Recently Zélie Lewis wrote a piece for Mike Murawski’s blog, Art Museum Teaching, titled What Am I Supposed to Do Now? In it, Lewis wrote about how COVID-19 affected not only her personal life, but the last semester of her museum studies master’s program, and, most importantly, her future. From my place in a chapter far ahead, safely working from home, reading it was uncomfortable, but it made me think. Again and again, I went over what advice I would offer Lewis if she were one of my own students, faced with finishing graduate school at the very moment the museum field plunges into the toilet along with the economy.
So, to Zélie Lewis and museum studies graduate students everywhere, here goes: Some of what I offer is cold comfort, in part because we have so little control over a vast, ever-changing situation, but also because I’m not walking in your shoes. That said, my first thought is congratulations, and also thanks. Congratulations on joining the 8-percent of the United States’ population with master’s degrees. Thank you for wanting to join the museum field. And thank you for assuming the potential debt necessary to get the degree considered the field’s admission ticket. In normal circumstances, you’d undoubtedly have a bright future. And you may yet.
Don’t forget the hard work you’ve done, but remember to put it in context. Your degree is more than a quid pro quo, permitting you to apply for jobs you couldn’t before. It is, hopefully, a set of skills and ways of thinking. You planned on being a museum educator. You know how to use an object, a painting, a document as a lens for learning. Those skills are useful beyond the museum world. You also write clearly. That’s an accomplishment too few possess. As a museum educator you know the world isn’t siloed. Each object, each artwork, each Tweet, each Instagram holds connections you have the ability to parse. You are an educator and you teach experientially. You planned to do that in a museum, but you don’t have to. You’re probably armed with skills you haven’t even tried to use yet. Believe in them. Understand them. And don’t let anyone define who you are. Do that for yourself. Remember what James Baldwin wrote: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”
Life comes at us all fast, and despite what you read, only a few, lucky souls have a straight shot at the career they imagine. For most of us, and particularly for women, our work lives zig and zag. The job we thought was nirvana wasn’t. We fall in love; we break apart. We follow a partner somewhere and start again. Our parents fall ill and need us. We go back to school (again). We have a child. What’s different now is your pain isn’t only yours, it’s echoed everywhere. There are a thousand stories on the news every day to make you sadder and more disheartened then you already are. But if the worst that happens to you is a delay in your career trajectory, count yourself lucky.
Don’t hold too tight to your dream. Be open to change. Being agile and adaptable is a building block of leadership. If need be, consider this an in-between period, a coda between graduate school and your future life, a time when you change your definition of success. Make the best career choices you can. Utilize your skills. No matter what you end up doing in the post-COVID chapter, you’re still a person with a graduate degree.
Be patient. I know. Easy for me to say, but sometimes doors open and we need to step through even though it doesn’t seem appropriate at the time. It may be months or even decades before the pieces fit and you understand what was asked of you.
Even though you may find work perhaps outside of museums, try to stay engaged with the field. Who do you know? Who is your kitchen cabinet or your peer group? How often do you meet with them? Are they capable of giving you clear, unvarnished advice? Are they just enough ahead of you career-wise to have contacts you don’t have? Are they capable of helping you get a mentor if you don’t have one or need a new one? Just because the train is stuck in the station doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out for advice and support.
Adulthood, like leadership, isn’t a plateau we reach, it’s a place we grow into through the tough work of deliberation and reflection. And while you don’t have complete control–who does? We’re in a pandemic–you still have choices. So while I wish we could wave a magic wand and put the world back to the way it was six weeks ago, we can’t. We’re hunkered down in pause. It may take more than a year for museums to sort themselves out, and who knows what our field and our graduate programs will look like post-pandemic. In 2019, women made up 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. Post-COVID, that number will undoubtedly change because while women occupy half the jobs, they cluster in departments–like education–that have already been decimated by layoffs. One thing we can be sure of: The museum world we return to will be forever changed. So write down, not the courses you took, but the skills you learned. Think about the paths open to someone with your competencies. Think about how you will pay the bills. Put your support group together. Revise your resume. Be ready for whatever comes.
