How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?
Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.
AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.
There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.
Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.
It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:
If you have no money and want to stay local:
- If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends. They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
- Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
- Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
- Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.
**If you have money and board support:
- Consider applying for a spot at the Getty Leadership Institute.
- Explore AASLH’s Leadership Institute or look at Jekyll Island Management Institute
- If you are an art museum person, don’t forget the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s low residency NYC program.
- If your museum is one of 20 art institutions chosen for a combined initiative in diversifying museum leadership you may be eligible to participate in one of the programs supported by the Ford and Walton Family foundations.
- Think about a graduate or certificate program, either locally or online in leadership or business which these days often encompasses leadership.
**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.
Last, but not least:
- If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.
Guest Blogger: Kimberly Boice
Passion. noun \ˈpa-shən\: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.*
If you’re lucky, you possess some amount of passion for your work. The brain surgeon enjoys the challenge of human physiology, the teacher seeks to nurture curiosity, the museum curator aims to preserve that precious artifact. Passion is the catalyst that makes many people push themselves a bit farther to ensure that the patient is well, that the person understands, or that the object is accessible. It’s a privilege to feel strongly about one’s work and we should count ourselves lucky.
Many of us pursued a career in the museum field because we want to make a difference in how the general public learns and perceives history, science, art or some amazing combination of all those subjects. Our passion drives us to work late into the night, early in the morning, while off-duty, and for relatively little money or benefits. We somehow continue to do more things with fewer and fewer resources because we’re creative, caring people who possess a deep passion for our work and how it impacts the people who benefit from it.
Most days I love my work as a museum educator and I believe it’s apparent in what I produce. Yet supervisors, family, and friends remind me I’m fortunate to have my job as if I were unaware of the fact. They believe that we chose a career in this field knowing salaries often remain low for the majority of workers while many positions require experience beyond a four-year college degree and therefore larger debt. Although they are not wholly wrong, we have worked hard to achieve what we have. Passion does not pay the bills, nor does it make us immune to the hardships and complexities of day-to-day tasks. If anything, the emotional ties to the job make many of us endure on fumes for longer than we should, threatening to jeopardize our mental and physical health. Add to this strain, the fear of retribution in the workplace and the larger museum community for being too vocal about legitimate hardships and it’s no surprise that some choose to pursue alternative careers.
So where does all this leave us? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, finding yourself entirely burnt-out and/or in a toxic work environment is not good for anyone. You must decide if leaving the situation is a viable option for you and what that means in the short and long-term: can you relocate to a similar job elsewhere? Do you attempt to reinvent yourself for another type of work? Will returning to school make you the best hire? Should you take that promotion? Will you be the change you seek or simply suffer until retirement? How do you retain passion for the work while maintaining a good work/life balance? Is the passion enough to sustain you?
*Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary online, 12 March 2018
Kimberly Boice has worked professionally as a museum educator at an historic site since July 2003, although she began volunteering in the museum field as a teenager. Her passion for interpreting history often finds her working nights and weekends at her site and elsewhere, serving on committees and boards, and coordinating learning weekends for her fellow history enthusiasts as Mrs. Boice’s Historie Academie.
Once again we find ourselves responding to an Alliance Labs post, this one titled The Labor of Love: Revaluing Museum Work, written by Emma Boast and Maddie Mott, and originally published on Medium, December 20, 2017 and republished by Alliance Labs this week. Here goes:
Dear Emma & Maddie:
Your article could be summed up in one sentence: Too often museums and heritage organizations put staff last, not first. Leadership Matters is filled with pleas to boards and museum leaders to recognize the value of human capital. We’ve said it at least once a month for 36 months. It’s not buildings or collections that drive museums, it’s people.
A lot has happened since you originally wrote your piece. It’s odd to think that something written 15 months ago can already be, if not out of date, then out of context. Today the world of work is beset with questions of #MeToo and sexual harassment, yet many things–particularly as they relate to women and work–are unchanged. If you need evidence for that, know that in 1974 a group of women known as the Women’s Caucus approached AAM with a list of grievances. With the exception of more women in museum leadership, most of the Caucus’s complaints are as true today as they were 44 years ago. And it is this Groundhog Day-quality of trying to make change at 35,000-plus organizations that is daunting. Museum employment is shackled by a legacy of gender inequity coupled with largely invisible race and class barriers.
But back to your piece. First, a caution about comparing museum work with academia. If by academia you mean a teaching position in a two or four-year institution, there are disgruntled overeducated employees in both sectors; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that, as of May 2016, there were 1.3 million postsecondary teachers at U.S. colleges/universities, professional schools, and junior/community colleges earning a median salary of $75,430. Among curators in museums and other institutions where education requirements and job responsibilities are similar (if not often the same) to postsecondary teachers, the BLS 2016 employment number stood at 11,170, earning a median salary of $58,910. While it’s common knowledge, particularly at big universities, that adjuncts are the indentured servants of the academic world, contrasting museums and academia isn’t an apples to apples comparison. And don’t forget that many postsecondary teachers are unionized — that can make a big salary/benefits difference.
Second, your comments on advancement: If you yearn to be a curator, and in fact become one, what does advancement look like? Might it mean moving to a leadership position where ultimately you manage people rather than care for things? Or does it mean moving to a larger organization where you manage a more dynamic collection as well as staff?
