We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.
That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.
But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).
If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.
Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:
- By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
- Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
- Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
- Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
- To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
- Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
- Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.
Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.
Anne W. Ackerson
California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.
National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”
Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.
Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.
One of the main reasons Joan and I first wrote Leadership Matters (2013) was because we saw a lack of emphasis on leadership training and development across the museum sector at a moment when museums needed more skilled, nuanced leadership. Also in 2013, McKinsey & Co. published the report, “What Social-Sector Leaders Need to Succeed,” noting “…chronic under-investment in leadership development within the U.S. social sector, accompanied by 25-percent growth in the number of nonprofit organizations in the past decade, has opened a gap between demands on leaders and their ability to meet those needs.” Notice we’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about skills and abilities of those already in leadership roles.
Thankfully, the nonprofit “leadership deficit,” as it is known, is receiving a lot more attention. But finding solutions to addressing it remain elusive. This is due, in large part, I think, to a general misunderstanding that training leaders requires, first and foremost, time-consuming and expensive education. Many cultural nonprofits simply don’t have the financial resources or the bench strength to invest in it. And many funders don’t fund it, even though they may talk a good game about the importance of institutional capacity building (despite the fact that at the heart of an organization’s capacity is its leadership).
Excuses, however, mask a deeper issue: leadership training and development at any level is generally not seen as an investment in the health of the institution, either by board or staff leadership. The fact is, as Laura Otten of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University underscores, leadership training and development is an investment that “…won’t produce an immediate impact on mission fulfillment but will, down the road, produce a very big bang. To invest any amount in leadership development demands using money currently in hand, or asking for money not for mission-related programs but for investing in the future ability to do an even better job at deliver on mission promises.”
Investment in “leadership development takes courage but is the best investment a nonprofit can make,” advises James W. Shepard in his Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Leadership Development: Five Things Nonprofits Should Know.”
So, here’s the good news: the 70-20-10 model — a researched best practice that isn’t practiced much or enough. This practice allows nonprofits to make big leadership development improvements for FREE. The caveat, as so many things in nonprofit life, is commitment. The model suggests an institution steers 70-percent of its leadership development commitment toward devising challenging stretch assignments aimed at building leadership skills and knowledge; 20-percent of its commitment to structured and focused mentoring; and — get this — just 10-percent of its commitment to paying for coursework and training.
That’s right. If you see the need, understand the long-term value, and are willing to implement an in-house plan to develop leadership — even for yourself — you will move your organization far forward. All it takes is courage and commitment.
How will you embrace the 70-20-10 model at your institution? With the leadership development of your team? With your own leadership development?
Anne W. Ackerson
Image: Center for Creative Leadership (great source of leadership development information, BTW)
Image: Courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums
By Guest Blogger Jackie Peterson
(See Jackie’s bio below)
Prior to launching the independent consultant phase of my career, I coveted the experience my museum-employed colleagues had going to AAM’s annual meeting. I used to think how wonderful it must be to learn what’s happening across our field, to meet new colleagues, to explore museums in a new or favorite city. But since striking out on my own, it has become clear this experience is no longer for me. Here’s why:
COST: Having to cover all of my costs to attend a conference now directly impacts my revenue. I’m only a few years into building my independent practice, so I’m not raking in 6-figure projects (yet). So I’ve had to be incredibly strategic about how I devote my resources to professional development. Like many others, I can no longer justify the cost. For all AAM talks about equity and inclusion, the cost of attendance continues to rise without addressing how it affects attendance. I am no longer a member of AAM, so even registering early would have cost me $695. Add the flight and lodging, and that’s a minimum total of $1850 – this doesn’t include meals or other networking and evening events. The response is always “We’re doing what we can to offset costs by offering scholarships.” The reality is that AAM estimates that 5,000* people attended the conference this year, and yet less than 1 percent** of attendees received a scholarship. That’s not equitable. I’m not saying every attendee needs a scholarship, but there are barriers inherent in the general pricing and pricing structure of this conference that prevent so many from being able to attend.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: The Museum Expo is supposedly the largest generator of conference revenue, yet AAM continues to miss opportunities to be more equitable within this space. Rarely – if ever – have I seen AAM highlight vendors that are women-owned, LGBTQ+ – owned or POC-owned or any intersection therein. Like the overall conference, it seems like whoever can foot the bill gets to come. Yes, bringing in revenue is necessary, but surely there are ways to allow smaller businesses, especially local or regional vendors, to participate. To add to that, rarely does AAM advocate for local businesses (beyond museums) in the host city by providing attendees with that information and encouraging people to patronize them. This is information that is easily available from local chambers of commerce and other business organizations, and even easier for AAM to distribute. Every year, I continue to be disappointed by who appears in the Expo space, and who does not.
