Two of my favorite myths at the beginning of Leadership Matters are: “We are the source of our own best ideas,” and “Anyone can lead a museum.” They come from a place that says museums are simple organizations doing simple stuff, and pretty much anybody can do what needs to be done. After all, there’s a gazillion books and YouTube videos. How hard can it be? I’ve never worked in a really big museum, but I know first-hand that among tiny to medium-sized heritage organizations and museums these two myths spawn a lot of problems, and the biggest may be they limit imagination.
You may have seen this type of behavior cast generationally–the proverbial eye-roll from older staff members when a Millennial suggests trying something new. Or it’s attributed to a particular subgroup within the museum, frequently with the pronoun ‘they’ — as in “It’s a great idea, but they would never go for it.” They refers to a nameless group of powerful people who make decisions for everyone else. Despite the fact staff may have no real understanding about the board’s decision-making process, ascribing blame in these situations is useful. Then there is the financial version, which goes something like, “I love that, but we just don’t have the money right now.” And last, but certainly not least is the version that combines one or more of the others: “We tried that before the recession, and it wasn’t that successful.” If your therapist were in the room for all these comments, she’d tell you you’re writing the script before anything’s happened. And she’d be right.
I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. And it can buy a lot, and ease even more worries. But an organization can be really rich and also really boring. Surely you’ve been to some of those. They are beautifully presented, but stiff, still, and flat. There is, to quote Gertrude Stein, “No there there.” But there are other organizations where, without warning and often without huge budgets, you’re challenged, confronted by things you hadn’t thought about before or presented with memorable narratives. They are the places you remember. They are the ones that stick with you.
Imagination and ideas are a museums’ biggest tools. Otherwise you’re just a brilliantly-organized storage space. And yet how do you get out of the scarcity mindset? Practice. Truly. And start small.
If you’re a leader:
- Read widely. Listen and learn from a variety of sources. If you’re a scientist, read the book review. If you’re an art curator, read the Harvard Business Review.
- Model respect, and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Use the ideas that work now. Start small. What percentage of your guests are elderly? Will moving some benches afford a view and make walking from place-to-place easier? Try it. If it doesn’t work, move them back.
- Change is a muscle. Build strength slowly. Don’t over do it.
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a board member:
- Model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Know what matters. Understand your organization.
- Invite a different staff member to your board meeting every month. Ask them what they would do if you gave them a million dollars. Listen. (And ban the eye-roll.)
- Devote some time as a group to talking about ideas as opposed to what’s just happened, what’s currently happening or what will happen. How can you raise money for an organization if you’re not excited about what it’s doing?
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a leader or a board member, you’re role isn’t to maintain the status quo. You want more than mediocrity, don’t you? You’re a change agent, and change doesn’t have to come in a multi-million-dollar addition. Sometimes it comes in a volunteer program that models great teaching, a friendly attitude and deep knowledge.
Yours for idea stimulation,
P.S. Two items of note passed over our screens this week: Nikki Columbus, who was briefly hired by MOMA PS1, settled the claim she brought against the museum. Kudos to Ms. Columbus for following through on her claim which accused MOMA PS1 of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination. It takes money, courage and will to take on a monolith, but in the end cases like this one set precedent for others. Second, the Guggenheim Museum joined Britain’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery in no longer accepting gifts from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, donated $9 million to the Guggenheim between 1995 and 2015. Aligning gifts with core values is a tricky topic so stay tuned.
It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and for those of us who work in education, that means time away from work, time to think a bit. Because it’s Thanksgiving, and because we think it’s important, here are a few things we are thankful for:
- Our readers: So far, in 2018 there are 49, 019 of you from from 144 countries. Writing a weekly blog has its lonely moments so it’s inspiring to look at the WordPress map and think we speak to you half way around the world if only weekly, and only through the magic of the Internet. It’s equally gratifying to attend a conference and meet people who read Leadership Matters. So thank you all.
- Our students, mentees, and others: Working with you is always a pleasure. We always learn–if not something new–then we deepen our understanding through your questions, your research, and your enthusiasm.
- Our museum colleagues and friends: You know who you are. Anne Ackerson calls them her posse. Other people refer to them as their kitchen cabinet. Whatever you call them, they know where true north is. They offer advice without being patronizing. They ask the hard questions. They empathize. They always answer when you ask a hard question.
- Last, we’re thankful for guest writers. If you yearn to write for something with a loyal following of readers; if you are wrestling with a leadership issue or think you’ve found the perfect solution; if issues around pay, gender, intersectionality or people getting promoted beyond their capabilities set your hair on fire, let us know. Send us an idea, a pitch, and a writing sample, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
One quick thought that came up in this week’s Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Class: the idea of urgency and leadership. Students discussed the necessity for leaders to identify what on an organization’s plate is really urgent as opposed to daily life. Often leaders cluster at either end of the spectrum: Those for whom everything is drama–from the paper towel selection in the restrooms to the number of exhibitions annually–and those for whom there is never urgency, the ones for whom life just happens.
