to most of the non-profit sector). Many (most?) museums are challenged to find additional sources for staff salaries since we are “overhead”, along with utilities, insurance, snow removal, etc., rather than programmatic activities (for which funds can more readily be obtained). I’m not sure what the solution to THAT is.”
You know this. You live with it. It is part and parcel of museum leadership in 2017. And we get it. We really do. But here’s a thought, not a judgement: Are there decisions that museum service organizations, boards and museum leaders could make over the long term leading to better salaries?
Let’s pause to note that Leadership Matters believes many small and medium sized museums don’t allow themselves to think long term. And by long term, we mean five to 10 years in the future. The reasons for that are likely complex, from poor trustee training, to dismissive attitudes toward museums and heritage organizations in general, to the risk-averse nature of many non-profit boards or an ingrained belief that a board’s role is to maintain status quo rather than to work for change. But the museum field’s salary problem demands long-term planning.
So what is the solution? There isn’t just one. The low salary problem grew over time, nurtured by the hierarchical nature of the field, and the museum world’s gentle tip towards a pink-collar workplace. The fact that a master’s degree is almost de riguer for employment brings a huge group of debt-ridden employees to museums every year. These factors make museums easiest for employees with second incomes–family money or high earning partners–creating a vicious circle where the wealthy stay on, while others leave. That may be a huge generalization, and many of you can point to exceptions, nonetheless, this is a complex problem involving race, class and gender. It took decades to create and it will take decades to undo. So here are some suggestions for change:
While who gets paid what is, at the highest level, a board thing, we believe it’s time for AAM and AASLH to step up to the plate. While AAM, AAMD, and the regional museum organizations have religiously collected salary data for decades, it’s largely a passive commitment. If you or your organization buy the survey, you may use it to your heart’s content, but isn’t it time for our national museum associations to follow the American Library Association and stipulate a minimum salary for museum professionals? The cynics among you may ask what good would that do? In the short term, precious little. Over the long term, however, a minimum salary for directors might give organizations pause before they hire a maid-of-all-work at $28,000, while allowing job applicants the courage to say no thank you, your position doesn’t meet the national association’s base salary.
Museums and heritage organizations have to be encouraged to endow positions. That isn’t something just for colleges or huge, wealthy organizations. What better way to acknowledge the importance of staff in keeping organizations alive and changing? Yes, it’s costly, but endowing positions frees up cash for other anxiety-provoking expenses.
Museums need to become the non-profit world’s leaders in addressing the gender pay gap. The salary gap is not a myth, but a real thing–look at AAMD’s report on salary equity and AAM’s newest salary survey–and is something every organization needs to address. What would happen if the museum field were known as the job sector that made women’s salaries equitable first? That means making sure all women’s salaries are equal since statistics show women of color and queer women don’t make as much as white women, and only then adjusting women’s salaries to meet men’s. How would that affect hiring and more importantly, retention?
Last, AAM, AASLH, AAMD, the regional service agencies, and the United States’ many museum boards have to support and encourage salary growth. From the accreditation process to the StEPs program, staff salaries and benefits have to matter in a visible, tangible way. Organizations should be open and transparent about staff turnover, about their ability to hire above their city’s Living Wage. Why? Because a well-paid, content, smart staff drive organizations forward. And that’s a cultural shift.
This is a problem for all of us. Let’s work for change.