This week, in the wake of Senator John McCain’s death, the news was filled with tributes and remembrances from his friends, colleagues and family. From the beginning it was clear those tributes weren’t partisan. They came from both sides of the aisle, perhaps none as succinct as Joe Biden’s, “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. I loved John McCain.” What do any of these remembrances surrounding McCain’s death have to do with leadership? A lot actually.
One of the great truths about leadership is good leaders are confident enough to embrace dissension with grace. If McCain’s life taught us anything it’s that we should be passionate, we should care, we should love a good argument. But that the argument is about work, it’s about the place we serve, the museum we care about, and when it’s over, we reach across the aisle or the table, shake hands, share a drink or a raucous joke.
Too often leaders, particularly leaders unprepared for their role, can’t abide dissension. It rocks the boat. They can’t separate themselves, even in their own heads, from the organizations they serve. And that is an important distinction. While some days–the Sunday you wore your oldest sweat pants to the grocery store and ran into an important, and impeccably dressed donor aside–it may feel like you are your organization, you are not. You serve the museum. You don’t embody it. And it’s that distance that permits you to welcome dissension at the staff table.
And dissension is necessary. In eulogizing McCain, President George Bush said, “Back in the day, he could frustrate me. And I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.” It’s not just you who needs to be better, it’s your organization. If secretly, you’ve made up your mind, know what you want, then have the guts to state it and stand behind it. Don’t waste your staff’s time by asking their opinion when what you really need is adulation. That might work once, but over time it wears thin. Staff stop offering ideas, and neither you nor your museum changes for the better.
Encouraging dissension and discussion is a great equalizer. It says to everyone in the room that all ideas have value, from the person hired last week, to the person who’s working on her BA, to the curator with the PhD. Encouraging staff to be direct and strong-willed means they won’t flinch if you are direct and strong-willed back. They understand it’s not personal, it’s about work. Allowing your staff to bat an idea back and forth, engenders trust. Why? Because it tells the participants you trust them. Discussion isn’t about who wins or gets her way. It is an act of creation with the museum’s best interests at heart. And that’s what we’re all after isn’t it? A better museum—right?
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
While Leadership Matters is thankful for its loyal readership, our readers rarely — unless we’re writing about poor pay — comment much. Surprisingly, last week’s post on board culture generated some meaty discussion both here and on AAM’s Open Forum. Comments ranged from T.H. Gray’s definition of a Board of Trustees: “Museum amateurs charged with leading museum professionals,” to Steven Miller’s response on the Open Forum. The crux of much of the discussion was whether and how museum boards influence workplace culture.
Several of you, including Conor Hepp and Steven Miller, suggested that it is staff leadership who create organizational culture which the board monitors. Miller too pointed out that museum boards are distanced from organizational daily life, and their lack of training causes problems. He wrote: “I agree with Conor’s points that trustees are usually removed from a museum’s daily internal life. There are exceptions, of course, and they usually play out in small museums or with trustee committees that are close to certain museum offices, departments or operations. There can be many cultures within a museum, some known to trustees some not known.” Leadership Matters‘ Anne Ackerson also responded to Hepp, pointing out that “the leadership team is responsible for nurturing (or stunting) the day-to-day institutional culture. Don’t forget, though, that the board also has a culture that permeates staff leadership ranks.”
So which is it, chicken or egg? Do boards create and influence workplace culture or is that the responsibility of the leadership team? We agree there are likely many cultures at work in any organization, and the bigger the museum, the more likely that multiple cultures will flourish. That said, what’s the board’s role? And what about Anne’s idea that board behavior sets an example (and a culture) for the entire organization? If a board relegates women to event planning or overseeing the volunteer program, doesn’t that set an example for the organization’s attitude toward women? If the ED came to a board like that with questions about salary equity or the gender pay gap would the board step out of character and work for change?
