Leadership Lessons from Our New Book

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It’s been six years since we published Leadership Matters. When we wrote the original version, Anne Ackerson and I were concerned about the lack of attention paid to leadership in the museum field, particularly in history and cultural heritage organizations. There was a notion that through some office magic or, simply, inertia, individuals became leaders, and if they didn’t, mediocrity was fine; in fact, mediocrity was better than change. Little, if any, investment was made in human capital. You became a director and the rest was up to you. The motto was sink or swim, and not everybody looked graceful in the pool. What we learned, however, was leadership wasn’t some in-born trait, miraculously recognized by search committees. Instead, it was a commitment to self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision, with an ongoing undercurrent of reflection and experimentation.

Now it’s 2019 and we’ve just published a new edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. It’s curious, exciting, and remarkable how much things have changed in such a short time. In 2013, our concerns were internal: a field that was at best negligent about training and developing its leaders, failing to acknowledge that a content-driven education did not necessarily prepare an individual for coping with the foibles of a board and a staff or the public. Today, those concerns remain, but there are huge external pressures as well: rapid-fire communication, communities — from staff to stakeholders — who require a voice, especially those traditionally underserved or ignored, and need to see themselves somewhere inside a museum. Otherwise the work doesn’t matter because without community connection museums are just warehouses of things.

Today’s leaders still possess the four characteristics we identified in 2013: self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision. That hasn’t changed, but the world has, and our nine new interviewees,  LaTanya Autry, Cheryl Blackman, Karen Carter, Sean Kelly, Lisa Lee, Azuka MuMin, Franklin Vagnone, Hallie Winter, and Jorge Zamanillo, all approach their jobs from a different space. Gone are the days of sage-on-a-stage leadership. These leaders are collaborators, relationship builders, empathizers.

Both versions of Leadership Matters end with “10 Simple Truths,” common sense practices from all 36 interviewees about leadership:

  • Get invested: As interviewee Christy Coleman wrote, “Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral. If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you’re not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
  • Be a trust builder: Museums succeed on the relationships they build in their communities, on their staffs, on their boards. It’s that simple. Relationships matter. So do words. And deeds.
  • Embrace the greater good: Leaders are the moral compass for their institutions. Don’t check your values at the door, bring them to work. Every day.
  • Create a candid culture: Honesty underpins trust.
  • Up your frequency: Listen, listen, listen, and remember to get out of your office and know who you serve. As interviewee Azuka MuMin puts it: “Leadership has taught me who I am as a person, vulnerable and exposed, and the better I know myself, the better I am able to lead.”
  • Learn and grow together: Leadership is a process. It’s learning. Invest in your people whether they are board members, volunteers or staff, leaders or followers.
  • Get integrated: Read widely, think across spectrums. Who or what adds to your institutional narrative?
  • Tap your entire network: It’s not all about you. Growing a museum is about being open to possibility.
  • Commit to leadership: Leadership matters. Invest in your staff, give them the tools to become leaders. Good leaders are problem solvers and collaborators. They’re also good followers.
  • Be accountable: Take the heat. Move forward. Don’t play the blame game. You’re a leader for a reason.

For those of you who will be at the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, we will see you there. And if you’d like a copy of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, we’d be happy to sign it for you, Thursday, August 29, from 3:00-4:00 pm at the Rowman & Littlefield booth in the Exhibit Hall. In the meantime, lead well, with courage, empathy, and vision. And if you see any of our interviewees  in Philadelphia this week, be sure to stop and thank them.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

 

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Leadership and the Game of Checkers

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Before we begin, I’m old enough to remember when having a great designer–and that meant print–and a wonderful, smart, people-loving group of museum guides meant your organizational persona was in good hands. Not true today, which is why when the inimitable Mar Dixon sends this blog post, I read it. If your organization is big enough to have its own communication department filled with creative souls who make magic with memes, gifs, Instagram, and other metaphorical moments, you should read it too. Right now.

