Few museums have enough money. Even big ones. Just look at this week’s headlines. The Metropolitan Tabled Its New Wing while it shaves $31 million from its deficit. Almost 400 miles to the south, the august Colonial Williamsburg laid off 40 more employees, bringing its total layoffs over 24 months to 100. These are two notable examples, but many museums and heritage organizations face similar scenarios. And even if they’re not downsizing dramatically, each hire is freighted with a sense of urgency. New staff need to be a good fit, and wherever they are in the organization they need to help move it forward, which brings us to the question of whether as a museum leader, when you hire, you replace a position or rethink it.
Let me interject here with a little story. I know someone who was hired two months ago to replace a long-time employee. As is the case with many individuals who’ve spent decades in an institution, what the outgoing employee did was a bit of a mystery. Myriad things had attached themselves to her job description like barnacles either because she was good at them or someone asked her to do them and she never stopped. Conversely, there were things she jettisoned because she didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. None of that web of “all other duties as required,” was included in the job description which was bland and boiler plate. The leadership agreed only that the position needed replacing without actually talking through what it wanted and what would be best for the organization. The new hire, whose resemblance to the outgoing employee is minimal at best, has found her acclamation hampered by the gap between what some of the leadership imagined for her position and what is actually written. And what is written is so useless that she is called to task for “not doing her job.” Yet who knows where the boundaries of her job really are? She consults with HR too often, and remains frustrated that what was offered is not reality. It’s not a good situation. And it’s definitely a waste of talent, time and money.
Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it comes from not pressing pause long enough to really talk about a new hire. These discussions shouldn’t be personal. It’s not about denigrating the outgoing employee; it’s about saying what does the museum need now? This should be the fun part. The in-a-perfect-world part I would hire a person who can do X,Y, Z. Once you identify what you need that’s new, you can go back and unpack the old job description to determine what the organization can’t live without. Some of those tasks may end up parceled out to other employees, while others will be included in the new hire’s job description. The point is only that even if you have buckets of money, it costs money to replace staff. Work slows while you cover for an empty position, and if your orientation program is poor, it may stay slow while the new hire tries to figure out her place.
As in so much of leadership, it’s better if you are intentional. Think a problem through. Talk to staff. Discuss what you need. Then act. Then don’t assume it’s all fixed. For goodness sake check in with your new employee. You may think you speak clearly, but that’s not always how people hear you. Make sure new staff are happy, challenged and understand their role.
Last, but not least, if you’re a wanna-be museum leader, a current leader, or a long time CEO, know that not all staff leave of their own volition. Firing is part of your job description. You may never have to act on it, but it’s a facet of the hiring process that everyone in leadership copes with. So, again, be intentional. Don’t hire a new employee simply because she’s 180 degrees different from the one you let go. Know your organizational needs, measure them against her strengths. Then decide. As a leader, your job is to drive your organization into the future with as much imagination and grit as you can muster. Make sure you have the staff you want on the journey.
It’s January, and it’s the time of year when museum staff and leadership can turn cranky in a heartbeat. Here in the northeast our days start with dark mornings, and are often accompanied by snow and cold. You get the picture. It’s a time for fuzzy slippers and a good book. And if you’re not a book person, I can heartedly recommend the Emerging Museum Professionals Facebook page. Scrolling through their posts, I always find something interesting and/or inspiring to read.
This week Alison Little posted a job description followed by a six-question poll. She asked readers to guess the type of job described –exempt or non-exempt–the salary range or whether it’s not a paid job at all, but rather a volunteer opportunity. Thankfully, she didn’t identify the job’s source since it’s the HR equivalent of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, a Frankenjob of tasks that may need doing, but have no connection to one another. As of January 8 there were 35 comments.
If you are a museum leader or a board member, if you plan to hire sometime in the coming year, you owe it to yourself to read these comments. You need to understand the world of museum HR, and, perhaps most importantly, regardless of your museum role, you need to make a passionate case for investing in staff. Why? Well, the obvious answer is because without staff your museum will grind to a halt. You may have fabulous collections, you may have a great narrative or you may have both, but collections can’t speak on their own. They are mute. They need smart, imaginative folks to knit together all the ideas an individual object, site, experiment, invention or living creature generates, and engage your audience. In short: you need the best staff you can afford, not the most staff for the least amount of money; the best, so you can pay them a living wage so they won’t burn out waiting tables on the side, and so they won’t spend their free time looking for better paying museum jobs.
If you are a museum leader or a board member do not ever laugh ruefully about low salaries and say, “Well, we’re a nonprofit,” as if your 501c-3 designation permits you to pay less than the living wage. Being a nonprofit means the government recognizes the public benefit your organization provides society. Your concern is the trust you hold for the public, not for your shareholders like a for-profit organization. To fulfill that trust you need a decently paid staff. It’s time the museum world addressed this problem. So whether you’re an emerging professional or a mid-career staff member, a museum leader or a board member, when you think of your museum, don’t think of a hierarchy of collections first, followed by buildings, and then staff. Put staff at the top. Value them. Pay them a living wage. (As we’ve said many times here, using MIT’s Living Wage Calculator will help you.) Let’s make 2017 the year museums and heritage organizations commit to raising salaries and benefits. Idealism won’t pay the bills.
