Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders


Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.

Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.

That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.

  1. Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
  2. Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
  3. A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
  4. An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
  5. That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
  6. An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
  7. A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
  8. An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
  9. A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
  10. A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.

If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.

What’s on your list?

Joan Baldwin


Museums and Women: Work Isn’t You

Pat Summitt

Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?

SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.

What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.

If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”

Be well,

Joan Baldwin

Good Work Habits Mean Alot

At Work

Leadership & Work Habits

As part of our 100th post celebration, we put out the call for guest posts and are pleased to welcome Marilyn Weiss Cruickshank, owner of Creative Simplicity Organizing & Productivity based outside of Boston, for her insights on leadership and the productive workplace.


I spend my days working with people and organizations who are over-scheduled, overcommitted, and plain old overwhelmed. None of the individuals I work with set out to be this way, but our busy-every-minute world has had a less than stellar effect on our everyday routines. And, often in our race to complete tasks and to do’s, we forget that our demeanor is on display for our staff members, colleagues, volunteers, and board members. It’s not just about getting it all done, but getting it all done with intelligence, patience, poise, and enthusiasm…leading and leading by example. Clearly a tall order, as we can only handle so much. Yet, adapting, displaying, and implementing productive work habits is a benefit to the work we seek to accomplish and an essential component of being a strong leader.

So how do we stem the tide and add productivity to our list of every day accomplishments?   What do exemplary work habits really look like?

  1. Stop Multitasking

How many of us try to send a quick email while on the telephone or edit a document while simultaneously writing another? Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can over stimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. And the rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. Bottom line: focus on one task at a time if you want to get it done right and done well.

  1. Share the positive

Energize your staff by clearly defining expectations and routinely offering positive feedback. According to a 2015 study by Gallup, organizations and companies that engage their workforce saw a 21% bump in productivity.

  1. Make the Most of Peak Energy Times

When do you work best? If you are like most people, the morning is your most productive time. A survey tells us that 64% of workers feel most productive between 8am and 12noon. Schedule your most important tasks for the time you typically feel the most energetic.

  1. Be Wary of Working Too Much

More hours don’t necessarily equal better productivity. According to Fast Company, output is proportionate to the time worked up to 49 hours per week. Beyond that, productivity decreases and those who put in 70-hour weeks have the same productivity as those who work 56 hours.

  1. Get Organized

Did you know that piles of paper in your office are deferred decisions?   Are you working or meeting in spaces full of clutter with little to no clear surface space to focus on the task at hand? An Office Max study found that nine in ten (90%) Americans admit that unorganized clutter at home or at work has a negative impact on their life. Their productivity (77%), state of mind (65%), motivation (53%) and happiness (40%) are also affected. Our cluttered spaces are actually making us less creative and able to focus on our work. Often the way your office is set up is just as important as the items you choose to keep in your space.   Clearing the unnecessary items from your workspace and taking some time to implement systems that work for you and the way you work removes the visual distractions and reflects our ability to make strong decisions.

  1. Give me a break.

According to a 2013 survey, 60% of workers think spending time on a few non- work-related tasks during work hours actually improves productivity. The idea is that it has become increasingly difficult to separate work and life, to the point that more of a work/life blend is needed and shouldn’t be punished or discouraged. So, short breaks throughout the workday keep people fresh and ultimately more focused in the long term.   Better yet, use the short break time to take a quick walk, have some quiet time, or eat a healthy snack to energize and refresh yourself.

There are no perfect shortcuts to being more productive, but instead of ignoring the issue completely, why not try some varied strategies in your work place? Take some time to really look at calendars and to do lists and think about why you do what you do each day.   New routines eventually become new habits and new ways of doing things can add the bounce in our step that many of us are craving.


Marilyn Weiss Cruickshank is a Boston-based organizing and productivity consultant who helps clients get better organized and make more efficient use of physical and digital space, time, and resources. Marilyn works one-on-one with museum and historic site staff, and facilitates professional development workshops for staff, volunteers, and board members. She is a former Director of Education at the USS Constitution Museum, a former Board member of the New England Museum Association, and a past recipient of AAM’s Nancy Hanks Award for Professional Excellence in the museum field.