Last, and this is for your life decades from now: Remember the spring of 2020. Remember you were the COVID-generation. Remember, what it felt like, and don’t judge the generations coming after you. If and when you get the position you want, be kind. Reach back. Help those who follow you.
To Zélie Lewis and the classes of 2020 at museum studies programs, be safe, stay well and do good work. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the field is counting on you.
Image: Jeppe Hein
Here in the United States we’ve entered the time of year known as “The Holidays,” a mash-up of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and Santa Claus that stretches from Halloween to after New Year’s Day. For many museum folk it’s an action-packed time of year. Will the annual appeal prove how much people love our organization? Will the various holiday parties yield new community connections? How much will the board cut the proposed budget? Will you get that foundation grant? There’s a lot. And that’s just work. This is also a time of year for family. Little children are permanently excited, bigger children exhausted from finishing exams and college applications, and adult children torn between wanting to come home and not wanting to come home. And there you are caught in the middle, again.
It’s definitely time for a little self-care. I’m about to make a completely non-scientific statement and say that in general museum staff are willing to sacrifice a lot for work. As a job sector we arrive early, stay late, and work from home, all while being paid less than we deserve. In 2016 Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance for Museums, wrote an article called The Museum Sacrifice Measure, which I consider one of the best and most interesting pieces of writing about the museum workplace ever. If you haven’t read it, you should. And even though the field has changed infinitesimally in the last several years, much of what Merritt suggests is still true. That we’re a field with high bars–an expensive graduate degree, unpaid internships and time-consuming volunteer jobs, and an oversupply of overqualified people who are by and large underpaid. Those characteristics, Merritt says, sometimes make us entitled, stubborn and resistant to change. I would argue they also make us a teensy bit masochistic.
So before you agree to work both the fundraiser and the day after Christmas, not because you want to, but because you can, think about yourself for just a tiny second.
Are you getting enough sleep? The Centers for Disease Control reports that one third of us get less than the recommended seven hours per night. If you are parenting a small human there may be a reason for that, but if you’re not, what can you do to get more sleep? Lack of sleep impairs brain function, concentration and productivity, all of which you use at work. Skip Netflix. Try going to bed an hour earlier.
When was the last time you exercised? I do not mean running to the train or across your museum campus because you are late, nor do I necessarily mean a full-on, spandex- laden gym workout, I mean an hour or so dedicated to nothing more than you walking or swimming at a decent pace. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious, and in a side benefit, it boosts your energy, while also helping you sleep better. Measure a half mile, put the baby in her stroller or the dog on her leash, lace up your walking shoes, and go. Do it for yourself, not the baby or the dog. And don’t just do it once.
Take 60 minutes for yourself. This isn’t 60 minutes of extra sleep or that hour of walking, this is an hour for you. Meet friends for coffee or drinks. Laugh ’til your side hurts. Watch a sad movie and weep through the ending. Go to the library and pick out new books or sit quietly and gaze at glossy magazines. Get a manicure. Draw. Cook something just for you. Experiment with a new cocktail. Whatever it is doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving yourself permission to press pause.
Think about making some bigger changes. It’s roughly two weeks ’til 2020. A new year is a traditional time for change, personal resolutions, diets, exercise. Many of you know Seema Rao as the person who took over Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0. But before that Rao wrote a book called Self Care for Museum Workers. If you don’t own it, you should. And if the thought of reading a book, even one that might help you, makes you want to scream, read this piece she wrote for AAM almost a year ago. In it, she lays out a simple, clear plan to help you make incremental changes in your life. Try it.
Change is a big deal. A lot of people never manage it. They go through life crippled by everything that’s holding them back. If you’re reading this, you likely work somewhere in the museum/cultural professions. You may not make enough money, you may not have your dream job (yet), you may work more than one job or you may just feel as if you do. Control what you can control. Change what you’re able to change. Shed load where you can. Take care of yourself for yourself. Everyone around you will benefit.
Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. Before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.
Best wishes for happy holidays, time with family and friends, and a very happy New Year.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I hope you all read the letter from Esme Ward, director of the Manchester Museum (UK), published in Museum-ID Magazine. In it, Ward turns the fear-bound notion of returning objects brought or given to museums around the world from one of de-contextualization to one of connection. My favorite quote:
At their best, though perhaps all too rarely, museums can be spaces for identity-forming and truth-telling. They can ask “what is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves?” I believe that repatriation shifts the processes, language and thinking of the past towards a context of possibility and action for the future. Our museums can become places of genuine exchange and learning, reconciliation, social justice and community wellbeing.
You may think, nice, but that’s not my organization, but first, be sure. If you curate the collection of a wealthy white male, did he or his family travel? What did they bring home? Or if you manage collections in a general museum–the kind that functioned as a visible National Geographic for a small community–are you comfortable with the collection’s origin stories? But even more important, how can you as director, curator, or collections manager, shift the process, creating collaboration rather than a one-sided scenario where your organization puts a community’s stuff under vitrines and then tells their stories.
As you know I am not a Twitter fan, but this week I read a string of tweets prompted by @JuliaKennedy who asked for people’s most controversial opinions on the museum world. Her followers didn’t hold back. Comments ranged from ways museums discriminate against the disabled, to keeping too much old stuff, to decolonization. No surprise, there were any number of increasingly angry words about museum pay or the lack thereof, including unpaid internships, and fees to participate in museum volunteer programs. If you couple that with recent articles on museums and unions it’s a forest fire of discontent. Beginning with the Marciano Art Foundation, which became the poster-child for bad HR when it fired dozens of its front-line staff after they announced they planned to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME), to The New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, all now have staff who are union members.
Called a “movement not a trend,” by Artnet, the wave of unionization acknowledges the field’s wealth gap, which is most acute in the country’s large urban museums where front-line staff work for minimum wage and few, if any, benefits, while their directors may make 40 times that amount. Yes, the directors have huge, complex organizations to run. Yes, they do their jobs well. The judgement isn’t necessarily about them as humans. The judgement is about the gap, and the expectation that one person is compensated so well while everyone else should just be happy to be there, working an extra job or two to pay their student loans on the master’s degree the field requires as its entrance ticket.
Faced with unionization, leaders across the board, responded that museum culture is “special” and something unions can’s possibly understand. Mmmm. Really? Or is it just easier to ignore front-line staff’s issues rather than have a union force museum leadership to the table? This should be a warning call for all museum leaders. Yes, unionization is to-date confined to major urban organizations on the two coasts. But the problem of low salaries is endemic. You need only look at the Salary Spreadsheet created last spring. It now lists 3,652 postings from administrative assistants to assistant directors and more, and few are salaries you can gloat about.
As leaders isn’t it time you protect your investment in staff? They are, particularly if you also pay healthcare and some form of retirement, a huge portion of your annual budget. Assuming they’re good at what they do, don’t you want them to stay, to not spend idle hours at work trolling job sites, to be happy, to be creative? How can you not invest in them? Everybody wants a diverse workforce. It mirrors the communities we live in, and creates a better product, but a diverse workforce means museum staff is no longer the trust-fund generation or the my-partner-makes-six-figures-generation-so-I-can-afford-to-work-for $28,500-and-no-benefits.
Once again I call upon AAM to follow in the footsteps of the American Library Association whose professional companion organization, Allied Professional Association ALA-APA, adopted a minimum salary for professional librarians of $41,000 in 2007. (Side note: eight state library associations have their own minimums.) Why is this so hard?
Museum employees are the lifeblood of AAM, AASLH, and the state and regional museum service organizations. No one’s asking you to police salaries, only to stand with staff in acknowledging that the work we do, which is often awesomely wonderful, is worth more than we’re paid.
