Make Your Next Museum Leadership Hire a Group Effort

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Choosing a new executive director is a big deal. Whether you’re a teeny tiny historical society or the Metropolitan Museum of Art much rests on the selection of a single human. This week, both in conversations with a colleague, and in class discussion with our Johns Hopkins University students, it became clear that a lot of museums and heritage organizations don’t allow staff to meet the candidates. Too often, that opportunity seems to belong to the board and the board alone.

It’s hard, however, to see how that makes any sense. Admittedly, I work at an organization that’s taken the interview process to extraordinary levels. Except for the lowliest positions, every candidate spends at least five or six hours on site, moving from meeting to meeting, and often participating in the proverbial lunch where she or he is asked to eat while simultaneously answering questions from well-meaning staff. At day’s end, everyone submits evaluations to their direct reports. Could staff really sway a decision? I don’t know, but I can tell you that everyone feels as though they’ve participated. At the very least, they can put a name to a face when the final decision is announced. Why does any of this matter? Because “they,” whether they are a leadership team at a huge organization, or the entire staff at a small one, will be the candidate’s team. And the team is important.

One of the many misconceptions about interviewing is that it’s something that happens to you. And it does, but it’s not an entirely passive experience, nor should it be. Too often the whole job process feels like a do-or-die proposition. You turn on the charm and hope they pick you out of what must be — in your imagination at least — hundreds of capable applicants. But you’re also interviewing them, whoever they are. And how they come off, especially at a moment when everybody’s on their best behavior, matters. What does it tell you if you spend half a day on site, and never meet the staff? Granted, if you’re interviewing at the American Museum of Natural History, The Henry Ford or the Victoria and Albert Museum, you couldn’t possibly meet many staff. But, at the very least, shouldn’t you meet your future peers and/or direct reports? And what does it say about the board and the leadership if you don’t? At the very least, ask for those opportunities if it appears they aren’t on the agenda. (You never know, the staff could have fruitlessly pushed for meetings. If you ask for and get meetings, you could become the staff’s hero.)

Sometimes organizations can’t seem to get out of their own way. And boards, like an abandoned spouse after a divorce, sometimes hire quickly, frequently selecting a version of the person they just lost, perpetuating a host of organizational ills. So, if you’re a museum board member or a museum leader, and 2019 is going to be your year for an important hire, think about the following:

  • Know what qualities you’re looking for. Sounds obvious, but these aren’t the standard qualities that every job advertisement lists — courage, vision, intelligence, self-awareness — they are the qualities that will take your museum or heritage organization and move it forward. And they shouldn’t be confused with qualifications. Only you, the board and the museum leadership know what your organization needs. Is it experience as a collaborator with other organizations? Is it the ability to be decisive and carry out a strategic plan? Is it an understanding of how digital and web-based content can impact your organization?
  • Be open about where you might find this person. It might not be in a traditional spot. Try to shed your biases or at least acknowledge them, and be willing to look outside the box.
  • If this is the top spot, decide how to engage your leadership team and/or staff. Who will give candidates a tour? Who will meet with them in small groups? Who will answer questions about living in your area?
  • How can meetings with staff and candidates give you the most bang for the buck, providing information for the interviewee, while also giving staff the opportunity to listen and ask questions?
  • Does your staff or board need coaching on which questions are legal and appropriate and which are not? A refresher never hurts.

Hiring, particularly for the top spot, is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. Presumably, you’re proud of your museum and the work it does. So showcase it. Let candidates meet with staff. Give them a mechanism to report back. Listen. Listen. Listen. Choose wisely. Choose for the team you have and the organization you want.

Joan Baldwin

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Museum Leaders: Your Behavior Really Matters

 

downloadIn the wake of Thanksgiving and the National Public Radio’s crowd-sourced poem I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness, and particularly kindness in the workplace. Much has been written about kindness, and not just by philosophers or poets, but scientists. Turns out that the same peer pressure that makes us flock to a particular Netflix show, buy the same cell phone or dine at the same eatery is what scientists call conformity. It has its bad side, like when you’re underage and everyone else is drinking ’til they puke so you do too. But conformity isn’t always associated with bad choices or our acquisitive natures.