Perhaps you have worked for leaders in one of these camps. Both are wearying. The all-drama, all-the-time folks must wonder why their staff never seems energized, but it’s likely because they can’t tell the difference between real urgency and nitpicking. For those whose leaders never define urgency, there is a massive sense of disconnection. Deadlines don’t matter and nothing is connected to anything else.
In some sense all leaders must be visionaries. It’s their job to see into the future, to sort the excruciatingly important from the negligible, and communicate that information to staff. It’s also their job to check-in, to make sure what’s important gets done, and done in a way that everyone is proud of. Those of you who work for leaders or boards who can strategize the future, sort the important from the not-so-important, know there’s a grace about the way your work happens; energy isn’t expended where it’s not needed. And for that, there’s a lot to be thankful for.
To all of you in the United States, a Happy Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere, our best wishes. Be in touch especially if you’d like a guest writing spot.
In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.
We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.
Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:
- Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
- Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
- Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
- Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
- Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.
This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.
It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.
Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.
There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done. How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.
Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.
- Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
- Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
- Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
- Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or full staff?
- Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?
Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.
Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark to American troops in 2004, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It’s become a kind of trope for dealing with things as they are rather than as we’d like them to be. And unless you’re lucky enough to start a museum from the ground up, in the world of museum leadership it’s something all of us understand. From lazy boards to poorly-trained volunteers, to staff whose idea of great is your version of mediocre, leadership is rife with situations where directors, chief curators or department heads find themselves leading folks they might not have hired in the first place.
So what do you do? First, understand your role. Were you hired to be a change agent? Do you work for an organization that embraces change and is willing to raise the money for new staff and new salaries? If so, lucky you. If you weren’t make very sure you understand your role and your organization. Change isn’t easy, and when it comes to HR, you need wholehearted support from your board or director to persuade long-time employees that their jobs, work habits or responsibilities may change.
Second, get to know your staff. By that I don’t mean whether they raise chihuahuas, compete in triathlons or collect orchids. I mean get to know them at work. What the heck do they do? And how do they do it? For all you know they may have had spectacularly poor mentoring for the last however many years. Or the previous director’s understanding of that particular job was very different from your vision. So meet with them; shadow them.You may learn their concerns are similar to yours, but they’ve had no one to talk to, and neither the power nor the support to make change. Remember, no matter what you’ve been told about the leader you replaced, unless you worked for them too, you have no idea what it was like to be their employee. And here’s a little leadership truth: Being someone’s employee is very different than hearing that person talk about being a boss.
Last, before you review job performances or re-write job descriptions, make sure you provide staff with clear expectations and a safe, empowering environment in which to work. Don’t micro-manage. They will wonder why you’re getting the big bucks if you have time to wander in the weeds. Give them responsibility and let them run with it. Show them you trust them. Some will need more hand holding and check-ins, others not so much, but with clear expectations, it will be obvious when benchmarks aren’t met. Then and only then can you begin to winnow the staff you’ve got in order to create the staff you want. But this isn’t a recipe for letting staff go. Trust is a powerful engine. Call me a Pollyanna, but believing in staff members and gently pushing them to achieve is a good thing. Just make sure your equation is job understanding + clear objectives = benchmarks met. And don’t forget to say thank you.
What’s your strategy for moving your organization forward with what you consider a less than stellar staff?
When you work in a highly competitive high school like I do, you have to think about perfectionism because daily you deal with students who truly can’t stop. They get too little sleep, and work compulsively. Even their concept of recreation is sometimes a resume builder clad in another costume. And it’s peculiar how this culture of “never enough” seeps into the lives of adults in the community as well. As usual, that made me think about a) museums and b) the perfect being the enemy of the good.
In the for-profit world there are about a million books for people struggling with needing to be too perfect at work. But what about the museum world? Do we have issues with perfectionism? I suspect so. Does the fact that so many museums are under-resourced leave staff and leadership reaching for perfection in attempt to save money? Is that because in a world where money is tight, there’s no room for the less than perfect? As a leader, have you figured out how to differentiate between mediocre big-concept ideas delivered in a tightly controlled way and looser more creative concepts that prompt more audience response?
To begin, let’s acknowledge that, irony of ironies, perfection is unattainable, and then remind ourselves that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And yet some days we don’t want it any less. How many of you grapple with experimenting versus completion? Do you put the brakes on new ideas because somehow it seems more important just to get the exhibit/program/event/fund raiser (you pick one) finished rather than try something new? Does that stifle staff creativity? If you said yes, know that you’re not alone. It’s hard to be flexible enough for idea-making and yet driven enough to complete the punch list.