MEDIOCRE, STATUS QUO SESSION CONTENT: Very often I attend a session based on the program’s description (as many do) and find the content presented is much different than the description or the presenters just rattle off their latest professional achievements to a captive audience. On top of that, the same names and faces keep showing up. I spent some time combing through the presenters on the first full day of the conference (Monday, May 20). After some unscientific analysis, I found that of the 65 or so sessions that day (exclusive of those that took place in the Museum Expo), roughly nine had panelists that were 50-percent or more people of color. And a majority of the panelists (almost 75-percent) were managers, senior managers, department heads, directors or chief officers. Again, for all the talk of equity and inclusion, the conversations that happened that first day were led or facilitated by an overwhelmingly white group of people in senior positions. With some exceptions, this means the perspective on content being presented is very limited. And I am no longer interested in these kinds of conversations. It reinforces the idea that “leadership” is a position rather than a skillset that can be embodied and enacted at every level of an organization. More importantly, it limits opportunities for more junior staff and staff from underrepresented departments (security, facilities, maintenance, front-line visitor services staff) to engage more formally in field-wide conversations.
While I recognize that some of these issues are deeply systemic, many of them don’t require upending AAM as an organization to fix. Organizations like the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), and regional museum associations have already been making strides and taking measures to actively include people and keep conference content relevant, rather than simply posture. As a large organization, AAM is in a unique position to be the change, so to speak. But the more I witness personally and hear anecdotally from other colleagues, the more AAM seems to lack credibility and relevance to museum work.
Jackie Peterson is an independent exhibit developer, curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. She loves nothing more than working with museums to unearth and share their most meaningful – and more importantly, untold – stories.
Prior to establishing her independent practice, Jackie spent six years learning the museum trade at Ralph Appelbaum Associates in NYC. There, she served as a content coordinator and developer for a wide variety of projects from the NASCAR Hall of Fame to the S.E.A Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. She has always loved the intersection of public service, cultural institutions and education, and has landed in the exhibit design world in order to pursue this work.
Jackie currently serves on the steering committee for the Museums & Race initiative and on the Northwest Regional Council for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Once, a million years ago, I worked for a museum leader who liked all the office shades pulled to the exact same length. Hilarious, right? In the aggregate I think we understood the building looked better from the outside, but beneath that idea was an undertone of “Really?” and also “What if I like a lot of light?” and a thousand other petty questions. What we learned over time though was that the shade thing was a metaphor for so much more. It symbolized a level of micromanagement that limited us in ways we probably couldn’t even articulate. I certainly couldn’t. It made us intellectually lazy. Why should we waste brain power when the boss would and could think of everything? And if he hadn’t thought of it, it probably wasn’t worth thinking about. At least not at work.
But what if you’re a museum leader and control matters to you? You have high standards. You’ve always been a planner. It’s your love language? Your partner says that if you had to, you could move tanks across the EU. And the little things really irk you. When you walk by the ticket desk and you see a random iced coffee, when you see the interpretive staff chatting with teachers instead of students, when no one seems to have followed up on changes for restroom signage. None of your micro corrections are a bad thing, right? The museum looks better, functions better, and hopefully there’s a better visitor experience. But ask yourself? Are you the only one who’s thinking about these things? Have you asked?