Jamil Zaki is a professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, and he studies the way kindness and empathy spreads. He and his colleagues knew that people imitate others’ positive actions. They knew, for example, that if children or co-workers see someone turn out the lights to save energy or carefully recycle, they imitate that person’s actions. But Zaki wanted to know whether the spirit that powers turning out the lights could spread too, and if it did, what it would look like. To make a long story short, the answer is yes.

Why does this matter? And what does it have to do with museums? It matters because museums are workplaces and because they deal with the public every day. Museums are places to engage and learn, but they also make people happier, in part because experiencing something positive tends to stick with us longer than the momentary buzz from buying a new gadget. But imagine if, in addition to the happiness of learning and engagement, you also experienced a random act of kindness from a museum staff member. Say someone held the diaper bag while you opened your umbrella or offered your elderly aunt a chair and a glass of water. And what if your executive director not only picked up random bits of trash, but was known to work at the local food bank, donate time from her personal days off, take a staff member’s job when she’s ill? A saint you say? Maybe, but according to Dr. Zaki’s studies, your director’s positive behavior diffuses and spreads over time. In fact, it acts as a prompt for behavior throughout a given workplace which will trend toward the positive rather than the negative. Who wouldn’t want that?

That means there is actually evidence to back up the old saw about getting more flies with honey than with vinegar. It means as a leader your behavior really matters. Over time, you can, in fact, be a game changer. Not all staff can afford to work at the food bank or give their PTO to others, but Zaki’s studies show that positivity spreads in other ways. Yeah, right you say, people don’t change. But Zaki’s experiments show that in a group conformity is important. When we engage with the group in a positive way, our brains show the same patterns as if we had experienced a reward.

For those of us on the east coast, we’re a month from the shortest day of the year. Some of us leave for work in the dark and return in the dark. So isn’t this a good month to experiment with positive conformity at your museum or heritage site? Be an influencer because apparently it really works. And if you want to know more about Dr. Zaki, here he is on TedxTalks speaking about empathy, his new obsession.

Yours for a kinder workplace,

Joan Baldwin


On Gratitude and Finding the Urgency in Museum Leadership

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It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and for those of us who work in education, that means time away from work, time to think a bit. Because it’s Thanksgiving, and because we think it’s important, here are a few things we are thankful for:

  • Our readers: So far, in 2018 there are 49, 019 of you from from 144 countries. Writing a weekly blog has its lonely moments so it’s inspiring to look at the WordPress map and think we speak to you half way around the world if only weekly, and only through the magic of the Internet. It’s equally gratifying to attend a conference and meet people who read Leadership Matters.  So thank you all.
  • Our students, mentees, and others: Working with you is always a pleasure. We always learn–if not something new–then we deepen our understanding through your questions, your research, and your enthusiasm.
  • Our museum colleagues and friends: You know who you are. Anne Ackerson calls them her posse. Other people refer to them as their kitchen cabinet. Whatever you call them, they know where true north is. They offer advice without being patronizing. They ask the hard questions. They empathize. They always answer when you ask a hard question.
  • Last, we’re thankful for guest writers. If you yearn to write for something with a loyal following of readers; if you are wrestling with a leadership issue or think you’ve found the perfect solution; if issues around pay, gender, intersectionality or people getting promoted beyond their capabilities set your hair on fire, let us know. Send us an idea, a pitch, and a writing sample, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

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One quick thought that came up in this week’s Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Class: the idea of urgency and leadership. Students discussed the necessity for leaders to identify what on an organization’s plate is really urgent as opposed to daily life. Often leaders cluster at either end of the spectrum: Those for whom everything is drama–from the paper towel selection in the restrooms to the number of exhibitions annually–and those for whom there is never urgency, the ones for whom life just happens.

Perhaps you have worked for leaders in one of these camps. Both are wearying. The all-drama, all-the-time folks must wonder why their staff never seems energized, but it’s likely because they can’t tell the difference between real urgency and nitpicking. For those whose leaders never define urgency, there is a massive sense of disconnection. Deadlines don’t matter and nothing is connected to anything else.

