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 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.
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:
Last week’s post on museum salaries left us breathless. In six days over 7,000 of you viewed the blog, breaking all sorts of Leadership Matters records. If we ever had any doubt about the fact that there are issues around salaries in the museum world, this was the confirmation. And just as we predicted there are some cranky, disaffected, and worried folks out there.
In our book Leadership Matters (AltaMira, 2013) and our upcoming book Women|Museums (Routledge, 2016), the manuscripts each end with an agenda. There, we list the changes that could be made by professional associations and service organizations, museums, graduate programs, and individuals to improve the issues surrounding leadership and gender (in Women|Museums) in MuseumLand. Here’s our Leadership Revolution Agenda.
Given the complexity of salaries, and the fact that short of a gazillion dollar gift to all of America’s 35,000+ museums, there is no single answer to the salary conundrum. So we taken a stab at what we think a Museum Salary Agenda for the 21st Century could look like — consider it a call to action that you can weigh in on.
What Professional Associations and Museum Service Organizations Can Do:
- Establish and promote national salary standards for museum positions requiring advanced degrees.
- Encourage museums to demonstrate the importance of human capital in their organizations.
- Make salary transparency part of the StEPS (AASLH) and accreditation process (AAM).
- Support organizations in understanding the need for endowment to support staff salaries. A building and a collection don’t guarantee a museum’s future. People do.
- Create a national working group for #Museumstaffmatters.
What Institutions Can Do:
- Encourage networking and individual staff development.
- Make every effort to provide salaries that exceed the Living Wage.
- Educate boards regarding the wastefulness of staff turnover.
- Make criteria for salary levels transparent.
- Examine the gaps among the director’s salary, the leadership team and the remaining staff.
- Offer equitable health and family leave benefits (and make them available on Day One of a new hire’s tenure).
What Individuals Can Do:
- Do your homework. Understand the community and region where you plan to work.
- Use the Living Wage index.
- Be prepared to negotiate. Be prepared to say no. A dream job isn’t a dream if your parents are still paying your car insurance and your mobile phone bills.
- Ask about the TOTAL package not just salary. If you are the trailing spouse and don’t need health insurance but do need time, make that part of your negotiations.
- Network. Know what’s going on in your field, locally, regionally, nationally.
What Graduate Programs Can Do:
- Be open about job placement statistics.
- Teach students to negotiate salaries and benefits.
- Teach students to calculate a Living Wage plus loan payments and quality of life.
- Encourage networking, mentoring and participation in the field.
This week my local historical society–full disclosure, I am a board member–spent part of its monthly meeting discussing the American Association of State and Local History’s (AASLH) Standards and Excellence Program or StEPS. Now in its second year in Connecticut, where it is supported by the Connecticut League of History Organizations and Connecticut Humanities, StEPs brings museum 101 to small organizations. The program takes two years and each organization admitted is also partnered with a mentor. Participating organizations are encouraged, prodded and coaxed to meet like organizations around the state to compare problems, projects, and goals. They attend workshops with guest speakers where they are encouraged to bring as many board members as they want for a modest $10 each. All good, right? Well, yes, except for the part about Governor Dannell Malloy zeroing the Connecticut Humanities budget a month ago, it’s better than good. It’s very good, except for–wait for it–you knew it was coming–the program’s governance piece.
One of the bolder statements Anne and I made in Leadership Matters was that if museums and historical organizations had invested as much over the last quarter century in leadership as they had in interpretation and collections management, the field would be in a different place. In fact, we feel so strongly about this that before writing Leadership Matters we wrote an online handbook called “What Comes First?” for individuals charged with starting museums or historical organizations. (It’s available through the Museum Association of New York.) So while we’re totally on board with StEPs, we wish the governance piece were more rigorous.
It’s possible for a volunteer board to emerge from the governance section of the StEPs program, having shed the traditional mission statement of protect, collect and interpret the history of wherever, and yet still not understand the arc of growth that strong organizations take from mission-driven, all-volunteer boards to boards whose goal is to hire a part or full-time director. To us there is a difference. It doesn’t make the former bad people, but it certainly separates the sheep from the goats. And in a subtle way, the organizations that are able to make the leap, have also intuited the idea that as non-profits we hold a public trust. It’s not about the board’s comfort level around the table; it’s not about the parts of local history they are interested in, it’s about their community however it is defined. And it’s about a quality and commitment to leadership–which, granted could be all-volunteer–that keeps the organization on a forward, financially stable trajectory, committed to something more than mediocrity.
Which is worse: A historic house with beautifully organized and cared for collections, but no visitors, or the same historic house filled with laughter, argument, lively discussion, and plenty of people? No, we are not suggesting that collections aren’t important. They are. For most organizations they are the catalysts that spawn ideas. But too many history organizations and their staffs are mired in process to the detriment of leadership. Their leaders manage but do not lead.