Good leadership isn’t about perfection and control so much as it’s about empowerment and place. In other words, painful though it may be, it’s not about you. It’s about your team and your museum. But my site is known for its beauty and serenity you say, and it can’t be beautiful or serene if staff don’t put up the correct signs, keep coffee cups out of the way, and not use the galleries for gossip. If I don’t micromanage it won’t happen. Maybe, but what if you talk about how the public sees your site? Maybe you’d learn that your staff doesn’t see it your way? Maybe your visitors don’t either. Maybe coming to consensus regarding your museum’s vision means consensus regarding how it’s carried out.
If you’re a leader who’s micromanaging….
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Try and figure out what’s driving you to control the small things.
- Meet with your team(s) for conversation rather than reviewing to-do lists and reminding them what wasn’t done. Get to know them.
- Re-read your museum’s vision and values.
- Listen before judging.
If you’re a staff member who works for a micromanager…
- Start doing weekly self-check-ins. Have you let deadlines slip? Are you the only person getting the micromanaging treatment or is it global?
- Step up and stay ahead of her needs. By anticipating her anxieties you may build trust and start to alleviate her nit picking.
- Don’t take it personally, particularly if her behavior is the same everywhere. This is not the moment to be Joan of Arc on your white horse. Lead from behind instead and keep it about the work.
The best leaders empower their staff. They give them the tools to get where they need to go, have their backs if they hop a guard rail, and support them when they cross the finish line.
This weekend many of you began gathering in New Orleans for AAM’s Annual Meeting. Along with thousands of folks you know or wish you knew, you’re attending sessions, listening to keynoters, and networking like crazy. Hopefully, it will be the equivalent of pressing your brain’s re-set button, returning you to work energized and enlivened, with your creative juices flowing.
Creativity’s been on my mind lately. Last fall I completed work on a big exhibit. I work in a small shop, and it was the culmination of 24 months of conversations, research, zigs, zags, re-dos, and anxiety. In the end, thanks to my rock-star colleagues, it was awesome, and in many ways better than I imagined. And yet, since the show came down, I have found it hard to dig down and re-focus. Why am I telling you this? Because creativity isn’t an easy resource in the museum world’s rule-driven cosmos.
Granted, I do museum work in an academic setting, but some weeks the relentlessness of daily life overwhelms us. There’s no time to think, to putter, to experiment and, frankly, agendas, meetings, and their follow-ups aren’t necessarily fertile ground for creativity. Meetings are rooted firmly in the now; if they have hope, it’s that things will turn out right, meaning a successful event, program, exhibition, artist’s residency (you choose) will draw audiences that look big, busy and diverse in Instagram photos. And too often the monster of skepticism, as Frank Vagnone puts it in his recent blog post, takes over.
How many of you work for a truly creative individual or, if you’re a museum leader, how many of you work for a creative board? Whether you do or not, you may want to dig out Linda Norris’ and Rainey Tisdale’s book Creativity in Museum Practice. Published by the late Left Coast Press in 2014, it’s full of brilliant recipes for moving from mediocre to exceptional. One of my favorite pages is a little chart that compares creative and traditional leaders.
Not surprisingly, creative leaders lead in many of the ways we harp on in this blog every week. Creative leaders engage, they’re authentic, they experiment. They are hopeful. They understand how to hear criticism. The more traditional leader is (sigh) the sage on the stage who needs to be correct, both metaphorically and actually. She loves a harmonious workplace even if it’s at the expense of creativity and engagement. She asks for feedback, but staff learn it’s not something she knows what to do with. Her work is about sustaining things the way they’ve been. It doesn’t take staff long to learn that innovation is sloughed aside in favor of “getting the job done right.” What’s right? The least threatening way that still delivers results: Wonder Bread versus a fresh-baked brioche.