In some sense all leaders must be visionaries. It’s their job to see into the future, to sort the excruciatingly important from the negligible, and communicate that information to staff. It’s also their job to check-in, to make sure what’s important gets done, and done in a way that everyone is proud of. Those of you who work for leaders or boards who can strategize the future, sort the important from the not-so-important, know there’s a grace about the way your work happens; energy isn’t expended where it’s not needed. And for that, there’s a lot to be thankful for.

To all of you in the United States, a Happy Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere, our best wishes. Be in touch especially if you’d like a guest writing spot.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


Me vs. Us Museum Leadership

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Here are three vignettes I witnessed or heard about recently. See if you can figure out how they go together.

  1. At a quarterly board meeting, a member of the leadership team speaks to the board. His presentation follows the director’s. Asked how it went, he responds, “Great, they loved it, but you’ve got to give them hope.” Then he stops and says, “That guy (meaning the director) doesn’t know how to convey hope.”
  2. A team member completes a really big, really complex project. There is public acknowledgment from the director, the board, the press, colleagues. From her department leader? Radio silence.
  3. A staff member works for a difficult boss. She tries. It doesn’t get better. She tries some more. Going to work stinks. She’s diagnosed with cancer. She takes time off. She comes back. She sits down with the director and tells him she’s accepted another job. She says she has one perfect life and she’s not going to waste it with him.

Did you figure it out? To me these stories are all about leaders who put self before the institution, in other words the antithesis of servant leadership. What’s that? Well, there are books about it, but in a nutshell, servant leadership is a workplace philosophy that puts people first, where leaders serve others, and ultimately, everyone serves the institution. Servant leaders possess rare combinations of humility and courage. Innately, they know service results in success, just not the type of success often associated with go-getter, entrepreneurial, winner-take-all leaders.

What’s that got to do with the three mini-stories above? Everything. If you parse each case, you find a leader who put herself before the organization. Leaders who do that frequently aren’t hopeful. They can’t paint what authors Dan and Chip Heath call “destination postcards,” metaphors that make staff want to get in line and build a wing, finish a major exhibit, complete a fund drive. They can’t do that because in their minds, the future is theirs not the organization’s. It’s tied to “me” and my success as opposed to us and the museum’s success.

In the second story what kind of leader fails to acknowledge staff success except one who’s consummately self-involved? Ditto for the third narrative. Even though we’re missing the details we know in a field where jobs are hard to come by, leadership has to be truly awful before staff walk in and say they quit.

We can’t all be servant leaders. In fact, of the many leadership qualities, servant leadership is one of the hardest because it asks a leader not to be the center of attention. Instead, it puts staff and organization in the spotlight. It makes for a museum where director/staff relationships are strong, where staff know the director has their backs, and where there is always hope because collectively everyone serves the museum. Sounds like workplace heaven, right? Maybe. It’s not a panacea, but take a week and be intentional about the following:

  • Standing behind your staff.
  • Saying thank you.
  • Listening. A lot.
  • Acknowledge a diversity of opinions. And really listening to them.
  • Modeling the behavior you want. If you wish staff would shut off lights in spaces not in use, do you do it yourself? Or do you just send emails asking others to do it?
  • Mentoring, counseling, developing leadership in others.

Not your cup of tea? Tell us how you lead.

Joan Baldwin

 


5 Steps Toward Nonprofit Salary Transparency

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I am preparing for a panel discussion on salary titled Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way! at NEMA’s 100th annual meeting so I’ve thought a lot about issues surrounding what we’re paid and why. It’s a tricky subject, and like most things in life, where you stand is informed by where you sit. Board members and some directors tend to err on the side of lower is better. Staff, especially those plagued with graduate school loans, are often shocked by how low salaries are but don’t know what to do. And salaries, perhaps even more than #MeToo issues, are almost never talked about.

