*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.
In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.
You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA? Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.
Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.
To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”
Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?
An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.
Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
- Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.
It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.
Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.
This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell. With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.
But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.
Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times, as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.
But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer, on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)
So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:
- Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
- If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
- Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
- If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
- As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.
Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.
It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.
Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.
There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done. How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.
Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.
- Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
- Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
- Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
- Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or full staff?
- Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?
Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.
If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.
- Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
- Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
- Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
- If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
- Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
- Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
- Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
- Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.
If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.
Joan H. Baldwin