One of the problems some perfectionist people and cultures experience is that they or the organization becomes overwhelmed by details. The weeds are never too high to keep them from wandering in and thrashing about. In a perfectionist culture this means that in a heart beat meetings go off track as staff try to solve problems that aren’t the main point. It’s like cooking a four-course meal before going to the grocery store, and as leaders, we have to be aware of what’s happening and gently steer the ship back on course. In addition, in a perfectionist culture it is difficult to prioritize. When everything has to be done perfectly, it’s hard to put a value on one task versus another.
Perfectionists also have problems delegating. They place the bar so high, that it’s unlikely anyone can fulfill even the most menial of tasks. Sometimes this leads to a “gotcha” backlash where in the spirit of no-amount-of-effort-is-enough, staff pick apart each other’s work, another moment where the watchful leader will gently counsel respect and understanding.
New research also shows that it is possible to be a perfectionist and not be neurotic, nor drive your colleagues crazy. According to this article from New York Magazine, healthy perfectionists are the folks who are likely to be happy with the results of their hard work versus their neurotic workmates who are never satisfied. If you’re interested in plotting your own levels of perfectionism, you can take this quiz included with the article.
There are many moments where we as leaders need to counterbalance perfectionism with the idea that it’s okay to let go and experiment. Success–even small victories–from experimentation rather than rigid adherence to rules breeds confidence and confidence breeds more success. To read more about this try Nina Simon’s blog, particularly this post. Or Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale.
And as always, share your stories of success (and failure–that’s a different blog post!) with us here.
This week I thought I would write a little bit about “process.” By process I mean the way we as individuals and groups work our way through something, whether it’s a project, a press release, a benefit, an exhibition. As leaders you’ve all been there. Not only do you have to bring whatever it is to fruition, you have to bring your staff along with you. Hopefully, along the way, you play to their strengths, engage them, light creative fires, and make something that is better than any one of you would have made alone.
But before we talk about process, a story. I spent my vacation in Maine in a tiny coastal town that is about as far from the state’s moniker of “the way life should be” as possible. It’s a town that never quite pulled itself out of the mess of 2008. There is too little work and there are too many houses for sale. In the center of the village, though, is the library, which shares space with the historical society. They are both housed in a handsome mid-nineteenth century house and have a huge group of volunteers who keep the place running. They are also in the middle of a $100,000 fund raising drive. Last week as part of that campaign, they held a pie sale. Here are the particulars: Volunteers bake pies and quiches. They deliver them to the library before 9 a.m. the morning of the sale and people like me spend $12 to $15 per pie. I have to assume that purchases are a bit of a gamble because all the bakers can’t be as good as the person who made the three-berry pie I bought. In any case, at the end of six hours they made almost $1,000.
I spent a lot of time at the Library around the pie sale, and it made me ponder the question of process. I learned that the volunteers scour tag sales throughout the year for pie dishes and that when you buy a pie the dish is included. I learned they buy personal size pizza boxes to put each pie in. I learned that the pie sale spawned a silent auction and an art sale.
All of this made me think about process, about the way, we as leaders and department heads, volunteers and board chairman, make something happen. Because I think too often what we forget, and we do it for the best possible reasons, is to begin with a vision statement. Why are we selling pies? And to make sure everyone has the same answer, which might be: To make a lot of money for our fund raising campaign. What needs to happen next, but often doesn’t is an outline to keep people moving from A to D and so on without wandering into the weeds of art sales and silent auctions. It might also help staff or volunteers save time. Maybe it isn’t necessary to scour tag sales for 11 months. Maybe there’s another way to get pie pans.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions at our Library, but merely to ask if part of your leadership mantra is clarity. Before you head into a meeting, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Do you deliver your vision clearly? Have you learned to pull staff back when in their enthusiasm they want to add the art sale to the pie sale? Can you curb their enthusiasm kindly while channeling it into pies? Is your staff used to tossing ideas in the air and batting them around? Are they kind when someone offers up an idea that seems a bit loony and out-of-the-box? To the best of your abilities, does everyone leave the room ready to take on their part of the project?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you and your staff are in a good place. And, I suspect, will sell a ton of pies. If not, think about the places where you stumble and go into the weeds. Is it during the delivery of the idea? Perhaps you think your ideas are clear as a bell, but they’re not. Are you someone who’d rather not direct the meeting too much and as a result it zigs and zags, before becoming a contest with pies as prizes? Or are you the leader who has trouble pulling staff back on track. It’s rough sometimes, but know you’re not the only one who is suffering. Colleagues all around the table are waiting for you to pull the group out of the ditch. You will not only get the project back on track, your staff will applaud in their heads, and as long as you are kind, the person who’s off-track will get over it.
Leaders don’t get a lot of rest. At least not at work. And as a leader, meetings are your time to shine. So next time you deliver the news about a project, event, exhibition, make sure you’re on track so your staff can follow. Remember, an unclouded vision spawns creativity, which leads to a great “to-do list,” which leads to a meaningful event or program or project. Good luck. And share your “pie stories” with us here at Leadership Matters.