What To Do About Mediocre Leadership

boss with bullhorn

As part of our 100th post celebration we asked readers to tell us what was on their minds. One reader sent us an email that included this question: How do you work for an organization you love, with a mission you believe in, and cope with the horrible struggle of poor management behind the scenes? First, let’s acknowledge up front that there are often times in our lives when we don’t want to or can’t get a new job. If you are the trailing spouse or partner, if you have family ties that will be exacerbated by moving, or if you’ve only just begun a job and discover it isn’t the bowl of cherries you thought it would be, you may find yourself stuck when, in other circumstances, you would apply for a new job immediately.

So…what do you do? You’re doing work you like in a field you adore for a person whose idea of great is your idea of mediocre. Or worse, you work for a person who can’t get out of her own way, and who manages to make things worse not better. First, some coping strategies: These types of leaders can’t be depended on for much except confusion and mismanagement. As a result, don’t be rude, but try to avoid hallway conversations or spontaneous chats. You aren’t going to get the support you need and you will likely leave more confused than when you began. Poor leaders often don’t think strategically. That means you need to do the heavy lifting. Make sure your meetings are scheduled ahead of time. Make lists, and use them to guide conversation. Take notes during the meeting. Once it’s over, email a thank you and follow up with “This is my take-away.” That way, your job/role/project is down in black and white. Should anything go wrong or there’s any kind of misunderstanding, you’ve left the door open for your director to comment.

Second, make sure you have a mentor/advisor. This can be someone internal or better yet someone external. Remember, mentors aren’t therapists; they are there to help you navigate work and career situations. Don’t personalize or demonize your bad leader–that’s for drinks with your friends. Use time with your mentor to sort out your own communication style. Perhaps the way you ask questions is too oblique and you need to be more direct. Perhaps you are waiting for acknowledgement of your excellent work from someone who doesn’t recognize excellence, her own or anyone else’s. Perhaps you need to let go of things that aren’t your responsibility; in other words, play your position.

Once, when I launched into a rant about a co-worker, a very wise director looked at me and said, “People don’t change.” I sputtered to a halt. Of course people could change, and besides it’s for the sake of the organization. Why wouldn’t they want to moderate their behavior? Her answer: most of the time they don’t and they can’t. If you’re going to be good at the non-content part of your job, then you need to be adaptable, someone who can size up staff no matter where they are on the food chain and get along.

Last, here are some suggestions about how to make the external part of working for Mr. or Ms. Mediocre better.

  • Don’t be the servant employee. Be a bit more self-centered. Think about your job as a resume builder. What can the job offer you–training, travel, mentoring–that makes you a better you.
  • If you work in development, communications, HR or any field museums share with other non-profits, are there job opportunities that build your skill set away from the field, but allow you to stay in your community, city, town?
  • Read last week’s post on More Than a Mentor and make sure you have a posse.
  • Consider taking on an outside project as a consultant or a volunteer. Again, be strategic. What will it do for you? Allow you to work with folks you admire? Be a resume builder? Earn some extra money to fund either a vacation (re-charging in these situations is important) or professional development that your institution might not pay for.
  • Look for opportunities and take them. Is it your turn to schmooze trustees through your department? Don’t avoid it because the trustees hired the incompetent leader in the first place. Meet them and sell your own piece of the pie.
  • Finally, as we said last week, always check-in with yourself. Only you can know how sad, angry or tortured a job is making you. If it’s making you sick, step aside. You’re smart, well educated. There are other jobs in other fields. This may be the universe telling you to press pause on the museum field, so listen.

Are you working for the stress-you-out director? How do you cope?

Joan Baldwin


10 Things to Think About on Your Way to Work


First, we are looking forward to meeting many of you at AAM in Washington at the end of May. After two years of blogging about the museum workforce all of a sudden we’re no longer alone. A lot of people–including AAM itself–are talking about museum working conditions. In fact, we made Nicole Ivy’s blog which conveniently lists all the sessions connected to museums’ backstage life. If you didn’t see it, you can find it here. Your Guide to Labor 3.0 at the Annual Meeting. Our session, which is titled What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Women in Museums with Marieke Van Damme and Jessica Ferey, will have some great music, a chance to share some thoughts and make change together. We hope to see you there.

