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?
Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
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?
Anne and I are away this week speaking at the Intercom: Leadership for a Sustainable Museum conference. We’re presenting with Marsha Semmel, who wrote the foreword to Leadership Matters, and David Young, the ED of Cliveden in Philadelphia and one of the book’s interviewees. We’ll report on the conference when we return.
In the meantime, here is a quirky list of what we’re reading, watching or listening to, in addition to a list of things we haven’t quite gotten to yet, but we will. Enjoy. And share your list please!
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
What We’ve Read or We’re Reading:
Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014)
We Should All Be Feminists, Chiamanda Ngozi Adiche (Anchor Books, 2014)
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, July/August, 2012.
“What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?” Nikki Waller and Joann S. Lublin, September 30, 2015
What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey (NYU Press, 2014)
“Boys Don’t Cry..But Should CEOs?” Roger Jones, October 24, 2015
The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ted Talks, July 2009
What’s On the To-Read List:
Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan (Left Coast, 2015)
“Centered Leadership: How Talented Women Thrive,” Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston, and Rebecca A. Craske, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2008.
“The Bamboo Project,” Michele Martin’s career advice blog that’s chock full of great insights and creative solutions to divining and defining work you love.