This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. How many of you did your due diligence, meeting with your constituencies and creating or revising mission statements for your museum or heritage organization? And when written, and everyone–trustees, staff, community, and volunteers– participated, did you feel a frisson of happiness that you’d done the right thing? That momentary sense of getting your organization where it should be?
Now, how many of you read the story about the Wayfair protests this week? Maybe, like me, you only know Wayfair as a business that clogs your email, one that apparently presumes you buy “home goods” as often as you buy groceries. But this week it made the news, and those of you who are leaders would do well to pay attention. In brief, Wayfair sold approximately $200,000-worth of beds to BCFS, a nonprofit, that supplies the Department of Health and Human Services’ border facilities for unaccompanied minors.
When Wayfair employees learned about the sale, they contacted management. Subsequently more than 500 employees signed a letter asking Wayfair to cease selling to BCFS and any other nonprofit doing business with border facilities. Wayfair leadership declined to stop the sale. In turn, hundreds of employees protested outside its Boston headquarters, garnering national news coverage. What was most interesting was hearing protesters repeat Wayfair’s mission statement, saying Wayfair should live up to the company promise that “everyone should live in a home they love.” One of the protesters added,“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations.”
If you’re eye-rolling here, think how this might translate to the sometimes staid world of museums and heritage organizations. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Remember last spring’s demonstrations at the Guggenheim, protesting donations from the Sackler family? Or the protest when MoMA honored a Bank of America CEO whose company funds private prisons, and the Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney? You may say, well that’s New York where there is more money and more activism than in your community. Maybe true. But for all the head-down, thumb-tapping, addictive qualities of the Internet, it’s also hugely democratizing. Protests, disagreements and opinions ignite quickly. In an hour your organization can move from every-day complacency to under siege. To add to that, a recent study tells us that staff just aren’t as cowed as they used to be. Employees, particularly Millennials are 48-percent more likely to be workplace activists than either Gen-Xers or Boomers. They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.
So how should you prepare and/or respond? Where are the chinks in the armor of your mission statement versus your organizational actions versus your board’s actions or your investment portfolio? Hint: the answer is not assuming it won’t happen. It might. And if you’re a leader, you need to prepare for praise and protest. Ask yourself:
- What’s your mission and does everyone understand it?
- Does your staff keep abreast with news in your community? If you haven’t already, for goodness sake follow Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening. Use their data and wisdom to help understand your community.
- Do you know your supporters and what they believe in?
- Think ahead. What steps might you take to ensure you have the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its mission? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization will react as a team.
- Has your board ever discussed whether there’s a line in the sand that would make it take a public stand?
- How would your board react to your staff participating in a protest? Of their own? With another organization?
- Is your organization able to react quickly? There’s little time to gather your peeps to strategize. If a board member’s caught in a personal or corporate scandal, if a staff member has a DUI or your organization accepts a gift from someone whose politics are at either end of a political spectrum, are you ready? Who’s your point person?
Last, know your organization, and make sure everyone else from trustees to volunteers does too. Know why it matters. If the community loves you, understand why because the more you’re loved, the higher a community’s expectations, and the more you have to lose.
Image: Members of Decolonize This Place and its supporters rally in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, Courtesy of Artsy.
I’ve been away from Leadership Matters for three weeks thanks to posts by Jackie Peterson and Anne Ackerson. So rested and relaxed, I’m back with a few things to say.
First, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the salary/gender controversy that started at AAM/NOLA and continues to percolate. It ignited with Kimberly Drew’s articulate, passionate, and bold keynote. If you missed it, you can read the whole speech here, but the lines below were important. For me, they speak not only to change, but to the dichotomy many of us live with: a field we love and are drawn to, but a workplace that disappoints as often as it pleases. The bold type is mine.
Another thing that really motivated me in my last two years at the Met was my salary. And not just my salary which is here in the middle, but also the outgoing salary of the person who had my job two years before I did, who also just so happened to be a white man, and why I never met that salary, ever, in my time at the Met.… Still very angry. That I could be doing this work to the best of my ability, showing up, showing out, but still there was just a very small margin that I, for whatever reason, was never worth.