While we are in Washington, Anne and I will also be doing some teaching for AAM’s Getty program. This week I worked on a case study for that presentation. My topic is leadership and self-awareness, something I’ve written and spoken about frequently since we published Leadership Matters, so self-awareness has been on my mind. For too many leaders it’s akin to exercise, something we know is good for us, but hard to focus on. Or worse, it is seen as part of the massive self-help literature found in airport bookstores. It’s probably both those things, but self awareness, for museum leaders is critically important.

And the reason it’s important is that it’s not only about you, it’s about your staff as well. Think of it as an internal check-in. One for you, one for your staff. A self-aware leader is constantly calibrating her behavior to align with the people she’s leading.

On the way to work in the morning do you strategize the day? Do you think about which meetings are up first and your goals for each one? Do you also think about the people you will meet with? Today will you sit down with the museum department you consider least likely to succeed? The ones lacking self-confidence where mediocre work is a good outcome? Have you experimented with strategies to gain trust, improve communication, increase teamwork?

Don’t eye-roll here. Or at least if you’re doing it, be self-aware enough to recognize it. Museums are places of great beauty and big ideas. They are fabulous places to work. People envy those of us lucky enough to care for and interpret the world’s patrimony. But we do that by working with people. And museums are better places when we work well together. So here are 10 things to think about on your way to work:

  1. Check your judgement at the door. Assume everyone is trying to do their best.
  2. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to delegate when you need to. Do it with grace.
  3. Write down your plans and priorities. Check back often. Did you succeed or do you need to revise.
  4. Develop a group of friends, mentors and colleagues. Anne calls them your “posse.” They are straight shooters. They adore you, but they’ll tell you the truth.
  5. Check in with them. Ask them how they think you come across.
  6. Listen. Really listen. Don’t just wait for a chance to speak.
  7. Know how the chemistry changes when you walk in the room. Plan accordingly.
  8. Make a 360 assessment part of your annual review.
  9. Get out of the office. Your work is important, but you are not curing cancer. It’s spring. Go outside.
  10. Make this your mantra: Act, reflect, refine.

Last, if you haven’t already, take one of the many personality tests. Myers Briggs or the Disc Assessment are popular. Harvard Business Review also has an entrepreneurial aptitude test: Entrepreneurial Aptitude Test. If you think being an entrepreneur is for business–well that’s another post.

And share how you know yourself.

Joan Baldwin


Ambition in the Museum Workplace

Finish Line


“I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about people who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?”

Reese Witherspoon @ the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, November 9, 2015

This month put me in contact with a number of young museum and non-profit folk looking to advance in their careers. All of them are women–not a surprise given that Anne Ackerson and I are focused on our manuscript for Women|Museums to be published by Left Coast Press next year. At the same time, we constantly read pieces primarily written for the for-profit world about job getting and job leaving. In short, about ambition.

Here’s what we know about ambition in the for-profit world. Everybody has it to begin with, men and women. Everybody wants to be the best, get the office with the windows and the big salary. Then something weird happens. According to a 2015 survey by Bain and Company women’s ambitions drop by a whopping 60 percent. Before you jump to the conclusion that’s the result of the mommy track, it’s not. The results were the same for women who were married, not married, parents, not parents. Worse, while women’s confidence plummets, men’s does not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens next. Women’s confidence and aspirations, which begin higher than men’s, drops so that by the time they are senior leaders their confidence that they can reach the top spot is 29 percent versus men’s which is 60 percent. If you want to read more about this go here: Bain Study.

So we know what happens in business, but because of the museum world’s abysmal data keeping and seeming inability to turn a lens on itself as a workplace, we have no way of knowing if it’s true in museums. Then, if you add the fact that museums aren’t one world, but many, the narrative becomes more complex. Art museums that draw staff from the academy have a different culture than history, science or children’s museums although we know from AAMD’s 2014 study that women’s ambitions are thwarted in the art world as they move up the leadership ladder. Anecdotally, that also appears to be true in the history museum world even though its population is almost evenly split between men and women.