Since I often write about workplace issues in MuseumLand, it was arresting that the first explanation blogger Lori Byrd-McDevitt mentions for the exodus of social media folk from our world is “Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed,” and the second is “It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.” This is a wake-up call folks. It’s not like these symptoms aren’t happening elsewhere in the field. The difference here is that, as far as I’m aware, education curators, directors and collections managers aren’t able to leverage their talents to the likes of Elon Musk or Khorus. Share this with your board.

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When I was a child I spent summers with my grandparents. When twilight came, and the dishes were done, I played checkers with my grandfather. He was not a new-age granddad who believed in letting his grandchildren win. I lost with startling regularity. After a double or triple jump I glowed only to be whipped back to reality as my checkers disappeared from the board. It took multiple summers before I realized that what was important wasn’t necessarily what happened in the moment, and that sometimes sacrificing a piece provided an advantage.

Why the checker story? Because leaders not only need their own ideas about what a museum or heritage organization can be and where it might go, they need to predict the future. This is where the checkers metaphor comes in. Good leaders look across the board, not just at the move in front of them. They do scenario planning — daily, weekly, monthly, annually. They don’t assume if visitation is up that it will continue to climb. They watch for the next new thing, making sure it’s not just a shiny object. They try to understand which community alliance will grow and which will not, and to decide which underwriting will support their museum’s goals and which will end up kidnapping them.

And who is successful examining the future and why? Certainly not everyone. Some leaders are fearful, holding a rigid middle-of-the-road course that drowns their museum in mediocrity. Some are simply blind, running into one obstacle after another. Others get tripped up by detail, and fail to look at the big picture. And some don’t consider more than their own point of view or at least their point of view as echoed by a like-minded staff or board.

Understanding what’s coming means listening to a variety of voices. Voices that challenge, authentic voices, courageous ones. Whether you’re a board member, director or program leader, don’t be seduced into believing that because something is currently moving one direction it will continue to do so. That kind of thinking will lock you in. Bad trends prevent you from experimenting, and if things go well, you won’t try anything new because you don’t want to rock the boat.

To truly be attuned to the future, you need to watch, listen, and understand the people who make up your community–your museum workplace, your volunteers and members, and your wider community. Listen for more than a sound-bite. Be deeply engaged for more than a moment at a time. Empathize, empathize, empathize. The future will still come at you fast, but you’ll be better prepared.

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Last, an invitation: The new edition of Leadership Matters is out.  If you are coming to the American Association for State & Local History’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia August 27-31, please join us for a book signing August 29 between 3-4 pm. We’d love to see you, and maybe sign a book for you.

And if you see any of the book’s newest interviewees, congratulate them! They are: LaTanya Autry (Newark, DE), Cheryl Blackman (Toronto, CA), Karen Carter (Toronto, CA), Sean Kelly (Philadelphia), Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL), Azuka MuMin (Columbus, OH), Frank Vagnone (Winston Salem, NC), Hallie Winter (Oklahoma City, OK), and Jorge Zamanillo (Miami, FL). They join the 27 Leadership Matters museum and heritage organization alumni in the NEW edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord.

Joan Baldwin

Image: From “How Checkers Was Solved,” The Atlantic


2018 Museum Leadership Myths and Realities

burke-museum-exterior-flowers (1)Thinking about leadership is something even adept leaders don’t do often enough. As we work on the revision of Leadership Matters (2019), Anne and I are pondering how museum leadership has changed in five years. Just for fun I scrolled back to the beginning of this blog (2013). There we talk a lot about the need for the museum world, particularly the history museum world, to make leadership a priority.

Leadership Matters opens with “10 Simple Myths,” where we outline the myths that frame the museum world’s professional narrative. Sadly, many still ring true, like “We don’t have to make money, we’re a nonprofit,” or “Building collections takes precedence over building talent,” or a favorite on these pages, “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.”

