For the past seven weeks I’ve been involved in a search for a new program director. It’s a time sponge. It’s nerve wracking. Candidates you thought you adored drop out. And, colleagues and staff behave in ways that surprise you. So….almost two months in, here are my six takeaways:
- Hiring is about relationship building. Yes, the museum is building a team or filling a leadership position, but the moment you join the Zoom call and become a talking head the size of a postage stamp, everyone’s soft skills are on display. If you’re the applicant, your job isn’t to best your competition in some imaginary race, spewing a laundry list of achievements at your listeners. It’s to be your best self. Do you seem like someone who listens? Are you picking up on social queues? Your potential employer is on display too. If museum staff is interviewing as a group, how do they interact with one another? Are they the kind of team that seems irresistible or do they give off a fog of dysfunction?
- How the process is structured really matters. My employer has worked very, very hard in the last few years to build a better hiring process, one that’s multi-layered, many-voiced, and equitable. In the bad old days, hiring might be done by one individual from behind a desk. They opened letters and somehow deciphered who they wanted to speak to. There might or might not be a phone call, but many times it was simply to set up an in-person interview. There, one person represented the institution in all its glory, deciding whether you were a good fit. If you met other staff it was to say hello while you toured the site. Thankfully, those days are over. By acknowledging the gravity of the hiring process and working with HR, it’s possible to create a process that helps eliminate bias while incorporating a variety of voices.
- Keeping an open mind is really important. Whether we admit it or not, we all come to the process hampered with ideals, and those ideals intertwine with bias to create some optimal candidate who we consciously or unconsciously hold up for comparison. Sometimes it’s a detailed picture that includes graduate degrees, internships, conference presentations, and previous organizations worked. Sometimes it’s as simple as not male, not old. But if your ideal is more about you than it is about your museum, you’re in trouble. The choice to pick an older person of color versus a young white millennial isn’t about you. It’s for your organization. Your vote–hopefully among many–should not be for superficials, but for the person (and their values) whose leadership practice best benefits your museum or heritage organization.
- If your organization isn’t diverse, be transparent: If you’re inviting a “first” candidate–first woman, first person of color, first LGBTQ–to interview, and you know they’ll walk into a room where they feel othered, be open about it. Acknowledge your organization’s lack of diversity, and ask whether being part of that change is something the candidate wants to participate in.
- Group-think is important: One of the things I applaud about my organization’s rehabilitated hiring process is that opinions are expressed in private via a common form. Why does that matter? Well, our organization, and perhaps yours too, has some dominant voices. When a hiring committee makes decisions around a table, individual opinions sometimes don’t receive equal weight. Filling out a common form, and assigning numerical scores to aspects of the interview helps make the process more equitable for candidates and interviewers.
- Organizational self-knowledge is key: In a perfect world we’d all be self-aware, and, as a result, so would our museums and heritage organizations. If your job is to find a curator, an advancement professional, a designer or educator, you need to understand your organization fully. Too often hiring committees are thrilled when they discover common ground between themselves and the candidate, but what really matters is alignment between the candidate and the museum. Hiring committees benefit from talking about the organization and its values at the outset so they begin with a common understanding of their museum’s values.
To return to where I began, hiring is a stressful process for both employer and applicant, but your staff, as we’ve said multiple times here, is a huge investment. You want to get it right: to hire the best person you can, whose values align, while their creativity stimulates healthy change and growth.
Take a look at the way you hire, the process you go through, and make changes now. Despite the American Alliance of Museum’s longstanding resistance to requiring salary listings in job announcements, it has done a deep dive into equitable hiring, and the resources are formidable. Use them. As with so much in the museum workplace hiring is a process well worth the investment. Know yourself. Know your workplace and its values. Whether employer or applicant, we all want a process that’s equitable, that’s built on behavioral questions, and that aligns individual and museum values, not superficials.
To start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.
My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.
Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.
On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.
So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?
- Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
- If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
- Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
- Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
- Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
- When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.
Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.
Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective
This week in discussion with our Johns Hopkins class we asked students about threats to 21st-century museums. While there were outliers who mentioned the lack of leadership training, poor pay, and becoming a pink collar field, the vast majority felt diversity was today’s biggest challenge. And by diversity, they meant its absence. This group is young, hopeful, largely female, and mostly Caucasian, yet they see our field as riddled with white, male patriarchy.
To be totally transparent, we here at Leadership Matters are older, white, straight and female. We occupy a weird nether-world that has trouble claiming a demographic silo so there may be some who bristle when we write about diversity and leadership. But as people who’ve watched the museum world, and particularly museum leadership, for a long time, we believe this field is overdue for change. And creating diversity by checking boxes–one handicapped staff member plus one LGBTQ person, plus one person of color, plus one transgender individual equals diversity–is not the answer. In fact, it can result in a lonely group of individuals who are burdened with representing an entire population, and who feel they’ve only been hired because of who they’re not. And who aren’t they? They aren’t your usual Caucasian, privileged, cisgender, straight, liberal-arts college crowd. So what should you do? How about hiring for the whole not for other-than?
How do you do that? Know your community. That’s your actual community, meaning your museum neighborhood, not the people who come to openings. Know your staff. Know where you want your organization to go, and who your museum cares about. Hire to mirror your forward motion. Hire to create a team, not to check boxes, but make sure you’ve done due diligence in spreading the word. Don’t place one advertisement with your regional museum service program and call it a day. Put the ad in as many places as you can afford and see who you attract.
