It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.
We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index.
Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.
But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?
Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations. Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.
It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.
Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
As the Berkshire Museum‘s (Pittsfield, MA) drama roils on, the museum world is thinking a lot about deaccessioning. And it should. The New England Museum Association even added a last-minute session to its annual meeting roster to talk about it. But here at Leadership Matters, the Berkshire Museum’s problems have made us think a lot about boards, board behavior, and organizational culture.
Remember Bill Clinton’s famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid”? How about a variation on that for the museum world: “It’s the board, stupid.”? How many of a museum or heritage organization’s problems, both financial and cultural, trace back to the board? Yes, yes, mission and vision are really important, but assuming they’re beautifully crafted in the beginning, they don’t have power on their own. They’re just words. The folks empowered to carry them forward into the world, to interpret them, to make the magic happen, are first and foremost, board members, and in a recent Stanford survey of non-profit boards 27-percent of board members lack a the depth of knowledge, and the engagement required to help their organizations succeed. Pretty shocking.
At larger museums, boards are often referred to with the pronoun “they,” as in “I wonder if they will give us a raise this year?” They are rarely seen except when they meet on site several times a year. Then, the most jaded staff make jokes about which board members will be able to find the meeting room. They have all the cookies, and yet it’s so easy for them to lose their way, literally and figuratively.
And who can tell them anything? They are the board. They hire the museum leadership that we write about each week on these very pages. This is not to say all museum and heritage organization board members are jerks. They are not. Many are exemplary human beings, but just as being promoted from assistant director to director doesn’t make you any smarter, neither does board membership. And yet so much depends on board members’ good work. So if you’re a board member, if you work with museum boards or if you’re a museum director who wields some influence, here are some things we hope you’ve tackled:
- Does your board understand its legal responsibilities? Is that information available in their board handbook? Does your organization have regular check-ins about those responsibilities vis a vis the organization?
- What kind of orientation does your board offer new members? If information is passed orally from member to member, you may want to re-think that. There is plenty of support for how to design a board orientation plan. We are particular fans of Joan Garry because of her clear, simple approach. You could do way worse than to take her advice.
- Does your board have a strong nominating or governance committee? Do they understand your organization deeply and completely enough to know that being wealthy and well-connected might not be all your organization needs?
- Is your board among the 52–percent of non-profit boards nationally whose work is done by a board within a board? If the answer is yes, do you understand when and how that happened, and whether it is still working?
- Does your board have a respectful, collegial relationship with your executive director? Does it have succession plans for board and staff leadership?
- Does your board understand that its primary responsibility is fiduciary? According to the Stanford survey only 42-percent of all non-profits have a “give or get” policy where members are required to donate or raise a particular amount each year. That might not work for your board, but even a modest required donation levels the playing field, and reminds all board members why they are there.
There is no nirvana of boards where everyone internalizes the museum’s mission, gets along with the executive director, contributes time and money and gets others to do the same, but if board members universally understood their trusteeship as work, based in a museum’s mission, perhaps there would be less disruption, less mediocrity, and more organizational success, and raising operations endowments by selling the collection would never ever be considered.
We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.