Images: Screenshots of responses to @JuliaKennedy’s invitation to share “most controversial opinions on the museum world”
Prompted by another lively discussion with our JHU students, I have been thinking about urgency. Not the fakey-wakey-I’m-so-stressed kind, but the this-really-matters-kind. I come from a long line of list-making people. People who perpetually arrive early, and for whom planning a complicated family event is as exciting as being with relatives. Urgency is in my DNA, but it has taken me decades to realize not everyone functions that way, and that life without lists or Google calendar isn’t everybody’s idea of hell.
Urgency is in fact a two lane road, one for your museum, and one for you. In the organizational lane are the billboards strategically placed by museum leadership that tell you where the organization’s going. They might say things like: “Collaborative Community Engagement” or “2020 is the Year of Women of Color.” In the personal lane urgency is sometimes a little mushier. The directional signs leaders post to help staff get from idea to reality aren’t available when it’s you by yourself with tasks that are sometimes boring, repetitive, or unclear. Sometimes you have to post your own signs: “Beware the swamp of never-ending cataloging” or “Gallery talks ahead.” And then there’s your own career. What role does urgency play when you know you’re in a mid-career slump? When you’ve actually outgrown your work, but the only person who knows it is you, and you’re avoiding thinking about it, and yet every day on the way to work the signs could read “Another Day at the Job that Bores You,” or “Have Fun Being Unappreciated.”
Urgency is what tells us something matters. And knowing something matters, and we’re part of it, is a key ingredient in what gets us up in the morning. If you go to work every day bored, sad or angry, those feelings have their own destructive kind of power. Here are 10 ways to put that urgency to work:
- Reflect on why you’re not happy at work. Is it the work itself? Is it the team you work with, the organization as a whole or is it something separate from work, that were you to land in museum nirvana, would still be with you?
- Try only thinking about yourself. When there’s actually a job on the table that’s more than a pipe dream, you can worry about finding an affordable rental, your aging parents, good school systems or the new intriguing human you just met.
- Give yourself a deadline to tweak your resume. Make sure it actually sounds like the person you are now. Make sure it reflects new skills and experiences along with your career wants and desires. And offer yourself a reward for a task completed.
- Ditto your LinkedIn page. (I know, really? But it is one of the ways 21st century people study one another.)
- Pull out your current job description and re-write it, not for your boss, for you. Make it read like the job you really want. Ponder how it’s different from the job you currently have.
- Talk about career moves with your kitchen cabinet, your posse, your group of colleagues dedicated to supporting one another while telling each other the truth. Once you share your game plan and enlist their support, the fact that you’re “looking” is in essence public. For some, having a group hold you accountable makes for progress.
- If sharing with a group puts you off, try working with a career buddy. Collaborate on resume writing and reading, for example, or share job descriptions. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes helps us see what we’re avoiding.
- When you’re commuting or waiting in the doctor’s office, scan the job lists. Look for language that makes you comfortable.
- Apply, apply, apply. What’s the worst that can happen? That you won’t hear anything? And that really is the worst because it’s a kind of neglect and unprofessionalism that in the age of algorithms and email is unforgivable.
- And don’t apply to anything that doesn’t at least list a salary range. There’s too much on your plate to worry about going down a rabbit hole to discover they can only pay minimum wage.
One of our 2019 Leadership Matters interviewees is Karen Carter. Carter is smart, dynamic, and co-founder of Canada’s Black Artists Networks Dialog. She told me, “I try to do a job interview every two years or so because it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised.” That’s Carter creating her own urgency. How will you create yours?
In the United States, this week is Thanksgiving. Many of us will gather with family and friends to eat, touch base, reflect and simply say thanks. In that spirit, thank you to all our readers in 153 countries around the world who share in this endeavor of being good leaders for museums and heritage organizations.
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.