In the wake of Drew’s remarks museum workers across North America (and now globally) created a Google Spreadsheet documenting their place of employment, and sharing salary information. Many also choose to include details of race and gender. By this weekend, roughly a month after AAM’s meeting and Drew’s speech, it numbers more than 2,500 people.
What’s the point? In a world where a graduate degree is de rigueur, and salary information shielded with uncommon zeal, this simple spreadsheet provides a chink in the walls erected around hiring practices, wages, race and gender. Unlike AAM’s own salary survey, which requires paid membership to use, this is free. Further, if you’ve dreamed of a position at a particular organization, you may be able to look it up by name, and discover what people in your line of work make.* In short, it matters because it provides knowledge for those without power. That’s important for anyone juggling the calculus of graduate school loans, trailing partners, mortgages, rent, children, and aging family members. Use it. Participate, and support one another.
And here’s something else: Since 2012 Anne Ackerson and I have preached the gospel of “anyone can be a leader,” also variously known as “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” While I believe in it, I’ve also struggled with it, but I couldn’t explain why except to say it’s harder than you think.
This week it hit me. Here’s my revelation: If everyone acts like a leader, everyone is being the best person they can be. You may be as far from the corner office, the flashy cocktail parties, and the trustees as it’s possible to be, but if you’re self-aware, understand the museum’s mission, take responsibility, demonstrate courage, act with imagination, and align your values and the museum’s, you’re a leader. Further, you’re a great follower.
Where this all goes to hell in a hand basket is when a layer of a museum’s leadership chart is weak. Then everyone below is constantly “leading up,” grappling with their own job description and their direct report’s responsibilities as well. That alone is debilitating. Moving forward with your own tasks–and the person’s you report to–is exhausting, but since you have no authority, it’s also tricky. Every day you stand on the tracks. Some days you hear a train in the distance. Other days, you see it. What’s your obligation? Do you move everyone out of danger or do you step out of the way and cover your ears? A poor metaphor, but you get the point. Check out the beauties of Nexus’ Layers of Leadership to see how iterative they are. What you need as an individual isn’t as nuanced a set of skills as those you need to be department leader, just as those competencies aren’t as sophisticated as the ones you’ll need for organizational leadership.
Don’t get me wrong: Staff should complement their leader, fill in where she’s weak and shore up areas she’s ignorant of, but they shouldn’t and they can’t be thinking big picture–where is the train on the track?–when their direct report is in the station having a latte. What can you do about weak stratification within a museum or heritage organization?
FROM THE TOP DOWN:
If you’re a trustee: What questions do you ask that get at organizational performance as opposed to staff performance? Do you ever chat with staff on their own turf?
If you’re a museum director: Have you ever had a 360-review? How often do you meet with staff, not just about the organizational to-do list, but about the way the list is accomplished? Do you delegate? And do you empower staff to run with an idea, not just a to-do list? How do you measure your staff’s people skills?
FROM THE BOTTOM UP:
If you’re staff: Try to understand your boss. If you know her and she trusts you, she’ll be more willing to let you help. Helping her will help you. Volunteer for stretch assignments. Be the person who gets stuff done without handholding and constant instruction. Use those successes to move forward. As hard, and as frustrating as it is, leave your judgement at home. You likely can’t change your leader, but a successful tenure at one organization may help you move toward a different position at a museum with stronger overall leadership, and one more aligned with your own values.
Do you find yourself leading up? If so, what strategies have worked for you?
*It’s wise to arm yourself with as much comparative salary information as you can find. That may require looking beyond what surveys exist for museums to the wider nonprofit sector and, in some cases, it may be prudent to examine for-profit salaries, as well. Online sites like Glassdoor and your state’s nonprofit association are two places to investigate.
We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.
That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.
But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).
If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.
Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:
- By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
- Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
- Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
- Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
- To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
- Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
- Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.
Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.
Anne W. Ackerson
California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.
National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”
Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.
Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.
One of the main reasons Joan and I first wrote Leadership Matters (2013) was because we saw a lack of emphasis on leadership training and development across the museum sector at a moment when museums needed more skilled, nuanced leadership. Also in 2013, McKinsey & Co. published the report, “What Social-Sector Leaders Need to Succeed,” noting “…chronic under-investment in leadership development within the U.S. social sector, accompanied by 25-percent growth in the number of nonprofit organizations in the past decade, has opened a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs.” Notice we’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about skills and abilities of those already in leadership roles.