So what are we suggesting? Well, for the complete laundry list, see page 201 of Leadership Matters and our Leadership Revolution Agenda for History and Cultural Organizations. In the short term, of course we support more states following Connecticut’s model–not the Governor–but CLHO and CTHumanities–and participating in StEPs or programs like it, but we’d push everyone one step further and ask them to not stop at a new mission statement, but actually talk about where they as a group want to see their organization in one, three or five years. And to jot down the things they need to get there. And to partner with their local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce or bank. Approaching non-profit work as if it were a business isn’t bad. After all, if your “product” is happy people in the galleries, noisy, contented children getting back on the school bus and a growing membership, what’s not to like.
Well, truth be told, self-awareness should be important to all leaders, whether they serve in the museum world, the non-profit world or business. Why? On the face of it, leadership may seem like it’s about leaders knowing their organizations, and that’s true, but successful leaders also spend time studying themselves. This isn’t it’s-all-about-me narcissism, instead it’s an understanding of the minute calibrations that individuals and groups must make as they work together.
Take a leader who has no sense of who she is. Staff meetings are sometimes filled with socially awkward silence; team members react slowly or badly because information is delivered out of context or worse in such obscure, oblique ways that staff fail to grasp important ideas; even compliments to staff are stilted because it’s clear the director has no earthly idea what her staff actually does. A self-aware leader might do any one of those things once, but they’re naturally programmed to replay, to adjust, and to calibrate.
Not everyone understands this from the beginning. Some are lucky enough to work for organizations that encourage them to participate in leadership training like AASLH’s Developing History Leaders@SHA. Others take part in leadership courses in MBA programs or with the Chamber of Commerce. Some hire personal coaches. But all learn a rhythm that includes reflection, self-discovery, and reevaluation–even reinvention. It’s a pattern that once it’s practiced personally also works organizationally. Self aware leaders constantly adjust. They replay interactions, making leadership a journey that involves experimentation, evaluation, and recalibration. It’s a process many find humbling precisely because it’s not about you; it’s about you as part of a whole.
Often self-aware leaders are also servant leaders. They will tell you they “serve” the organizations they work for. Their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain or as one of the leaders we interviewed put it, “Your position is not you.” Self-aware leaders are also folks who recognize that influence works better than control. They may be workaholics, but they hold their staffs equally accountable, also. Ceding responsibility recognizes that you can control who you hire, but not their work pace or their personality.
Last, self-aware leaders aren’t Chatty Cathy’s. They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, they are listeners. Listening–really listening as opposed to waiting for a chance to talk– provides opportunities for change and that’s what self-aware leaders are good at. As Ted Bosley, director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, California, one of the self-aware leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters put it: “You’re so much more likely to move a project forward when you listen with respect and compassion. You need to humble yourself and listen.”
Hello, fellow readers. This is the first of what will be monthly posts on women’s issues. As you’re aware, we are hard at work on a new book Women+Museums so it seems only fitting that once every 30 days or so we devote some time to the thoughts, concerns and issues of women in the museum field. Today’s post is for women with male bosses. And if it strikes a chord with men who supervise women so much the better.
One of the most disturbing things we’ve noted about men in power and women as subordinates is that if you are the woman in that scenario, you sometimes feel as though you might be losing your mind. Not because of the 8 gazillion demands on your time or your second job at home or the fact that you don’t exercise enough, but because the man who is your boss, CEO, director or department head looks at you with a kind of innocent certainty as if he would never, ever, ever treat you inequitably. As if, he would never pre-judge a situation even though he has just asked you to take the high road and apologize to the (male) subordinate on the grounds that he knows you want to be an assistant director and this is what good administrators do. Really? Why is it that some men in leadership positions think women need a different kind of guidance than the men who also work for them? Why is it we can’t create an accurate rubric of the skills necessary to lead in addition to skills necessary for success that aren’t gender-based?
In researching Women+Museums, we’re reading a lot of literature about women in the workplace. If this type of book isn’t taking up space on your bedside table, take it from us, there are more of them than you could reasonably get through in a year. There are the well-known books like Lean-In and Thrive, there are books about decision making, about women who can’t ask for things, about raising children even though 60 percent of the time someone else is raising them because you’re at the office, and there are countless books about what to do if you’ve been wronged in some way or if you lack confidence.
One we’ve found useful is What Works for Women at Work and here’ s why. The mother/daughter authors, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey are very clear that while many of the most heinous forms of bias have been eliminated from the workplace, that doesn’t mean sexism has disappeared. Williams and Dempsey site four types of subtle bias. See if any of them sound familiar. They are: Prove-It-Again, where women are forced to prove their competence repetitively; the Tightrope, scenarios where women are written off because they’re either too feminine or too aggressive; the Maternal Wall where having children marginalizes women and their career commitment is questioned; and last, the complex, Tug of War, where workplace pressures lead women to judge each other as if there were one right way to be a woman. Williams and Dempsey are critical of many earlier books on women in the workplace because in their minds those books ask women to change rather than looking at the institutions the women work for to change. In other words: don’t fix us, fix the system.
This is what we’d like to do, albeit in a small way, with Women+Museums in the museum world: to pull the curtain back, start talking about gender in an open and honest way, and make whatever changes need to be made.
As always, let us know your thoughts.
Joan H. Baldwin