Applying for a new job is stressful, a time sponge, and from an organizational point of view, costly. For an individual, even if it is done as much to exercise a muscle as out of need, it requires diligence, self-awareness, and confidence. If you interview as female, it’s even more challenging. Why? Because you have to walk a thin line between what you know, what you believe, and public perception.
I’ve spoken to a number of women in the museum and library fields about job interviews. These women aren’t novices. They all lead organizations or departments, and they are well read, not in the book group sense. Rather they read widely about leadership, and they’ve had opportunities to put what they read into practice. Before I go further, here are some givens about men and women in the job race. They are all supported by research, and I’ve included links so you’ll know I’m not just ranting.
- Men think they’re smarter than 66-percent of their peers. For women it’s less so, 54-percent.
- Women don’t think of themselves as ready for promotion and they consistently underestimate their talents. See #1 above.
- A lot of what’s happened in the American workplace has focused on “fixing” women, making them more like successful men, rather than simply leveling the playing field.
- Women are more frequently hired to take over organizations, departments or programs that are troubled than men are.
So what happened to the women I spoke with? These issues came to a head when they were faced with the proverbial interview question about change. It goes something like: “Based on what you’ve seen today, what is your vision for our organization, department, program?” Anybody who’s read anything about leadership knows that rapid change, particularly from a new hire, goes nowhere. These women knew that. Each gave an answer that was a variation of: change takes time, buy-in is important, describing how they like to observe, watch, listen and learn before experimenting, analyzing, testing again, and implementing. None of them got the job. The positions went to men.
Is it possible the men offered less measured and reasoned responses? Is it possible they replied with a laundry list of changes, delivered with a confidence and panache that was just what the interview committee wanted to hear even though few organizations–except the most desperate–can sustain wholesale hierarchical change?
I can imagine you eye-rolling here. How do you know, you ask? And you’re right. There are a million reasons for offering a job to one person over another. But is it possible that boards or hiring committees confuse confidence with competence? That a confident answer even if it flies in the face of every good leadership best practice is more acceptable than a more measured response? And might that be a gendered thing since we know men tend to sound more confident? In fact, if I were asked, going forward, I’d tell each of these women to answer that question differently. I’d tell them to practice sounding confident, responding with a vision statement and a list of areas that need experimentation.
Some final caveats: This isn’t about getting women to act more like men even though it seems that way. Successful women are confident, but the consequences of acting confident are different for men and women. Women are judged differently than men, and therefore answers to the most basic questions are heard differently. Women need to be twice as good to be seen as half as competent. All of this is 10 times harder and more complex for women of color, women who are overweight, women with disabilities, LGBTQ and transgender women because the opportunity for bias multiplies.
And lastly, if you are hiring:
- Remember, an interview is like a wedding. If that’s the happiest day of your life, you’re in trouble. Hire for the long haul, not the razzle dazzle. There are many who ace the interview, but there’s no there there when it comes to real leadership.
- Because the museum field is tipping so precipitously toward becoming a pink collar profession, hiring committees may think they’re doing the field a service by hiring a man. That may be. Just make sure the process is equitable. Tokenism is tokenism no matter who’s in the mix.
- Talk openly about issues of bias–where and how they appear–with your search committee before the process begins. You may want to use a bias exercise to help your committee understand where they are.
- Build a diverse interview committee that includes POC, the young, the experienced. Let the committee discuss its governance rules ahead of time. Make it a safe space where all thoughts are welcome.
- Discuss the difference between diversity and difference. Is your program, department or museum ready for a challenge? See suggestion #2.
- Be open. Remember it’s not just about you. It’s about your organization. Look for the person who will help your museum grow.
When someone asks what you do, what do you say? If you’re a curator, an education curator, a digital curator or museum director how do you explain your job to your great aunt or that family friend whose children are surgeons and investment bankers? And having explained your work life in two sentences and gotten a look of pure puzzlement, do you know what you actually do? By that I mean, do you have any sense of what you accomplish in a given day, week or month?