Thankfully, the nonprofit “leadership deficit,” as it is known, is receiving a lot more attention. But finding solutions to addressing it remain elusive. This is due, in large part, I think, to a general misunderstanding that training leaders requires, first and foremost, time-consuming and expensive education. Many cultural nonprofits simply don’t have the financial resources or the bench strength to invest in it. And many funders don’t fund it, even though they may talk a good game about the importance of institutional capacity building (despite the fact that at the heart of an organization’s capacity is its leadership).
Excuses, however, mask a deeper issue: leadership training and development at any level is generally not seen as an investment in the health of the institution, either by board or staff leadership. The fact is, as Laura Otten of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University underscores, leadership training and development is an investment that “…won’t produce an immediate impact on mission fulfillment but will, down the road, produce a very big bang. To invest any amount in leadership development demands using money currently in hand, or asking for money not for mission-related programs but for investing in the future ability to do an even better job at deliver on mission promises.”
Investment in “leadership development takes courage but is the best investment a nonprofit can make,” advises James W. Shepard in his Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Leadership Development: Five Things Nonprofits Should Know.”
So, here’s the good news: the 70-20-10 model — a researched best practice that isn’t practiced much or enough. This practice allows nonprofits to make big leadership development improvements for FREE. The caveat, as so many things in nonprofit life, is commitment. The model suggests an institution steers 70-percent of its leadership development commitment toward devising challenging stretch assignments aimed at building leadership skills and knowledge; 20-percent of its commitment to structured and focused mentoring; and — get this — just 10-percent of its commitment to paying for coursework and training.
That’s right. If you see the need, understand the long-term value, and are willing to implement an in-house plan to develop leadership — even for yourself — you will move your organization far forward. All it takes is courage and commitment.
How will you embrace the 70-20-10 model at your institution? With the leadership development of your team? With your own leadership development?
Anne W. Ackerson
Image: Center for Creative Leadership (great source of leadership development information, BTW)
Image: Courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums
By Guest Blogger Jackie Peterson
(See Jackie’s bio below)
Prior to launching the independent consultant phase of my career, I coveted the experience my museum-employed colleagues had going to AAM’s annual meeting. I used to think how wonderful it must be to learn what’s happening across our field, to meet new colleagues, to explore museums in a new or favorite city. But since striking out on my own, it has become clear this experience is no longer for me. Here’s why:
COST: Having to cover all of my costs to attend a conference now directly impacts my revenue. I’m only a few years into building my independent practice, so I’m not raking in 6-figure projects (yet). So I’ve had to be incredibly strategic about how I devote my resources to professional development. Like many others, I can no longer justify the cost. For all AAM talks about equity and inclusion, the cost of attendance continues to rise without addressing how it affects attendance. I am no longer a member of AAM, so even registering early would have cost me $695. Add the flight and lodging, and that’s a minimum total of $1850 – this doesn’t include meals or other networking and evening events. The response is always “We’re doing what we can to offset costs by offering scholarships.” The reality is that AAM estimates that 5,000* people attended the conference this year, and yet less than 1 percent** of attendees received a scholarship. That’s not equitable. I’m not saying every attendee needs a scholarship, but there are barriers inherent in the general pricing and pricing structure of this conference that prevent so many from being able to attend.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: The Museum Expo is supposedly the largest generator of conference revenue, yet AAM continues to miss opportunities to be more equitable within this space. Rarely – if ever – have I seen AAM highlight vendors that are women-owned, LGBTQ+ – owned or POC-owned or any intersection therein. Like the overall conference, it seems like whoever can foot the bill gets to come. Yes, bringing in revenue is necessary, but surely there are ways to allow smaller businesses, especially local or regional vendors, to participate. To add to that, rarely does AAM advocate for local businesses (beyond museums) in the host city by providing attendees with that information and encouraging people to patronize them. This is information that is easily available from local chambers of commerce and other business organizations, and even easier for AAM to distribute. Every year, I continue to be disappointed by who appears in the Expo space, and who does not.