One thing we’ve tried to point out on these pages is that in a small field where, to date, an advanced degree is the ticket for admission, moving up frequently means a leadership position which many museum professionals are ill-prepared for. But perhaps the point is advancement means different things in different parts of the museum job sector. If you want to be an ED, the path is pretty clear; you hop scotch your way from smaller to bigger. But if you’re a curator or an educator, there is likely to be a fork in the road, where you decide whether advancement is more important than what brought you to the field in the beginning. Finally, is zig-zagging up the ladder as much of a problem for museum professionals as organizations failing to provide even the most minimal professional development opportunities? We think the answer is no. All staff need professional development.
Third, we fundamentally disagree with the notion that change can’t happen piecemeal–that no single museum can make change alone. In fact, that IS how it’s happening. Individual museums with forward-thinking leaders and boards create workplaces where employees prosper. As a result, those institutions flourish. Museums that pay pitiful wages, offer no benefits, and make serving on a jury easier than going on maternity leave, don’t attract and retain creative, driven staff. They do the opposite.
We support the changes you call for: eliminating degree requirements, investing in existing workers, and helping with work/life balance, but it’s hard to believe that two 21st-century women left closing the gender pay gap out of the equation. It’s a pervasive and ongoing problem, affecting all women, but women of color, and queer and transgender women disproportionately. Until the museum field pays its staff equitable and living wages, this will always be a job sector known for its lack of diversity and its abundance of quit-lit. Last, we believe that AAM Accreditation and AASLH StEPs should require their member organizations demonstrate they not only have HR policies, but how complaints and harassment are handled.
Thank you and Alliance Labs for keeping this conversation going. It is an important one. For the second time in less than a month, we’ll close by asking: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle this problem?
As people who’ve written and spoken about the museum pay crisis since 2012, Leadership Matters was heartened to read 7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down. Written by Michael Holland, it was wonderful to see such an important topic addressed by a forum like Alliance Labs since by inference it carries AAM’s blessing. But that was before we read the article. In our opinion, Holland skipped a few key points. And judging from some of the 20-plus comments, one of which was ours, we weren’t alone. So here’s our response:
1: Gender inequity and the pay gap failed to make Holland’s list. In some ways this isn’t a surprise. Michael Holland is male, and by his own admission, he frequently works for large, well-endowed museums so maybe he hasn’t encountered the gender pay gap? Maybe he doesn’t know that many women doing work similar to his (exhibit design)–not to mention the traditionally female bastions of museum education or event planning– will not make as much as he did in 2017 until April 10 of this year? Maybe he doesn’t understand that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, and that when a field slips down the pink collar slope it’s not a good thing?
2. While Holland lists the “Spousal Income Subsidy” as a way the field depends on hiring people who bring along a second income, he never explores what that means. Whether it’s an employee with a hedge fund spouse or an employee with a trust fund, the need for a second income frequently acts as a class and race barrier. Is it any wonder the museum workforce has a diversity problem?
3. He addressed the question of a burgeoning number of museum studies programs, offering both undergraduate and graduate training, and the resulting glut of too many inexperienced candidates desperate for employment, but he doesn’t mention these programs are costly, and that many emerging professionals begin their working careers with educational debt that’s the equivalent of a mortgage. And yet we work in a field that tells people if you don’t have a master’s degree, you can’t come to the party.
4. This is a corollary to #3. Holland makes passing reference to unpaid internships. (It appears he’s not a fan.) But he never addresses the damage done by an expensive graduate school education, followed by a series of unpaid or poorly paid internships, meaning that someone could be “in the field” for four years or so before finding a salaried position. And that’s if they’re lucky.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re glad Holland wrote his article, glad to see it published by Alliance Labs, and glad to see it debated and questioned in the Comments. Sometimes it’s depressing being the broken record yammering about gender, pay equity, poor pay, and lousy leadership every week. So–in the tradition of Leadership Matters–where we believe we can all make change, here are some things that might help the museum salary crisis.
For individuals, and women especially: Don’t take a job without negotiating. Use the GEMM (Gender Equity in Museums) 5 Things You Need to Know About Salary Negotiations tip sheet. And for goodness sake look at MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to make sure you can afford to live (really live) on what you’re being offered. If you’re already working in a position you enjoy, when your annual review rolls around, don’t forget to ask for a raise. Again, there’s a 5 Things Tip Sheet for that.
For organizations and directors: Work with your board to make sure it understands the value of your museum’s human resources. People matter. Make sure you and your board know what it costs to live in your community. Make sure the board understands the cost of a churning staff, the time it takes new staff to get up to speed, the resulting loss of institutional momentum and organizational knowledge when someone leaves, and the damage done when a team is disrupted.
Solve your wage equity problem first. Do men at your organization make more than women? Do white women make more than women of color?
If you’re faced with the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument, make an effort to put all the other pieces in place to support staff–HR support, equitable benefits, paid time off, maternity/paternity leave, even housing if that’s available. When was the last time you reviewed your personnel policy? Make sure new applicants know the work you’ve done around wages and benefits.
For regional and national museum service organizations: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the field to tackle this problem?