So what’s this magical, nurturing leader look like in real life? First, she often has her own creative practice whether she’s an artist, dancer or chef. She encourages collaboration and her staff knows it’s imagination and ideas she values, not just elbow grease. For her, product isn’t the end all and be all. Process is equally important. Why? Because that’s where the magic happens. If she were to create the perfect staff, the folks around her table would be a wildly diverse lot, who communicate well, who bat ideas back and forth, and who value collaboration over competition. Her team reads widely, and thinks in terms of metaphors, analogies, and stories.
Need to move the needle toward some creativity? Here are five things to try:
- Understand your museum or heritage organization’s bureaucracy. Know what happens to innovative ideas when they wend their way from the could-we stage to implementation. If competing constituencies deplete their innovative qualities, they are born shadows of themselves. Figure out how to protect ideas while they grow.
- Encourage imagination, discussion, and dissension at the staff table. Disagreement forces staff to identify the values and ideas that matter most.
- As the leader, you don’t need to be the source of all ideas. You need to be the gardener. Identify the viable ideas, and nurture them. Toss the weeds. Know when to connect ideas that echo one another.
- Provide intellectual challenge. Bored staff are boring.
- Play to your staff’s skills. Hint: That means you actually have to know them.
Yours for less mediocrity.
Twenty-first century museum leadership is complex. That’s true, at least in part, because you oversee not only your own performance, but everyone else’s. And, as more and more museums and heritage sites move toward flatter organizational profiles and team-based project management, it’s critical that teams work well together. That’s a leadership challenge. And, it’s a particularly complicated one when team members fail to pull their weight.
Many of us are introduced to team work in middle school. There it’s often a dreadful experience, complicated by gender roles, hormones, competition, and snarkiness. There are always one or two hyper-organized students who act as self-appointed leaders; others toss ideas around while resisting both organization and action. You may remember your ninth grade angst at the thought of trying to wrangle your peers. The choice was stark: Either you shouldered all the work, enabling weak or lazy students to do nothing or you focused on your own portion of the assignment, knowing the team’s collective grade would suffer. Sadly, we often find ourselves in much the same situation as adults. The only difference between your workplace and middle school is that these days you are the leader, not simply one among many trying to persuade your peers that doing the work is a good thing. So as a museum leader, how do you manage weak staff? Can you make them contributors? If so, how?
As a leader, you are responsible–whether it’s to the whole museum, a department or a program– for everyone functioning as a team, a team that’s neither too dependent nor a bunch of anarchists. You need to know what’s going on, meaning you need a team that communicates. At the same time you need implicit trust that if you’re temporarily vaporized, your team will still move forward, completing the assigned projects. Easy to say, but what about the staff member who’s on permanent coffee break or the person who can’t start a project without asking a billion time-sucking questions or the cranky pants who seems to dislike you and your project, and stalls forever? And then there’s also the pinball person who spouts way too many off-topic ideas to focus or the person who’s quick to take responsibility but impossibly slow to deliver. You may not have hired these folks, but now, somehow, they’re yours.
Some suggestions for dealing with those who are off-track, lazy, or poorly focused:
- Offer some understanding: Assume everyone has the skills for their jobs even though they’re not demonstrating them.
- If their non-performance makes you angry, don’t go in hot. Cool down before confronting them.
- Don’t let things fester. The longer you allow less-than-able work, the more disruptive it becomes, which ultimately reflects on you and the rest of the team.
- Don’t assume the person in question has a clue what you’re talking about when you confront them with their failing. If their work was considered okay by their former leader, they may have no idea why suddenly it’s a problem for you. Don’t be oblique. Explain how their work needs to change.
- On the other hand, be reasonable. Change isn’t easy. Give them time to make changes, but be sure to circle back.
- Reinforce and compliment staff when their work style changes for the better.
- If your museum has an HR department, pull them into the discussion especially if change isn’t happening the way you’d like it to.
- Make sure staff understand where they fit in your department, program or museum structure. Do they have performance goals? Are those reviewed annually?
- If you’ve tried everything else, be ready to let someone go. Remember there’s nothing more demoralizing for other team members, than watching someone–whether staff or volunteer– fail to commit to the museum mission.
- And last, always question yourself first: Were you clear in your expectations? Did everyone get the same information, training and opportunities or is there bias in the way?