Dear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,
Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.
A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.
Articles and Short Reads:
42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.
Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.
Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.
Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.
When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.
How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.
Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey. This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.
The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign
And to Listen to:
Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.
SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.
Here at Leadership Matters we believe in mentoring. It’s generous, it builds connections across the museum field, it makes us stronger. So, putting my money where my mouth is, I recently advised a young colleague to look for museum internships. And she found some. One is paid and required a formal application process, while several are unpaid. Some of the unpaid ones could be accessed through my connections and required an interview. A few weeks later, we spoke at NEMA (you can read about that here: Five Gender Myths and What Happened at NEMA) where more than a few attendees deplored the fact the museum field, while scratching its collective head about why the field isn’t more diverse, sets up a host of barriers to emerging professionals, not least of which is an expensive graduate degree followed by an internship(s) which is likely unpaid. Participants in our NEMA session suggested there should be a field-wide moratorium on unpaid internships. So what to do? Folks new to the field need experience. Internships seem like they answer that problem, but are they a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
In my case, my mentee isn’t committed to the museum field. She’s not even committed to graduate school. She’s a recent college graduate with a degree in art history. Museum and archives work have been her go-to job choice since middle school. But teaching also calls to her. While chatting with her I pointed out that a brief internship with a defined scope might help sort out what, if anything, about the museum world appeals to her. And if it does seem appealing, does it matter enough to check the big box of graduate degree? And yes, she would be the first to tell you she is lucky and privileged. She is able to live at home or with extended family and participate in the internships available to her.
So if or until the field grapples with this problem at some 30,000-foot level, what should graduate students or new museum professionals do? In no particular order, here are Leadership Matters’ ideas for individuals, organizations, and graduate programs.
- As with any job search, be strategic. Know what you want out of your experience. Random experience brought to you by an internship is not an answer. Strategize about what you need. What builds and connects with what’s already on your resume?
- If you’re looking at something unpaid, make sure the organization defines your role. What will you do and for whom? What are your takeaways? Is there academic credit? Does that matter to you if your degree requirements are complete?
- And even if you’re not being paid or getting credit, ask what else the organization offers interns: paid attendance at workshops or a regional meeting, free admission to events that support your areas of interest; parking or travel supplements; opportunities to speak or publish. Don’t be bashful. You’re offering time and skills. This is not indentured servitude. Get something back.
- Can you manage financially and balance an internship while paying your bills, eating, and having any kind of life?
- If not, consider volunteering. I know it sounds a lot less fancy, and in many cases it is, but as a volunteer you donate your time, which puts you more or less in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, everything from bullet point one still applies only more so.
- If your area of specialty is development, communications, leadership, or anything found throughout the non-profit world, don’t confine yourself to museums. Look everywhere.
- Internships are not scut work. Good internships can launch careers. Be honest: If you don’t have the time or temperament to supervise internships, for goodness sakes, don’t do it. The museum field doesn’t need Cruella De Vil.
- If you have a donor or donors interested in education, consider helping them create a named (paid) internship. Your organization benefits as well as the field. Conversely, if they would rather endow a position, ask the board if it would consider shifting funds from the endowed position to create fellowships or internships in other departments.
- If you can’t fund a position, can your organization ally with a local college or university and offer an internship for credit? And while you’re at it, gather some of the students together and ask them to help structure the program. What works best for them?
- Be realistic with your students. Understand the job market.
- Create alliances (and internships for money or credit) with museums nearby. If you’re a virtual program, consider leveraging your brand in an internship partnership.
- Build opportunities for students to meet and work with museum staff into your program. Require them to have mentors, not just advisors. Mentors aren’t advisors.
- Too often getting a job feels like another job. Teach students how to strategize about what it is they want as they build careers.
If this week is a holiday for you, best wishes for a happy time with family and friends. And when you have a moment, share your thoughts about the internship conundrum here.
P.S. And for more detailed information on classifying someone as an intern, you may want to read this: Four Takeaways—and Good News—for Nonprofit Employers with Internship Programs
Anne Ackerson, Marieke Van Damme and I spoke at the New England Museum Association Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Our title was Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace, and we were among the opening sessions of NEMA’s 2016 meeting in Mystic, CT. We expected to begin our program buoyed by a Clinton victory the night before. We counted on Clinton piercing the proverbial glass ceiling until sometime around midnight when clearly a different choice was underway, a fact confirmed when we woke much too early to the news of a pending Trump presidency.
When we began our program, the mood was somber, as if we’d all partied a bit too hard the night before, which, of course, we hadn’t. After introducing ourselves with a little story telling, we walked the group through five myths of gender in the museum world. Here they are:
Feminism is all about women being in power.
The contributions of women in museums are self-evident.
The salary disparity between male and female museum workers is a thing of the past.