Here is what we’ve noticed: Preparation for strategic thinking about one’s career is often absent or downplayed at the graduate and early career level; getting the first job seems to be an end in itself; too many spend too little time strategizing about what taking and staying in a given position means for the long haul; choices often seem born out of enthusiasm–a sense of I’m so glad to be here–rather than a step toward something bigger and what bigger means; and there is an unspoken agenda, that leaving a position may hurt the organization and its needs come before an individual’s do.  Most jarring of all–sometimes it feels as if we, as a field, are kind of proud of the idea that we’re non-profits so being openly ambitious, especially openly ambitious young women, isn’t what we do.

Of course that might be true. Unlike the business world, museums offer median salaries somewhere around $45,000. There are few perquisites and leadership positions can be demanding. Moving up the ladder may mean literally moving which may be easier for some than others

So…as leaders what’s our role? Are you a mentor at work and outside work? Do you push staff to chart a course for themselves? Are they comfortable talking with you about career next steps? Are you comfortable listening? Conversely, as a leader do YOU have a mentor or mentors? Do you talk career strategies with them?

This week as we gather with family and friends, let’s make a pact to be more intentional about museums as workplaces. Let’s do our best to encourage upward mobility, salary negotiation and career strategizing. The field will be better for it. And as always, let us know your thoughts on ambition and charting career choices.

Joan Baldwin


Are You a New Museum Leader?


Perhaps because I work at a school, September always marks the start of the year. And as this summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a new leader, not only because we have an interim head of school, but we are in a search for a new long-term leader.

Our interim head is an experienced person who, if he were a different sort, would be taking long walks on the beach and thinking deep thoughts, his working life over. But he’s made a life not only of leadership, but of being an interim. And we’ve all pinned a lot on him. Will he be change agent or maintainer?

Thinking about the months to come, made me wonder how many of you are starting new jobs, either as directors or department heads, and as you step into your office for the first time, whether you ponder what your staff think about you. Because I can assure you, they are all expecting something different. There are the naysayers, who are certain you and any other new leader will fail. In their minds, the job is too complicated and you can’t possibly understand what’s happened. They see the institutional history as a lengthy mistake-ridden narrative iced with gossip. You, poor benighted soul, cannot lead in a way that’s meaningful because you simply can’t cope with such a complex plot line.

Then there are the completely disengaged, those who tell you it really doesn’t matter who’s in your office, it won’t affect them. Or there are the folks who are convinced you’re the second coming. They have an almost Messianic zeal for your institution and they are waiting for you to right every wrong and also take care of the leaks in the west wing, and raise enough money so the museum won’t have to do that Holiday fundraiser, which they loathe. What’s interesting about these people is they have a very specific agenda and assume it must be yours as well. They also assume that their needs are everyone else’s. They will become naysayers when you don’t seem to be following through on their list.

There are also genuinely happy folks, busily engaged in work. Their needs may be more personal. They may hope you will challenge them, push them toward goals they haven’t yet thought of. Last, there may be some new staff, just like you. They are the ones who look like deer in the headlights. Not only do they not have a clue about what’s going on, they’re also terrified that what little they do know will change when you start talking.

So who will you be? And how will you adapt to the myriad expectations of your staff? Wait for it….yes, I’m going to say it…be yourself. It’s an old saw, but I assume, as you should, that whoever hired or promoted you, did so because they liked you. They intuited the youness of you and that’s what made them select you out of the thousands of eager souls with newly tweaked LinkIn pages.

And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know when we say be yourself, we mean the same authentic self you leave home with in the morning and bring to the workplace. That self knows where true north is, but doesn’t let its hair down and over share.

Clearly if you’ve met any of the folks in the list above, you know that pleasing all of them is about as likely as emptying a pond with a sieve. You can’t do it and you will make yourself and everyone else crazy if you try. In fact, I would argue that you’re not there to wave your wand and grant the staff’s wishes. You’re there to speak for the institution, which holds the public trust, and can’t speak for itself. You’re there to chart its course, in concert with your community, your board, AND your staff. So be your one true self. Bring your institutional vision to meetings, but be willing to wait. Hear all those folks with their different needs and agendas out. Lead, don’t manage. Listen, don’t dictate. And, above all, enjoy the adventure of charting a new course.

If you ARE new to your organization or your position, let us know about your experience.

Happy last weeks of summer,

Joan Baldwin