Last May I participated in DivCom’s Open Forum at AAM. Not surprisingly, my table talked about the gender gap. In the course of that discussion, one participant told us what she makes which led to everyone sharing salaries. It was easy to do because we didn’t know each other well, nor did we really know each other’s organizations. It’s different when you’re sharing salary information with colleagues from your own workplace. Recently a new hire at my workplace told a colleague what she makes. She wasn’t asked, she just offered. Like an image you can’t unsee, knowing something that many workplaces ask you to keep private is difficult to forget. Instead, like a splinter, it can be an irritant.

Secrecy surrounding salaries benefits organizations more than individuals. It allows organizations to bargain harder for someone they really want who demands more than what’s offered. It allows for negotiations and counter offers should a prize employee say she’s leaving. It also covers up all sorts of bias, unconscious and otherwise, making it impossible to know whether women of color are paid 40-percent less or more.

But what would happen if everyone knew everything? Discovering you’re underpaid is a sure way to make employees want to leave. It’s also a great way to reduce productivity. Why should I go the extra mile when you think I’m worth so little especially compared to employee X who makes more than I do and whose life is a permanent coffee break? It can also make employees rise up and lobby for change. It’s hard to forget MOMA’s workers descending the main staircase last summer protesting contract negotiations. Maybe a massive organization with a gazillion dollar endowment like MOMA can sustain that, but can yours?

For anyone who works for a state or federal organization salary transparency is old hat, but for the many who don’t it’s one of the last places where privacy abounds. You negotiate that salary (or don’t and regret it later), you work for it, and perhaps you negotiate your raises. Would you be happier if you knew what your colleagues make? And if you’re a leader is this a place you and your board want to go? If so, here are some things to consider:

  1. Know where you are in the regional or national museum job market. Does your organization lead, lag or match?
  2. Find the gaps. Look for the gaps created by age, race and gender. It’s likely you have them since they are there for the world to see on AAM’s salary survey. Make a plan and adjust.
  3. Most people think they are better at their job than they really are. Determine how your organization measures performance. Then determine how your organization rewards stellar performance, and what constitutes unacceptable performance. Hint: Measuring performance is not waiting until a lackluster employee decamps.
  4. Look at the total package. Who on your staff gets the opportunities? Who travels, who speaks, who gets sent for further training? How does the museum help with that? Are those opportunities open to all?
  5. You may want to begin by creating a salary banding program where jobs are grouped and ranked, and salaries within a specific group are listed as a range.

Is this a big step? You betcha. Is it done outside of public institutions in the museum world? Not that we know of. Will it help? We believe it will. Museums run on people. Good staff make great museums, and good staff deserve equitable salaries. Organizations who are open about the fact they are closing the gender gap, conscious of performance measures, and creating opportunities for personal growth, are the organizations that will attract the best and most diverse employees. They are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive.

Tell us what you think.

Joan Baldwin

Image: PwC, “The Reward of Gender Pay Equity Through the Lens of Data and Analytics,” 2016. Accessed October 22, 2018.


Confidence and Courage in the Museum Workplace

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As some of you know, Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in Johns Hopkins’ graduate program. Leadership of Museums, runs in the fall so, at the moment, we are deep into questions of why leaders do what they do. This week one of our students asked some pointed questions about the connection between courage and confidence. For me, her comments had particular resonance since I witnessed several leaders fail in the courage department during the work week.

When our student co-joined these two qualities, I believe she was thinking of the definition of confidence that goes, “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities,” as opposed to “the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” How that first definition relates to courage is interesting. The OED defines courage as “The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” Do museum leaders or wanna-be leaders need both confidence and courage or is one enough?

As leaders there’s no quality you need more than self-awareness, and self-awareness is fertile ground for confidence. Knowing yourself, understanding your faults, and being able to act on that knowledge makes for great, confident leadership because to quote the OED, you appreciate your own abilities.

But what about courage? Museum leadership 101 isn’t exactly an assault on Mount Everest. How often is courage necessary? My answer? More than you think especially  when people–volunteers, board members, visitors and colleagues– speak from a worldview laden with bias. This week colleagues of mine were victims not only of unkindness, but racism and gender stereotyping. What’s a leader’s role when a team member demeans or castigates another in public? And what happens when those remarks are rooted in bias or stereotype? Should you say something? Maybe? But speaking up takes more than confidence. When emotions are high, when one colleague defines another using stereotypes, it can be a frightening situation. You’re the person staff looks toward, yet you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. What if you betray your own bias, and don’t appear equitable? What if you sound garbled and confused?