MEDIOCRE, STATUS QUO SESSION CONTENT: Very often I attend a session based on the program’s description (as many do) and find the content presented is much different than the description or the presenters just rattle off their latest professional achievements to a captive audience. On top of that, the same names and faces keep showing up. I spent some time combing through the presenters on the first full day of the conference (Monday, May 20). After some unscientific analysis, I found that of the 65 or so sessions that day (exclusive of those that took place in the Museum Expo), roughly nine had panelists that were 50-percent or more people of color. And a majority of the panelists (almost 75-percent) were managers, senior managers, department heads, directors or chief officers. Again, for all the talk of equity and inclusion, the conversations that happened that first day were led or facilitated by an overwhelmingly white group of people in senior positions. With some exceptions, this means the perspective on content being presented is very limited. And I am no longer interested in these kinds of conversations. It reinforces the idea that “leadership” is a position rather than a skillset that can be embodied and enacted at every level of an organization. More importantly, it limits opportunities for more junior staff and staff from underrepresented departments (security, facilities, maintenance, front-line visitor services staff) to engage more formally in field-wide conversations.
While I recognize that some of these issues are deeply systemic, many of them don’t require upending AAM as an organization to fix. Organizations like the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), and regional museum associations have already been making strides and taking measures to actively include people and keep conference content relevant, rather than simply posture. As a large organization, AAM is in a unique position to be the change, so to speak. But the more I witness personally and hear anecdotally from other colleagues, the more AAM seems to lack credibility and relevance to museum work.
Jackie Peterson is an independent exhibit developer, curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. She loves nothing more than working with museums to unearth and share their most meaningful – and more importantly, untold – stories.
Prior to establishing her independent practice, Jackie spent six years learning the museum trade at Ralph Appelbaum Associates in NYC. There, she served as a content coordinator and developer for a wide variety of projects from the NASCAR Hall of Fame to the S.E.A Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. She has always loved the intersection of public service, cultural institutions and education, and has landed in the exhibit design world in order to pursue this work.
Jackie currently serves on the steering committee for the Museums & Race initiative and on the Northwest Regional Council for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Once, a million years ago, I worked for a museum leader who liked all the office shades pulled to the exact same length. Hilarious, right? In the aggregate I think we understood the building looked better from the outside, but beneath that idea was an undertone of “Really?” and also “What if I like a lot of light?” and a thousand other petty questions. What we learned over time though was that the shade thing was a metaphor for so much more. It symbolized a level of micromanagement that limited us in ways we probably couldn’t even articulate. I certainly couldn’t. It made us intellectually lazy. Why should we waste brain power when the boss would and could think of everything? And if he hadn’t thought of it, it probably wasn’t worth thinking about. At least not at work.
But what if you’re a museum leader and control matters to you? You have high standards. You’ve always been a planner. It’s your love language? Your partner says that if you had to, you could move tanks across the EU. And the little things really irk you. When you walk by the ticket desk and you see a random iced coffee, when you see the interpretive staff chatting with teachers instead of students, when no one seems to have followed up on changes for restroom signage. None of your micro corrections are a bad thing, right? The museum looks better, functions better, and hopefully there’s a better visitor experience. But ask yourself? Are you the only one who’s thinking about these things? Have you asked?
Good leadership isn’t about perfection and control so much as it’s about empowerment and place. In other words, painful though it may be, it’s not about you. It’s about your team and your museum. But my site is known for its beauty and serenity you say, and it can’t be beautiful or serene if staff don’t put up the correct signs, keep coffee cups out of the way, and not use the galleries for gossip. If I don’t micromanage it won’t happen. Maybe, but what if you talk about how the public sees your site? Maybe you’d learn that your staff doesn’t see it your way? Maybe your visitors don’t either. Maybe coming to consensus regarding your museum’s vision means consensus regarding how it’s carried out.
If you’re a leader who’s micromanaging….
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Try and figure out what’s driving you to control the small things.
- Meet with your team(s) for conversation rather than reviewing to-do lists and reminding them what wasn’t done. Get to know them.
- Re-read your museum’s vision and values.
- Listen before judging.