My colleague Anne Ackerson does. She has an accomplishment jar on her desk. Every time she completes a project or does something worthwhile, she drops a piece of paper in the jar with a note about the accomplishment. On New Year’s day, she re-reads her year through the lens of jobs well done. I am not so organized, but I work for a large organization that requires weekly reports, bi-annual check-ins, and annual performance reviews. But even with all that reporting take it from me: It’s possible to think about your job only in generalities or worse–and this is very, very gendered–to see it only in terms of what you haven’t accomplished. The result? It’s easy to lose sight of what you’ve achieved.
Why is this important? First, seeing progress is a morale boost. At the end of a bad week, it can seem as though the needle never moved, and you accomplished nothing. And that same week can feel so long that activities completed Monday may have disappeared in a fog of what went wrong by Friday. Plus, how often have we talked about leadership and self-awareness in these posts? A lot. And what is an accomplishment review except an acknowledgement of your strengths?
In 2011 two Harvard Business Review researchers, Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, looked at how the for-profit world drives innovation. Focused on individuals on the creative side of things, they asked 238 individuals at 26 different companies to answer a daily email about their workday ups and downs. Data from 12,000 emails yielded some important conclusions. First, workers are more creative when they’re happy, and that happiness spills over to colleagues and to the organization itself. Second, they discovered that many of their subjects’ “best days” directly correlated with days when there was perceptible progress on a given project by them or their team.
It’s tempting to conclude that happiness comes with the conclusion of a project–the moment when Anne drops the paper in her Accomplishment Jar–but that’s not what Amabile and Kramer’s work showed. In their study, it was the small wins, the daily movement of the needle that brought happiness. Understanding and charting those small wins over time is important in understanding our own sense of accomplishment.
What can you as an individual do?
- Make a chart: Divide your work life into its major headings–collections care, team management, professional development, and list the things you’ve done each week, month or year. Or just use a jar. But be sure to remember to empty it and read the contents.
- Progress and a sense of accomplishment are intimately linked to creativity. Do you have a job where you check your brain at the door? Then look for ways to raise the creativity quotient. Chart your accomplishments in your off hours–miles run, words written, volunteer hours logged.
And if you’re a leader?
- Check-in on your employees, don’t check-up. Look for what’s holding them back, and see how you can help. Remember that leaders remove barriers. Be a resource not a sheriff.
- See work as iterative. We learn, we accomplish, we get better at what we do. Don’t make one-on-one meetings a laundry list of work yet to be done.
- Use the progress checklist from Amabile and Kramer @ HBR:
Remember this equation: meaningful work+clear and reasonable goals=workplace happiness=creativity= meaningful work.
Yours for accomplishment,
Sometimes people contact Leadership Matters with thoughts about blog posts. A few weeks ago a friend, a museum thought leader, suggested we speak with someone. Our friend felt this person was worth hearing. And she was right. The interviewee asked for anonymity, but here is what we can say: She uses the pronouns she/her. She worked full time in the museum business for more than a decade. Partnered and a parent, she left the field. She is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware. What gives her story such resonance is not its uniqueness so much as its sameness. And that’s the sad part. It’s 2019. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced almost a half-century ago and remains unrealized, yet, as of 2018, women comprised nearly half the American workforce.
As we’ve said before, women’s narratives in the museum workforce is a Ground-Hog day tale. Not only do experiences repeat themselves over generations, as our interviewee points out, too often harassment doesn’t arrive in the overt ways we’ve seen on television or watched in Congressional testimony. Too often it’s the death of a thousand small cuts. “When you sit underneath the best of the male directors,” she says, “He seems so woke and he’s not touching you under the table.” Her experience though leads her to ask whether too many museum leaders want diversity conceptually, but are ill-prepared to truly lead a diverse organization.