Except in the tiniest organizations, boards cannot and should not be involved in micromanaging the workplace. But in the case of these big-ticket issues involving institutional values, we agree with Anne: The board sets a tone. In a perfect world, the board is both a microcosm and a mirror. It reflects the community it serves by making sure everyone is at the table, and, once seated, that everyone has a voice. In addition, it understands that its behavior — inclusive, empathetic, and creative — is a model for the museum itself. Last, it knows that a value-driven board attracts and retains museum leadership with similar qualities.
To circle back to last week’s post, if Wall Street is a bellwether for anything, executive behavior — both on and off the board — is important. For Wall Street good behavior, setting values and acting on them suddenly seems to have monetary value, which is not nothing when mergers and acquisitions count in millions of dollars. How long will it be before a nonprofit board is taken to task or taken to court for its knowledge and complicity in sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic behavior? In the Lake Wobegon of nonprofits, where all museums are above average, we’d like to think boards behave well just because it matters and that’s their job. But in a world where victims can share their stories in a heartbeat, everyone needs to check their biases and, most importantly, be empathetic. Here at Leadership Matters, we believe that begins with the board.
We’d like to end this week’s post with a hearty congratulations to Local 2110 UAW, a chapter of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), organizing for union rights across New York City. After 122 days it reached an agreement on behalf of union members at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As reported by Hyperallergic, the agreement means all employees will receive raises of 3% or $1,600, depending on which amount is greater, with the lowest-paid 25% of workers receiving 4% greater additional income or higher. MoMA staff will retain their single coverage health benefits without employee contributions, and employees utilizing family coverage will not see an increase in their contributions as a result of their new raises. To learn more about Local 2110, click here.
We began writing this blog in 2013. We’d just sent Leadership Matters off to the publisher and wanted a way to keep the discussion going. The book is a collection of 36 interviews with museum and heritage organization leaders, speaking frankly about the thrills and challenges of doing their jobs. Not all were directors since we believe leadership happens throughout an organization.
Now, five years later, we’re revising the original. Five years doesn’t seem that long, but the first interviews took place early in 2012, and a number of our interviewees have retired, changed jobs or left the field. So, we’ve begun to write and interview again, and, if all goes well, the revision will be available in fall 2019. But most importantly we are thinking deeply about how (and why) museum leadership today is different.
In some ways the museum world is the trailing indicator, slow to change and late to the party, perhaps not so much at the front of the house, but in staff rooms, offices and around the coffee machine. Six years ago we approached this project with real concern about the field’s understanding of leadership, and the need for boards to grapple with it. Today, leadership as a concept, seems more universally accepted for individuals and organizations who want to move the needle from mediocre to extraordinary. However, toward the book’s end, there’s a chapter called “There Be Dragons Here.” There we ask how 21st-century museums and heritage organizations navigate their communities while remaining truly and authentically themselves. To be honest, this is a place where there are still dragons. Too many organizations find themselves landlocked, unable to intersect with the communities they serve because of lackluster leadership.
Over the next six months we will try to pinpoint change. So, in the tradition of our book and our blog, here’s a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards.
- The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
- This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
- This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
- This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.
- The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
- Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
- Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
- Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
- 21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.
- Organizations need an HR department or its equivalent and an understanding of employment law.
- Organizations need an active, current personnel policy that addresses all human and family needs.
- Organizations need to engage not just present; they need to be real community partners.
- They need courage to tackle the hard stuff.
For Boards of Trustees:
- They need to understand the meaning of service.
- They need to understand the museum world, its ethics and values, its standards and expectations.
- They should want a values-driven organization keenly, if not more so, than their staff leaders.
- They should know the value of human capital and what it takes to advocate for, support, and celebrate a creative, engaged staff.
- They should understand their communities, whether local, regional, national or international.
Tell us how you think leadership has changed or is changing.
Image: Museum Insider
Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.
There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”
Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean? Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.
Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change in your organization, department or program.
- Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
- Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
- Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
- Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
- You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
- Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
- Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
- Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
- Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.
How does your organization make change?
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.