If you’re a staff member who works for a micromanager…
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Have you let deadlines slip? Are you the only person getting the micromanaging treatment or is it global?
- Step up and stay ahead of her needs. By anticipating her anxieties you may build trust and start to alleviate her nit picking.
- Don’t take it personally, particularly if her behavior is the same everywhere. This is not the moment to be Joan of Arc on your white horse. Lead from behind instead and keep it about the work.
The best leaders empower their staff. They give them the tools to get where they need to go, have their backs if they hop a guard rail, and support them when they cross the finish line.
This weekend many of you began gathering in New Orleans for AAM’s Annual Meeting. Along with thousands of folks you know or wish you knew, you’re attending sessions, listening to keynoters, and networking like crazy. Hopefully, it will be the equivalent of pressing your brain’s re-set button, returning you to work energized and enlivened, with your creative juices flowing.
Creativity’s been on my mind lately. Last fall I completed work on a big exhibit. I work in a small shop, and it was the culmination of 24 months of conversations, research, zigs, zags, re-dos, and anxiety. In the end, thanks to my rock-star colleagues, it was awesome, and in many ways better than I imagined. And yet, since the show came down, I have found it hard to dig down and re-focus. Why am I telling you this? Because creativity isn’t an easy resource in the museum world’s rule-driven cosmos.
Granted, I do museum work in an academic setting, but some weeks the relentlessness of daily life overwhelms us. There’s no time to think, to putter, to experiment and, frankly, agendas, meetings, and their follow-ups aren’t necessarily fertile ground for creativity. Meetings are rooted firmly in the now; if they have hope, it’s that things will turn out right, meaning a successful event, program, exhibition, artist’s residency (you choose) will draw audiences that look big, busy and diverse in Instagram photos. And too often the monster of skepticism, as Frank Vagnone puts it in his recent blog post, takes over.
How many of you work for a truly creative individual or, if you’re a museum leader, how many of you work for a creative board? Whether you do or not, you may want to dig out Linda Norris’ and Rainey Tisdale’s book Creativity in Museum Practice. Published by the late Left Coast Press in 2014, it’s full of brilliant recipes for moving from mediocre to exceptional. One of my favorite pages is a little chart that compares creative and traditional leaders.
Not surprisingly, creative leaders lead in many of the ways we harp on in this blog every week. Creative leaders engage, they’re authentic, they experiment. They are hopeful. They understand how to hear criticism. The more traditional leader is (sigh) the sage on the stage who needs to be correct, both metaphorically and actually. She loves a harmonious workplace even if it’s at the expense of creativity and engagement. She asks for feedback, but staff learn it’s not something she knows what to do with. Her work is about sustaining things the way they’ve been. It doesn’t take staff long to learn that innovation is sloughed aside in favor of “getting the job done right.” What’s right? The least threatening way that still delivers results: Wonder Bread versus a fresh-baked brioche.
So what’s this magical, nurturing leader look like in real life? First, she often has her own creative practice whether she’s an artist, dancer or chef. She encourages collaboration and her staff knows it’s imagination and ideas she values, not just elbow grease. For her, product isn’t the end all and be all. Process is equally important. Why? Because that’s where the magic happens. If she were to create the perfect staff, the folks around her table would be a wildly diverse lot, who communicate well, who bat ideas back and forth, and who value collaboration over competition. Her team reads widely, and thinks in terms of metaphors, analogies, and stories.
Need to move the needle toward some creativity? Here are five things to try:
- Understand your museum or heritage organization’s bureaucracy. Know what happens to innovative ideas when they wend their way from the could-we stage to implementation. If competing constituencies deplete their innovative qualities, they are born shadows of themselves. Figure out how to protect ideas while they grow.
- Encourage imagination, discussion, and dissension at the staff table. Disagreement forces staff to identify the values and ideas that matter most.
- As the leader, you don’t need to be the source of all ideas. You need to be the gardener. Identify the viable ideas, and nurture them. Toss the weeds. Know when to connect ideas that echo one another.
- Provide intellectual challenge. Bored staff are boring.
- Play to your staff’s skills. Hint: That means you actually have to know them.
Yours for less mediocrity.