“My experience, ” she said, “led me to fall out of love with my museum.” She describes her former boss as someone who hired women and promoted women, and whose outward-facing reputation was good. But behind the curtain this director displayed many of the subtle gendered characteristics that foster a climate of bias. Oh, lots of men–especially older men–do that you say. You’ve got to roll with the punches. But here’s what happens: Women are told they can’t show emotion; they’re told not to stand up for female staff when inappropriate remarks are made. In other words many of the characteristics that make our interviewee (and possibly you) a successful museum leader–compassion, passion, clarity of thought, cooperation–are the same characteristics that despite success and promotions are not actually valued, but instead are used to target women.
“How can we begin to identify patterns if we can’t talk about them?” our interviewee asked. “When are we going to admit that our internal practices are a problem?” Sadly, her experience with 21st-century bias and harassment didn’t end when she left her full time position. In fact, the museum recruitment process delivered another complex set of challenges. While search firms and museums talked about diversity and inclusion, she describes her journey as “Making it to the end, but not to the choice.” Recruiters told her what to wear for final stage interviews, asked for previous W-2’s as proof of salary, made biased statements regarding work she’d previously undertaken, and allowed board interviewers to ask about her marital status and children. Perhaps most telling, both the recruiters and the museum kept pressing our interviewee for a vision. Could she have come up with a meaningless one-liner? Certainly. Did she? Not really. Reflecting on it today, she says, “This isn’t how I work. I would have spent a year watching and listening, and then we [she and her new organization] would create a vision together.”
Please don’t dismiss that last bit as the whining of a disgruntled applicant who didn’t get the job. That’s not the point. What’s important is her statement “This is not how I work,” because it’s how many women work. Studies show that women lean toward flat, task-focused, collaborative organizational structures. Men, on the other hand, lean toward the transactional and hierarchical, with a focus on performance and competition. Ignorance regarding these issues makes for a clumsy, biased hiring process.
Museums and heritage organizations shell out tons of money to recruitment firms. And even if they don’t use a firm, the entire process of hiring takes time and therefore money. If you’re going to pay a firm, shouldn’t you receive transparent, equitable guidance? People who will help your board not ask women whether their husband will allow them to move? Yes, our interviewee did get that question. No, she didn’t go up in flames. But honestly. Has the needle moved at all?
This brings us back to the initial question. If we don’t talk about these things because we hope for promotion, don’t want to be a trouble maker or anticipate a future job search, how can we change anything? As I’ve said too often on these pages, bias and harassment is often delivered in a thousand tiny ways that constantly reinforce who has power and who doesn’t. It’s not just the province of men. Women do it too. And for those of us who are white and cisgender, there’s a whole other layer of inherent bias we carry with us directed, often implicitly, toward colleagues of color.
The museum field must stand up for women, all women, not just white ones. Can we legislate people’s feelings? No, but as a field we can say what we care about and what we believe in. How can AAM have a Code of Conduct that applies only to its annual conferences, but not to its membership?
- Understand what implicit bias or second-generation discrimination in the workplace looks like. It’s not only inappropriate touching or racially charged language. It’s the death of a thousand cuts, and the odds are, you have colleagues of color and/or female colleagues who are experiencing the effects of it.
- Support your friends and colleagues. If you hear hate or inappropriate speech, say something.
- Learn to recognize your own biases. If you find yourself admiring your male boss who roars, but not the female leader who roars, ask why. Emotion is emotion. Why is women’s tied to hormones and men’s to courage?
- Ask yourself what you can risk to support others. This is a small, tight field. Becoming a leader is a tricky business. If you’re the person known for saying the emperor has no clothes, will you ever get promoted? Are you counting on someone else to be that person?
- Find resources and participate through Gender Equity in Museum’s Movement (GEMM); Museum Hue, Incluseum; AAM, AASLH, AIC, and other national, regional, and state professional associations.
As some of you may know, Anne Ackerson and I traveled to Waco, Texas last week to deliver the Largent Lecture for the Baylor University Museum Studies Program. In addition, we sat in on two classes, one in historic preservation, as well as the Program’s capstone class for second-year students. Our topic? Gender and the Museum Workplace.