Be willing to invest some time in the process. Hiring new staff is far more complex than ordering from Amazon, and yet too many organizations treat it in much the same way. They don’t discuss what the new or revised position could or should look like, how it might fit into the organization, and most importantly how one particular position adds to or complements a team. Add to that a boatload of bias, and it’s easy to hire the same old, same old.
When we wrote “Know your staff” above, we really meant it. Even if you work at an organization as big as some small towns, someone knows the group of people you are hiring for. They know whether they interact with the community daily or move entirely behind the scenes. They know whether they’re chummy, go out for drinks together, and finish everything on time but at the last minute or whether they are goal driven and competitive. And they know whether their team really needs a master’s degree or whether a bachelor’s degree and a lot of imagination will move the ball up the field just fine.
If you’re the board and hiring for the ED position, you know what’s on the “to-do” list at the micro and macro level. If you’re making a huge shift, you know you’re going to need someone who will smile and be personable, someone who can sell change. That means you must park your bias at the door. Listen and watch. Again, don’t choose the person who makes you comfortable; choose the person that’s the best fit for the job.
I would be doing us all a disservice if I made it sound as simple as applying good listening techniques. Hiring is a complicated process, where bias, aspiration, hope, and memory frequently clash. AAM offers good resources on how to make the process more open and transparent. Don’t forget too, part of hiring and keeping a diverse staff is to maintain an equitable workplace. Maybe now’s the moment to make sure your 2019 to-do list includes:
- a gender pay equity audit.
- a values statement–what does your organization believe in back stage away from the public?
- an HR/personnel policy that includes a standard of conduct and anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.
- An understanding of what it costs to live in your museum’s neighborhood, city or town.
- Know what diversity means in your community. Know who’s not at your table.
Once again, hiring for social media/PR value only nets disappointment and expense. Instead, hire because you want a diverse crowd around your table. Because the diverse crowd is the best crowd and diverse teams are imaginative teams. And who isn’t looking for the dream team?
Image: Harvard Gazette, Harvard University
Choosing a new executive director is a big deal. Whether you’re a teeny tiny historical society or the Metropolitan Museum of Art much rests on the selection of a single human. This week, both in conversations with a colleague, and in class discussion with our Johns Hopkins University students, it became clear that a lot of museums and heritage organizations don’t allow staff to meet the candidates. Too often, that opportunity seems to belong to the board and the board alone.
It’s hard, however, to see how that makes any sense. Admittedly, I work at an organization that’s taken the interview process to extraordinary levels. Except for the lowliest positions, every candidate spends at least five or six hours on site, moving from meeting to meeting, and often participating in the proverbial lunch where she or he is asked to eat while simultaneously answering questions from well-meaning staff. At day’s end, everyone submits evaluations to their direct reports. Could staff really sway a decision? I don’t know, but I can tell you that everyone feels as though they’ve participated. At the very least, they can put a name to a face when the final decision is announced. Why does any of this matter? Because “they,” whether they are a leadership team at a huge organization, or the entire staff at a small one, will be the candidate’s team. And the team is important.
One of the many misconceptions about interviewing is that it’s something that happens to you. And it does, but it’s not an entirely passive experience, nor should it be. Too often the whole job process feels like a do-or-die proposition. You turn on the charm and hope they pick you out of what must be — in your imagination at least — hundreds of capable applicants. But you’re also interviewing them, whoever they are. And how they come off, especially at a moment when everybody’s on their best behavior, matters. What does it tell you if you spend half a day on site, and never meet the staff? Granted, if you’re interviewing at the American Museum of Natural History, The Henry Ford or the Victoria and Albert Museum, you couldn’t possibly meet many staff. But, at the very least, shouldn’t you meet your future peers and/or direct reports? And what does it say about the board and the leadership if you don’t? At the very least, ask for those opportunities if it appears they aren’t on the agenda. (You never know, the staff could have fruitlessly pushed for meetings. If you ask for and get meetings, you could become the staff’s hero.)
Sometimes organizations can’t seem to get out of their own way. And boards, like an abandoned spouse after a divorce, sometimes hire quickly, frequently selecting a version of the person they just lost, perpetuating a host of organizational ills. So, if you’re a museum board member or a museum leader, and 2019 is going to be your year for an important hire, think about the following:
- Know what qualities you’re looking for. Sounds obvious, but these aren’t the standard qualities that every job advertisement lists — courage, vision, intelligence, self-awareness — they are the qualities that will take your museum or heritage organization and move it forward. And they shouldn’t be confused with qualifications. Only you, the board and the museum leadership know what your organization needs. Is it experience as a collaborator with other organizations? Is it the ability to be decisive and carry out a strategic plan? Is it an understanding of how digital and web-based content can impact your organization?
- Be open about where you might find this person. It might not be in a traditional spot. Try to shed your biases or at least acknowledge them, and be willing to look outside the box.
- If this is the top spot, decide how to engage your leadership team and/or staff. Who will give candidates a tour? Who will meet with them in small groups? Who will answer questions about living in your area?
- How can meetings with staff and candidates give you the most bang for the buck, providing information for the interviewee, while also giving staff the opportunity to listen and ask questions?
- Does your staff or board need coaching on which questions are legal and appropriate and which are not? A refresher never hurts.
Hiring, particularly for the top spot, is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. Presumably, you’re proud of your museum and the work it does. So showcase it. Let candidates meet with staff. Give them a mechanism to report back. Listen. Listen. Listen. Choose wisely. Choose for the team you have and the organization you want.