There is one myth, however, that suddenly feels like it might be at the end of its shelf life: “We are the source of our own best ideas.” In describing why this sage-on-the-stage mentality isn’t such a great idea Anne wrote, “Their [museums] implacable deference to hierarchical decision making insulates them from ideas and solutions flowing between and among sectors.”

We could be wrong, but it feels as though in the last five years engagement, both intellectual and actual has mutated from something only the education department thought about to something more all-encompassing. Organizations are actually reaching out, and not in the give-me-your-stuff way, more like in the work-with-us-to-tell-your-story way. Not everyone and not all the time, but it feels like a sea change. Finally, history museums and heritage organizations realize that trying to force feed communities the life stories of American furniture and tools isn’t compelling. In fact, a quick scan of leadership positions on AASLH’s and AAM’s job boards yields the following phrases:

  • .….Fosters connections with local community and history in relevant and sustained ways by building beneficial partnerships, raising the level of civic dialogues …..
  • The director is responsible for developing positive community relations and partnerships with national, state, local organizations and for developing strategic initiatives in areas of community outreach, educational programming, exhibits, public history and tourism.
  • The Museum’s new leader should embrace its deeply held values, especially the active practice of diversity, inclusion, engagement and the critical representation of our multiple communities, their histories and current issues.

But….apart from engagement, many of our 10 myths are still alive, healthy, and posing as the truth. And, it’s 2018 not 2013, and there are new conundrums and problems for museum leaders. Here are five that we think need some work:

  • That understanding community is more than an anecdotal exercise. It is data-driven. Read Susie Wilkening and Colleen Dilenschneider to see what we mean.
  • The digital world is here to stay. Museums–even tiny ones–need to get a grip.
  • Museums are community partners. They build, they renovate, they employ, they use utilities, they sell things. Non-profit doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. Just because you’re not paying shareholders, doesn’t mean you can’t be a downtown anchor.
  • Maybe, just maybe, there’s a recognition that an all-white, all-privileged field is not such a great thing and creating a more diverse field means making it a better paid field.
  • That leadership can be learned, and organizations can invest in it just like they invest in anything else; building talent is as important as constructing a new wing.

So what do you think? What leadership sectors do you think the museum world needs to work on?

Joan Baldwin

Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA


Leadership and Workplace Bullying

bitch-in-the-workplaceFirst, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Nexus LAB’s work on leadership released this week. Leadership Matters’ own Anne Ackerson was part of the team that worked for four years, talking, writing, designing better paths to leadership for museums, libraries, and archives. If you haven’t taken a look at the Layers of Leadership, print it, stick it up over your desk, and see where you and your colleagues are.

Next, we’d like to talk about an issue common to many workplaces not just museums. In the past month we’ve observed two organizations where staff were essentially hounded out of their positions. Neither organization is unsophisticated nor underfunded. Each has layers of leadership, and yet at the critical assistant or associate layer there was and is ongoing failure to lead. The “why” is not something we will ever know. The “how” speaks to executive directors who may believe their leadership teams function well, and not realize what’s going on. That in itself is a bit scary. As an ED, shouldn’t you be aware of everything that’s going on particularly when it comes to HR? And how well do you know your leadership team if, at the end of the day, they’ve forced someone to leave? What message does that send to remaining staff?

In a nutshell, both individuals, at very different organizations, were made aware that their performance wasn’t up to snuff. No, this wasn’t done in an annual performance review, nor was it done in a series of calm meetings with advance notice provided, where expectations were laid out and timelines set. Instead, associate/assistant directors criticized, berated, and belittled. The end game seemed to be to make the employee leave of his or her own accord. Whoa, you say, does that really happen? Yup. Probably more than anyone acknowledges.