All possible, but think about the consequences of staying silent. At the very least you will experience a loss of trust. After all, the berated staff member, not to mention the ones listening, expect leadership to step in. When you don’t, they wonder if you really do have their back. Second, by not acting, you make it seem as if the organization itself is complicit in your silence. That permits either side–bully or victim– to use your inaction to bolster their arguments. Last, how does not saying anything hold up against your own values? How do you feel when you don’t live up to your own expectations?

In the workplace courage isn’t solely about riding in on your white horse to protect staff from bias-filled bullies. Courage is what allows us to admit a mistake in public, or say we’re sorry. It’s coming to the aid of a friend who’s being hit-on by someone they clearly want no part of. It’s standing up for the values and voices missing from the table.

We live in a world where everyone comments–on news stories, Twitter, Facebook, and in real life. Being willing and able to say stop, to say that’s unkind, or those are not the values this organization stands for, takes confidence and courage. What museum would be hurt–particularly back-stage in the workplace–by an extra dose of courage? Let’s find some.

Joan Baldwin


Our Deep Dive into History Museum Leadership at the AASLH Leadership Forum

 

AASLH Leadership ForumAlong with 999 or so folks, we’re back from Kansas City, MO and AASLH’s Annual Meeting. There we caught up with old friends, celebrated change in the history museum field, and bemoaned the state of the world. Some of us enjoyed some Kansas City barbecue too.

Leadership Matters went–in part–to lead the annual Leadership Forum. One of a number of pre-conference workshops, the Forum, as distinct from the History Leadership Institute which happens in November, is a four-hour intensive on one or more aspects of leadership. This one moved from the broad-based to the particular, from organizational to personal, covering three big topics: Empathy & Equity in the Workplace; Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and finally, a look at Career Alignment and Choices.

The empathy and equity section asked participants to define the two words, to address how and where they were found at participants’ museums and sites, and whether it’s possible for a workplace to have empathy without the equity. Section two addressed questions of staff: Whether boards, CFOs, and EDs look at staff and see a great, yawning cavern of salaries, benefits and issues or whether they see creative, entrepreneurial folk devoted to the organization and each other. The last section was based on a personal career narrative, and asked participants to think about their own museum practice. Questions like what are your career constants, what makes you happy, what do you want to create circulated around the room. The group also talked about kick-in-the-pants career change, how upending it is, and how sometimes it brings great joy.

Here are some completely unscientific observations:

  • Gone are the days where history museum leaders haven’t got a clue about leadership. They get it. They may lead fraught, overwhelmed lives, but they get it.
  • History museum professionals don’t press the pause button often enough.
  • Some history museum leaders spend too much time alone.
  • Talking about why we do what we do is as important–if not more so–than talking about how we do it.
  • Pay equity makes some leaders nervous and fires up others.
  • Based on listening to this room of 30 individuals, too few think intentionally about their careers with any regularity.
  • A lot of people seem to think once they are parents or partnered or both, their careers are stuck.
  • The vast majority of the room seemed to feel they have audience empathy knocked. Empathy on the back stage side–for staff, board and volunteers–appears trickier.
  • Brene Brown’s short video on the differences between empathy and sympathy was a fan favorite.
  • Best line: A participant telling her supervisor she was quitting. “I have one short, precious life, and it’s too short and too precious to work for you.” The original included a strategically placed f-bomb which gave the whole sentence a lot of zing.

As we told the roomful of leaders, it was an honor to participate. Although admittedly this was a self-selected group, people seem to embrace leadership at all levels. By that we mean the doing of leading, not seeing the director’s position as a conclusion. And that’s a blessing. While there is always work to do–especially back stage, especially on workplace race and gender issues–without sounding too Pollyanna-like, it feels as though there’s finally a sea change taking hold on the leadership front.

Joan Baldwin