There are so many women in the museum field now that gender equity will happen on its own.
It’s not about gender anymore; it’s about race, sexual orientation and class.
Then we asked the group to discuss two questions: If they could send a message to their colleagues, institutions, professional associations and graduate programs about gender in the museum workplace, what would it be? And, what is the one thing they are willing to do to make positive change toward gender equity? Each table had postcards for participants to write messages on. There’s a photograph of them at the top of the page, but they also showed up on Twitter, Facebook and various analog spots throughout the meeting.
When the groups reported out, their remarks clustered around some important topics. The hiring process came under discussion as women questioned why they don’t negotiate job offers, and whether that is something that can and should be taught. One respondent pointed out that if you are simply happy to be chosen, you lose all leverage to negotiate.
The road to a museum career also came under fire, particularly the idea that in too many instances students borrow to go to graduate school, and then find themselves working in unpaid internships as part of some additional rite of passage, all so they can earn, at best, a modest salary. One group’s solution: there should be a field-wide refusal to work for nothing. In addition, participants want women to leave graduate programs feeling confident about traditionally male areas of focus like finance. Can’t read a spread sheet from the business office? Grow your skill set.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was also discussed with participants asking where staff at small museums can go when they need help or advice, and what the board’s role is in seemingly condoning workplace sexism. A participant quipped that Boston area museums still have a Brahmin attitude, meaning you’ve been allowed to be part of the boys’ club, now deal with it. And there was also a shout out for not just doing what men do, but finding new solutions to achieve the same end.
And towards the end one woman reminded us all to “Put on our armor and fight like Amazons.” Which brings us to where we were before the election. This fall we created an advocacy group, Gender Equity in Museums Movement, or GEMM. As yet, we have no official affiliation, but we are beginning talks with AAM to see how GEMM can support its equity agenda. If you’re interested in knowing more about our call to action, please read and share our platform paper, A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. If it speaks to you, join us via email, twitter or Facebook. Let’s make museums the poster child for women’s (and that’s all women, not just white women’s) equity. We’re not giving up and neither should you.
And if you were out of the country, living off the grid or you simply stopped reading post- election, you may want to look at:
This week jargon entered my workplace when we welcomed a new employee, and I was treated–after the fact–to the delicious term “onboarding.” If you work in a large museum, it may sometimes feel like a large ocean liner on which you set sail each morning only to return to your home port when the sun goes down. There may even be staff members who see themselves permanently confined to steerage, while people with the fancier positions–say, curators–frolic in first class. But onboarding? Really? I sometimes think that non-profit leaders believe that borrowing phrases from the Harvard Business Review makes them sound knowledgable, but like so much in life, actions need to follow words. So if you still call it orientation, but make an employee feel welcome and know she made a good choice joining your museum, that’s what is really important.
This was our third new recruit in three years so you would think that we would have the process down by now. In fact, you might hope we have a process. We don’t. That is to say HR does a magnificent job, and employees arrive at our doorstep, insured, benefitted, and parking stickered. The rest is up to us. Or you.
If you’re a small shop, the meet and greet of new employees may happen organically. You welcome an employee, show them their work space, meet with them to talk over the job, which presumably you did during the interview process, but now it’s for real, and then engage them with both colleagues and work. You may take them out to lunch or invite them to join volunteers for coffee. Barring water in the storage areas, your website being hacked, a major donor’s name misspelled, you give them a week or two to get their feet wet, to find their place, or whatever metaphor you want to use. You see them daily, you check in, you make sure they know both the parameters of their job, along with short and long term goals. You watch. You listen. And you hope they’re the self-evolved individual who persuaded you to select them in the first place.
If you’re a leader, a new employee’s honeymoon period is also the moment to understand (again) how your staff works, individually and collectively. There is a saying among English teachers that all novels are driven by a character leaving or arriving. Nowhere is that more apparent than the workplace. New employees sometimes bring a team’s strengths and weaknesses to the fore. So be alert. If you aren’t supervising the new team member directly, check in with those who are. Watch for all the values you want and believe your organization models: transparency, equity, imagination, self-awareness. Are your assistant directors or curators engaging the new employee in ways that are meaningful and helpful? Were reasonable goals set for weeks one and two?
Be mindful too if your new employee is a “first”–a first person of color, a first openly transgender or queer person, the first man in your education department or even someone whose physical handicap challenges your workplace in new ways. Being a first is a difficult role. Don’t make your new hire the spokesperson for her demographic. Presumably you didn’t hire her for PR value. You hired her because of her unique set of talents and abilities.
Why does any of this matter? Because your museum matters, not just as a collector and interpreter of art, history or science, and not just as a hotbed of ideas and imagination, but as a great workplace. You want to be the cool place to work don’t you? And searching, hiring, and training new staff is a time suck. You want them to stay, to flourish, to do great things. Not leave in tears and wonder why the heck they ever applied to your museum in the first place.
Tell us how you “onboard”. Or just tell us all the workplace jargon you can’t stand.