There is no law against being Cruella Deville in the workplace. In fact, it’s one of the few places left where as long as you don’t cross the Title VII lines, you are allowed to be a bully. Should you be? Heck no. But can you be? Sure. These situations rarely happen once. They are often a series of incidents, that accrete over time; where, for example, responsibilities are subtly increased while authority is diminished. Or where an employee is constantly the victim of understated remarks about performance, ability, and organizational loyalty, often in public. Just to underscore how bullying this behavior is, it’s sometimes coupled with comments about the employee’s emotional state—“You seem angry;” or “You seem upset;” What can we do to work on that?” or “You know you need to keep your emotions in check at the workplace.” The latter is one frequently aimed at women. Public displays of emotion, particularly in the workplace, are hugely gendered. Studies show that men demonstrating anger makes them seem competent and may lead to promotion. Not so for women where anger–especially if it is coupled with tears– is perceived as the exact opposite–a lack of capability.

So, if you’re an executive director of an organization large enough to have a leadership team supervising staff, what should you do?

  • Make sure you are apprised of all ongoing HR issues. Ask questions. Ask for transparency. If things are going as they should be, you’ll receive all the evidence you need. If they’re not, push back. Don’t assume.
  • If you don’t have an HR office, seek advice from a professional particularly when an employee appears to be struggling. Does he or she have a job description? Has she had an annual performance review? Have her abilities changed overnight or has her supervisor changed? Who’s new on the team, and how was that transition handled?
  • Make sure you have an equitable HR policy coupled with job descriptions for all staff.
  • Know workplace bullying when you see it. Don’t tolerate it.

Joan Baldwin


When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One

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Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.

On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.

  1. Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
  2. Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
  3. Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
  4. Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
  5.  Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
  6. Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
  7. Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?

And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.

Joan Baldwin


Breaking Away from “Stupid”: Maybe It’s New Staff, Not New Data?

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Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.

Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)

One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?

To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.

To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.

How is your museum breaking out of the loop?

Joan Baldwin

 


Does Your Organization Own its Leadership?

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Think of this post as a letter, a letter to all the boards of trustees searching for new directors, to headhunters, to museum administrators in large organizations looking for new curators or department heads, and to graduate school professors charged with molding the leaders of the future.

You write the job description with its list of characteristics and set it loose online. Based on AAM’s current list of job openings,  here’s what museums, science centers and heritage organizations want from aspiring leaders. They need to be collaborative, intelligent, thoughtful, problem solving, ethical. They should possess high emotional intelligence and be community minded. They must also be able to make decisions, be creative, solve problems, and exercise good judgement.

It is probably unfair to criticize job descriptions randomly, but if you read enough of these you wonder why anyone yearns for a museum leadership position–clearly you take the world on your shoulders–leave aside why an organization feels it necessary to say it wants applicants to be intelligent. Really? Is the opposite “We’re looking for an average sort of person who will maintain this organization without challenging us too much so we as board members can fulfill our terms with a modicum of energy?” What is important here is that leadership doesn’t just reside in an individual. Organizations that matter own their leadership.

Recently I’ve turned back to one of our interviews for Leadership Matters, this one with David Young, the Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia. Young is well-spoken, thoughtful, and courageous. What sticks with me about his interview is his insistence that leadership is organic and organizational.  In fact, the last line of his interview is, “A lot of organizations have to allow leadership. It has to be needed and wanted.”

Of course museums want great leaders, but it is a rare individual who is the sole catalyst for dynamic, systemic organizational change. No one works alone. Change happens because organizations are open to it. Dynamic organizations begin a search by recalibrating, checking in. Who and what have they become during the outgoing leader’s tenure? Are they happy with it? If yes, how can it be sustained? If no, what changes do they need to make? New directors aren’t magicians, lion tamers or psychologists although at times they may have to master skills from all three professions. And they don’t make change alone. Good leaders inspire, motivate, and outline a vision for the future that pulls board, staff and volunteers in is wake. But the board’s role is to understand the organization, to know where it wants it to go, and most of all to be open to change and to challenge.

Does your organization own its leadership? How do you know?

Joan Baldwin