Image: Savannah State University Professor Nicholas Silberg leading Coastal Heritage Society Interpretive Staff.
We’ve talked a lot on these pages about the tyrannical leader, the my-way-or-the-highway devil, who makes the staff’s life a living hell. But what about the leader who is the exact opposite? What about a leader who absorbed the let’s-flatten-the-hierarchy lesson a little too much? Is that a thing? The answer, I’m afraid is yes.
Weak leaders hope to empower staff by stepping back, but the result is a scenario that looks like leadership, but is hollow at the core. Discussion is endless, results negligible. The leader enjoys the benefits of her position, bigger salary, bigger office, but brings little value to the museum, program or department. She may feel she’s doing good, but, in an effort not to be a despot, she flees from controversy, criticism or simply expressing her opinion. The result is a confused team that spends too much time chasing its tail and rarely moves forward. Weak leaders think that by not sharing their own thoughts, they’re more egalitarian. They’re not. Their staff or department may be perfectly nice, but if you probe a bit, there’s likely no creativity.
We have written and spoken about leading from anywhere in the room. Maybe we were too blithe about the whole enterprise as if group dynamics, congeniality and the power of the team weren’t a thing. As if it’s easy for individual staff to demonstrate they are courageous, visionary, authentic, and, of course, self aware. We’ve also noted, that museums and heritage organizations are more creative and better at risk taking when the traditional pyramid is gone because it allows colleagues to engage with one another more, cross pollinating, while tapping colleagues’ talents. But the absence of the pyramid shouldn’t mean the absence of leadership.
Does any of this sounds familiar? Maybe in an effort to be liked and not be seen as Cruella De Vil you’re leading less than you thought. If so:
- Have an opinion. Sometimes leaders hide behind group decision making. That may work for a time, but in pandering to the group and trying to keep everyone happy, what’s the result? Decisions that are neither imaginative, creative nor inclusive. Leadership is about experimentation, recalibration, and implementation. Experiment.
- Don’t be afraid of feedback. Feedback is the lifeblood of creativity. You need it and so does your museum and your team. If you shut your team down, they learn not to offer an opinion. Instead, listen, listen, listen. Ask questions. When you speak, incorporate what you heard with your own path toward mission and vision.
- Share what you know. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are leaders who either out of fear or a need to control, don’t talk to their staff. You are the bridge between the board and the staff. You see the big landscape. Tell your staff what’s on the horizon.
- Participate. This is a mash-up of numbers one and three. Your team needs to hear what you think. You don’t have to go first, but make sure you’ve spoken by mid-way through the discussion. And for goodness sake don’t just reiterate the ideas already on the table.
- Don’t avoid confrontation. Your staff needs you. Don’t be afraid to wade in and help quell dissension. If tensions escalate between staff members, call them together and talk it out.
On the contrary, if you’re a follower and some of this sounds familiar, you may work for a weak leader. You need to do your job, while simultaneously collaborating with colleagues to shore up your leader’s weak spots.
- Learn who your leader is. By understanding her personality and leadership style, you may be better able to experiment and make change. For example, if she’s a slow processor, it’s probably better to present a new initiative in writing followed by a meeting. If she’s still a mystery, sit down with colleagues who seem to get along with her and talk.
- Triangulate: One of the oldest workplace tricks in the book. Make friends with your leader’s friend or confident. Take them with you when you need to present a new idea or program.
- Ask for help: Even if it kills you, asking a weak leader’s opinion about something builds trust, allows you a peak into her brain, and makes her feel like she has a voice.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Weirdly, many weak leaders have strong teams. Why? Because one of the ways to make change is through coalition. When the meeting agenda appears, work with your colleagues to anticipate discussion and get the outcome you want.
Think about what happens at your staff or department meetings. If you trace engagement across the table, drawing a line from one speaker to another, would you have a spider web of interaction or do all the lines radiate from one or two spots, dying a slow death in the center of the table? Is your leadership a presence or an absence? How does your team create connection?