First, I should note that our invitation came after we gave the keynote at the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) last year in Houston. The point here is not to toot our own horn, but Texas’s. People on the east coast (where we live) can sometimes be a little snarky about Texas, but what other state or regional museum association has taken the issue of gender, diversity, and the workplace and made it a focus? (Stay tuned because TAM has more programs ahead.) So if you identify as a woman, and you feel as if the issue of workplace harassment and the pay gap are Ground-Hog day stories whose narratives don’t change except to cause you daily pain, know that at least one state museum organization is putting this issue front and center.
Since our audience was largely graduate students–many of whom are women– we had to walk the line between truth–this can sometimes be a difficult field that’s not particularly well-paid–and enthusiasm for careers we love and support. How do you tell a group of graduate students completing their master’s degrees, that it’s not always Nirvana out there?
When you begin in a field, you focus on content. After all, it’s what drew you to that particular sector in the first place. You can’t wait to…. insert one: catalogue a collection, do research, design an exhibit, conceptualize an exhibit, teach students, children, and families in museum spaces; wear a costume, learn to plow a field with a team of oxen. Few graduate students will tell you they can’t wait to manage a staff, understand overtime rules, negotiate personnel changes or have key board members resign. And yet, as we all know, the further you go in any career, the further you move from what brought you there in the first place, and the more time is taken with human interaction and thinking about the big picture. We’re told–and why wouldn’t it be true?–that in the first years of Amazon, Jeff Bezos packed the books himself and drove them to the post office.
The Baylor students had read some of Women in the Museum. In addition, they’d talked about some of the ethical and historical reasons for the museum field’s issues with sexual harassment, the gender pay gap, and its slow, inexorable turn toward becoming a pink collar profession. Our discussion focused on how, armed with that knowledge, they could be intentional about shaping their careers, be knowledgable about pay, and practice for interviews and pay negotiations. Trying to be hopeful, we opined that change will surely come, likely from their generation. There were a few pointed sighs in the room.
So…if you, like Baylor’s second-year students, will enter the job market this spring for the first time, we recommend:
- Getting a copy of the AAM Salary Survey Cross-reference that data with other museum, nonprofit and allied career salary data from your community or state. The more data points you can consult, the stronger your case for your salary ask. Know what to expect salary-wise for your job choice before you’re called to interview.
- Know what it will cost you to live where you’d like to work. Use MIT’s Living Wage Calculator (updated 2017) or the Economic Policy Institute’s calculator (updated 2018).
- Use these figures as guard rails for subsequent compensation discussions.
- Don’t think because you’re 24 and still on your parent’s health insurance that having no health benefits is acceptable. It is not.
- Ask to meet the people you’ll be working with. Ask them how work gets done, how new ideas are nurtured, and where do they go if there are HR problems? Be alert to silence and eye rolling.
- No offer is perfect. Negotiate. If you won’t be able to live on what’s offered without a second job, be prepared to walk away. And tell them why.
And if you’re hiring newly-minted graduates:
- Use the AAM Salary Survey. Be able to talk knowledgeably about where your salaries fall versus the local and national figures.
- Know what other benefits are on the table and how they differ from your competition, either local museums or nonprofits.
- Provide time for your interviewee to meet the people s/he/they will work with.
- The power balance is especially acute for first-time hires: Make sure you and your staff know an illegal question from a legal one.
- Review your interview process for unconscious bias. You can also have your staff and board take Harvard’s implicit bias tests.
Based on the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures the museum field is 50.1-percent female. And based on our 2018 survey of 700-plus humans, as well as nikhil trevidi and Aletheia Wittman’s 2018 survey of approximately 500 respondents, sexual harassment is alive and well in the museum field. As leaders, let’s do our best to make first-time job seekers’ journeys a smooth one and educate ourselves, our staffs, and our boards in the process.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?